This is an open letter in response to blogs by Bryony Kimmings and Andy Field about money.
Dear Andy (who I know) and Bryony (who I don’t),
Thanks a lot for your posts. It’s great to talk more about money. Most artists shy away from it and it doesn’t do us any good at all. It’s especially good to talk about the details of money because that’s where the knowledge is. And we are in a complex environment because we are doing many slightly contradictory things; we’re working in a field we love with no care about the profit it might yield and at the same time we’re running small businesses; we’re running charities (either literally or in terms of the principles) and at the same time we’re capitalists hustling for work and negotiating hard; we’re part of a community based on sharing and at the same time we have commercial sensitivities around what we do.
I want to reply in the same vein as your post Bryony: personally and openly. And in doing so I’m wary and nervous. Because – as some of the responses to your post show – there is a strong temptation to emphasise how hard we have it and to advertise the negatives in our situations. And that’s not the story I have to tell. For a start, I’m a middle class boy from a comfortable background with all the advantages – financial, social and educational – that that implies. And secondly I now make a steady living from running an artists’ group. This year my combined earnings from Blast Theory and the Central School of Speech and Drama – where I have a Visiting Professorship – will be about £35,000.
We started Blast Theory in 1991 and for the first 10 years the artists in the group earned between about £2,000 and £5,000. In 2001, we got nominated for a BAFTA and I earned £11,000. By then we had regular funding from the Arts Council of about £25,000 a year. However we were a collective of four and every fee, every commission, every residency fee was split equally between us. Ju and I had a new baby and at that time it seemed impossible that we could ever make a sensible living.
One of the reasons for this problem was small scale touring in the UK. It was just as bleak then as it is now when it comes to money. The figures you outline seem entirely familiar to me: there was no way to square the circle. We believed then that foreign gigs were the answer (which was reinforced when we performed in Hannover and the Artistic Director of the theatre gave us champagne as we came off stage). And that is partly true. At times we have been well paid for foreign projects and that has kept us afloat. For software driven, site responsive pieces like Can You See Me Now? we could get paid £15,000 per city. That work went to 22 cities. Of course, they cost a lot to make but nevertheless cash from those gigs helped pay our wages, our office costs etc.
However, we also realised that touring on the small scale theatre / live art circuit was a mug’s game financially. Not only that but we lost confidence that we were reaching a diverse audience. Too often the audience was packed out with students from the local university dragged there by their Blast Theory loving tutor. (Admittedly our shows were a lot less fun than yours, Bryony).
For us the route forward towards sustainability included partnerships with universities (Steve Benford at Nottingham University has single handedly done more for our earnings than anyone else), research funding and working online. That’s clearly not for everyone but the answer has been to create as mixed an economy as we can with as diverse a set of income streams. We do teaching, workshops, talks, mentoring, writing articles: anything that pays properly. One year I did consultancy work for Microsoft to help close the gap.
Also we say no to a lot and we don’t fuck around when it comes to negotiating. This is the biggest step that we can all take together. Artists get asked to do stuff for free because lots of artists say yes or accept it. When we collectively refuse poverty conditions we will all make a difference. Now I know that is easy for me to say: Blast Theory is an NPO getting £140,000 a year. We are incredibly fortunate. Our circumstances are unusual, possibly unique.
But we have always operated this way as best we can. Sometimes we’ve worked for nothing: we needed the opportunity, it was a favour for a friend or we fell for a stupid deal. Even today we get offered work all the time where the cash doesn’t stack up.
I was asked to do a talk in November in mainland Europe. They offered £270 which was to cover the talk, the flight, four trains (to and from the airport at each end) and my per diems. I wrote back explaining why I couldn’t spend two days travelling and away from the studio for that money (while taking on all the financial risk for the flights). They wrote back and doubled their offer. I’m not saying that to show off. I want to encourage artists to be confident and pushy about financial affairs. Being prepared to say no is OK: it is not being rude. It is being professional.
OK, I can feel an internet ramble getting going now: it’s time to stop.
There are wider discussions to be had about the relationships between funders, venues and artists. As you can tell I’m focused on what artists can do directly to give ourselves a shot at sustainable careers.
I really want to continue and develop this conversation. And I want to share whatever knowledge I can. If there is interest in Blast Theory hosting a meeting in which we talk more about the details of money, business models and strategies I’m up for it.
With warm wishes to everyone out there busting a gut to deliver great work on tiny budgets,
PS I agree with your suggestion Andy about organisations publishing details about the amount of money going to artists. I have suggested this in a couple of different settings (including the Regional Council of Arts Council England in the South East) and there has not been much enthusiasm for this idea! I know personally of one organisation gleefully reporting of the *savings* they had made on payments to artists. But I think it is a legitimate question to ask. We should talk further about how this might work and what it might mean.