BY ROB THOMPSON – GUEST COLUMNIST
The last time you went to a live performance did you think about what it took to make it happen?
The stage is built. It took wood, paint, steel, carpenters and painters. The stage is lit with lighting fixtures, electricity and labor. Costumes were sourced, purchased or designed and sewn. Plays and musicals have to be licensed. The royalty fees and performance rights are based on the number of seats you can sell, not what are actually sold. A lot of work goes on behind a single performance.
When I was a young art enthusiast, I took it for granted that I could see a play, the orchestra or a dance performance. It was a part of our community. I never considered how performers are paid, the cost of the space or how the sets and costumes are purchased. They just were. The idea of “arts advocacy” had never occurred to me.
As a young adult, I tried to make a living as an actor. The economics of the arts became crystal clear. I performed, worked two jobs and auditioned whenever I could.
One company paid solely by box office revenue; what came in, went to us. It seemed like a fair deal, but it was not a great way to pay my bills. Years later, I worked for a small professional theatre company with a rich history of community engagement. It had a full performance schedule from first run Broadway shows to the classics.
The theatre company had a national reputation and high season ticket sales but struggled every month to meet its financial obligations. It made ends meet because they had strong advocates. Supporters went to city, state and federal officials and told their stories, and educated and encouraged them to keep art happening in their town. The advocates made it happen.
Actors, musicians, designers and technicians deserve to be paid. Many are paid under scale and work long hours because they love it and want the art to succeed. They deserve more. Artists create for others, and we all grow wiser, stronger and closer through the experience. It deserves strong advocates. It needs all of us.
Today, I’m a teaching artist at Main Street School of Performing Arts, a premier arts high school. I encourage, foster and push my student artists to be their best selves.
And I push them to understand the economics of being an artist – the trade-offs, the tough financial facts of what it takes to follow their dream. As artists, we create because it is our passion, our heartbeat. We are driven to create, write, design, dance or perform. We need to hone the skills of our craft, but we also need to understand real world challenges and the power of advocacy.
I tell my student artists to make friends in the community. Learn who the leaders are. Go to city council meetings. Become an advocate for your art and the art of others. See a performance and tell others to do the same. Pay people who work for you. Be vocal, encouraging city, county and the state to support art happening in your community.
On Feb. 28, Minnesota Citizens for the Arts is hosting Arts Advocacy Day. It’s your chance to advocate for the arts. Register at artsmn.org and head to the Capitol to let your representative know the arts are important to our community. Minnesota is rich with, art and it is vitally important that we support the arts and the artists who create and the facilities that foster them.
Rob Thompson is director of outreach & development at Main Street School of Performing Arts, located in Hopkins. The school will move to Eden Prairie in fall 2017.