The Land of Less

Reeling from a major funding drought, vanguard performing artists downsize their dreams

Other choreographers have problems so bad they don't dare discuss them. Perversely, funders will spurn a company (though not a choreographer) in debt. "Everybody wants to fund the new thing, not what nobody else funded," one midcareer choreographer told me. "But it's not unusual among my generation to float $50,000 in company debt."

Even a national treasure like Merce Cunningham has to worry about his funding. This year his NEA grant was cut to a third of what he got five years ago. Says Sheldon Schwartz, executive director of the Cunningham Dance Foundation, "We are grateful for what we get, but we've had to work very very hard to make that up."

Currently, the downtown art world is abuzz over its newest funding source, Creative Capital. What sets this foundation apart is its intention to help artists function as entrepreneurs. The first press release promised that each grantee will be offered advice in marketing, promotion, audience development, even contracts and copyright. CC's executive director, Ruby Lerner, says that when they ran focus groups they found a sense among artists that they were small-business people with no business skills. "Hard edges between the commercial and noncommercial have eroded a bit," says Lerner. "Lots of people are making their work outside a nonprofit context and it's not necessarily less radical or less provocative."

Elizabeth Streb: Artists, Streb says, can't continue to engage in "undercapitalized activity."
photo: Robin Holland
Elizabeth Streb: Artists, Streb says, can't continue to engage in "undercapitalized activity."

Creative Capital is part of the struggle for a new model, a way to cope with life in the land of less.

"The NEA and the foundations formulated these models for what nonprofits should be, but there was never a close look at sustainability," says Frisch. "How do you support your work? The answer seems to be, look at Julie Taymor [director of The Lion King]. Who has the ideal career? Willem Dafoe. He has his commercial work and then his own creative project [the Wooster Group]. Or the model might be someone like Savion Glover, who lives effectively in a commercial world, but is unquestionably a serious experimental artist. So the new model is work for the Hollywood-Broadway industry. Do what you need to do in order to subsidize yourself."

Elizabeth Streb has long been obsessed with turning her "Xtreme" dance practice into a for-profit activity. She wants to do trade shows, for example. And Streb could easily "cross over" without compromising what she does. But she's discovered that the commercial world knows very little about the art world. "Their radar doesn't even scan us." And it isn't easy to be valued. Beck, the rock star and Fluxus descendant, asked her to work on a music video. But he offered her $700 a day. She countered with $10,000 a day for three days. Artists can't continue to engage in "undercapitalized activity," she says.

David "Impact Addict" Leslie has always bypassed the grant world. Instead, he gets sponsors. His November boxing match with writer Jonathan Ames will be brought to you by Two Boots, for example, for whom he will wear two custom-made red boxing shoes with the restaurant's logo in yellow. Leslie will make the rest of his $15,000 budget by selling space on the robes and the ring to other local businesses. He will look "just like a bought athlete." Leslie's pieces are always media events. They're about the hype and the spectacle, so logos are completely appropriate. Obviously, they won't work for everybody.

And they won't bring back the kind of work that has disappeared from New York's stages. While working in Provincetown this summer, John Kelly was told to go to the main drag and "bark." Just dress up as Joni and sell the show. He tried, but "it seemed to take away from my craft." Kelly's art about art is suffused with yearning for those figures he can only know through film, recordings, or art history. Whether he's representing Joni Mitchell or Egon Schiele, he is working his way close to the emotion that led to their work. There is no way to sell the show's subtlety on the street. So he wouldn't go bark. And he didn't make money.

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photo: Robin Holland
Yoshiko Chuma: after nearly 20 years in the New York Dance World, Chuma (Bottom Right) and her 'School Of Hard Knocks' find themselves totally dependent on commissions in Europe And Asia.

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Courtesy of David Leslie

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