The Land of Less

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

All through the culture war, bombs blasted the landscape built to support artists. Somehow, they're still expected to live there. Expected to suffer. Forged in the fire— all that rot. It's as if, while no one was looking, starving in garrets (once again) became national cultural policy.

Nowhere has the wreckage been tougher to work around than in the performing arts, where only 'Cats' and 'Lion King's survive without subsidy. But the theaters are full, you say. Presenters wear brave smiles. Hellzapoppin'.

Then consider, as the new season begins, why an internationally recognized theater artist and MacArthur fellow like John Jesurun hasn't had a full production in New York City since 1995. Why the venue where you're most likely to see Karen Finley these days is an episode of Politically Incorrect. And why, in the dance world, hardly anybody can keep a company together. Something is very wrong.

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."

A steady erosion has been underway since 1995, the most devastasting year of the culture war. Heady with victory in the Republican Revolution of '94, right-wingers thought they could finally kill the hated National Endowment for the Arts. They managed merely to take its soul, wiping out fellowships to individual artists except in folk art, jazz, and (thank you, Garrison Keillor) literature. Even worse, Congress cut off general operating support to venues. That's just money to pay the light bill, but without it, the edgiest venues in town can't take many chances on what they present. They need box office.

Since '95, there's been a domino effect, especially on the cultural margins. The whole idea of an enclave that isn't beholden to the marketplace seems to be up for grabs. Funding still exists, of course, but what's supported now is product, not process. And it's harder than ever to make work without the support of a large cultural institution.

This is beginning to change what we can see on a stage. And a generation of experimental artists who came up in the nonprofit world face the reality that they may no longer make even a meager living there. Everyone is scrambling to adjust.

The multitalented John Kelly is one of those successful midcareer artists who now finds himself at a crossroads. Actually, he appears to be flush with prestigious projects. He's about to make his midtown debut in The Dead, the musical adaptation of James Joyce's story, with Christopher Walken. Composer David del Tredici is setting some of Kelly's poetry to music. A third work-in-progress is a Hal Wilner­produced CD of '60s and '70s tunes and one Italian art song.

But don't look for another of Kelly's brilliant ensemble theater pieces like Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte or Find My Way Home, at least in the forseeable future. This is the work Kelly really wants to do and can't possibly afford. He is currently carrying about $20,000 in personal debt.

What helped before were the NEA fellowships, a pittance at either $10,000 or $15,000 a year, but still "the core of my income," says Kelly. He has not created a new ensemble piece since 1993, when he reached one of the few pinnacles a performance artist can even aspire to, a slot in the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Light Shall Lift Them, a tribute to Paris music-hall star Barbette, cost $185,000 and nearly bankrupted his company. (They had self-produced, which meant it was all on his company's dime.) Kelly performed the piece four times.

This summer, determined to make some real money, he went to Provincetown to do his popular Joni Mitchell impersonation— six shows a week for eight weeks. He merely broke even. Kind of. Considering that he'd borrowed to get there, he actually lost money. "I've thought about moving to Europe for years," says Kelly, who is now 44. "I don't want to begin my life over, but I just see it getting worse and worse here. I'm going through a period of transition, attempting to go the traditional route, the commercial theater."

As Norman Frisch, a consultant for Arts International, observes, "We're moving back towards a giant chasm between commercial artists and amateur artists. I don't think there's going to be such a thing as a professional noncommercial artist anymore. Maybe we just lived through that little window where that was possible. Maybe we were the aberration."

There are so many unfundables now. But some are more un than others. The unaffiliated, unassimilable, uncommodifiable.

Take Jesurun's dense, ambitious plays, which reconceive the oldest philosophical problems in the light of new technologies. That might mean 20 video monitors onstage, however. Expensive. And it will never take him to HBO. At age 48, Jesurun is no longer willing to plow every dollar back into his work. By the time he won his MacArthur in 1996, he was $50,000 in debt. So Jesurun now works abroad, doing his Faust last year in Mexico City. "A great production with 100 performances," he said on the phone from Tokyo. But in New York, his home base, a whole new generation of theatergoers doesn't even know who he is.

Nor will they know anything of the groundbreaking Ridiculous Theater, apart from its most commercial piece, Irma Vep, a great tour-de-force but a minuscule part of what the Ridiculous was about. Charles Ludlam's surviving partner, Everett Quinton, fought for years to sustain the theater. The NEA was the biggest funder they ever had, giving them as much as $85,500 one year, though usually it was closer to $60,000. After their funding dropped to $28,000, they left the old Sheridan Square theater with its killer $5000 monthly rent. "Then we limped along for two years hoping against hope," says Quinton. "Finally I just thought, this can't work. I was waking up suicidal every day."

Vanguard artists have downsized their dreams. Holly Hughes began her career writing plays, but wouldn't consider trying one now— "anymore than making bronze sculpture." She does group pieces when she's teaching, but otherwise sticks to monologues. "I'm too old to ask my friends to work for nothing," she says. No one goes into performance art for the money, but many who've built a respected body of work find themselves on shakier financial ground than they anticipated. Vanguard puppeteer Theodora Skipitares saw her funding slashed to 20 percent of what it had been. She's on her way to India on a Fulbright, taking "a break from the treadmill where every year you lose more money."

Postmodern dance has been particularly hard hit. Expensive to create, with almost zero commercial potential, dance now lives full time in the land of less: less touring, less commissioning, less funding, less rehearsal space. The mantra repeated most often by dance professionals, of course, is "it's always been hard." But during the last "hard" year in which the NEA was allowed to give fellowships, they still awarded $1,209,300 to 93 choreographers. A lost million-plus to individuals in such an impoverished field moves the marker from "hard" to "crisis."

Laurie Uprichard of Danspace says younger dancemakers are in pretty good shape— thanks to grants and venues that serve "emerging artists"— but "the hard part is what's after that. People in midcareer are finding it difficult to make a fully realized work at this stage in their lives." These are choreographers who are established and well-regarded— "names" in the field.

Bonnie Sue Stein, managing director for Yoshiko Chuma's School of Hard Knocks, described how the choreographer was cutting and pasting her year together on a budget down 20 to 25 percent from last year. "We're totally dependent on international connections right now," said Stein. "If Yoshiko doesn't have a commission out of the country, it's very hard to do anything." When the Joyce Theater called to offer her a season, Chuma accepted despite the fact that she has about $18,000 budgeted, and a new piece will cost "$35,000 at least," according to Stein— if they keep it to four dancers. Luckily, Chuma also has a commission in Ireland, so she's going to create the piece there with Irish dancers, then come back and teach it to her American dancers. But she can't afford to actually work with them until a month before the show. "It's going to be nuts," says Stein.

Now, nearly 20 years into her career, Chuma faces her hardest year yet. But then, last year was the best she ever had, thanks to a project involving Japanese artists which allowed her to apply for Japanese funding.

Most dance companies are seeing these wild fluctuations in their budgets. One big commission, then nothing. One huge foundation grant, then a year so bleak you wonder if it's all over. The NEA still awards company grants, but they've shrunk and that was always the steady sustaining support. Now foundations are a much bigger part of the equation, and foundations don't want dependents. They also have very specific guidelines. As one performance artist put it, "They'll put you out to pasture, saying you're 'too emerged' or 'not emerged enough' or your work is 'not community oriented' or whatever."

Choreographer Bebe Miller saw her corporate and foundation funding plummet from $156,900 to $85,300 this year. "Last year was a big production and performance year," says Miller, "so it follows that this would be a slower time. But I've never had to take a salary cut before. This coming year feels radically different. It's kind of scary. I'm looking at not having regular studio time with a consistent group of people. But I'm also looking at suddenly having more time to go out with my video camera or travel and sketch or just feed myself in other ways, and I'm excited by that. At the same time, there's an underlying panic."

Unlike Chuma, whose School of Hard Knocks is a constantly shifting cast of characters, Miller has a company she's worked with for years. But she can't afford to work with all of them now. She'll do a duet. A new artistic challenge, she says, but one she wishes she could have chosen for artistic reasons, not budgetary ones.

Choreographer Stephen Petronio says he's often been encouraged to disband his company, but he won't consider it since he uses a very specific movement language that takes three or four years for a dancer to learn. Besides, after five lean years, this one looks better for him on the funding front. Petronio begins to list all his grants, some of them covering three years. Impressive. He also tours extensively and describes himself as "very lucky and very successful." But, as he mentions almost in passing, like no big deal: "I'm always in debt, personally. I've just begun to accept it as part of my job. Which is kind of depressing. I'm 43 years old, and I have absolutely no savings or retirement."

His company decided to give him a raise this year. His salary? "Do I have to tell you? It was $16,000. It's more now. I'm not sure I want to say how much." But later Petronio admitted that the company had given him a raise to $30,000, then couldn't pay it. "It might average out around 25. It's embarrassing."

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."

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.


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.


Courtesy of David Leslie

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