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Starving Artists, Ruined Economies, and How to Help the Arts Without Money

In Place of an Introduction: The Economy
TL;DR: We live in an economy where people don’t always have the money they need to support their favorite artists.

I can’t think of one person, outside the arts, who didn’t ask, “Theatre, really? What are you going to do with that?” when they discovered that was the subject I studied in university. The image of “the starving artist” was conjured to mind regularly. While this stereotype exaggerates the lifestyle of most working artists in our country, the truth stays the same: artists don’t always have expendable income for supporting the arts or artists they would like to support.


On this point, I could spend a few hundred pages, many economists have, on the plight of an overly saturated economy. But, don’t worry, I haven’t written a few hundred pages about that kind of topic and I’m not an economist (I’m hoping this will be a little bit more fun). The point of the work of these economists culminates in a truth: PEOPLE, particularly young people, just entering the labor market don’t always have the expendable income for supporting the arts or artists they would like to support.

Am I starting to repeat myself, yet? Well, hopefully for making a point.


Here at Threepenny Theatre Company, we’re pretty interested in how theatre and the arts can explore class and wealth disparities. Many people, despite having an avid interest or desire to support the arts, “don’t always have the expendable income for supporting the arts or artists they would like to support.” Am I repeating myself again?


Hopefully I’ve driven some idea home. Money isn’t always readily available, but that doesn’t mean you can’t support your favorite artists. With that idea in mind I present to you the pinnacle of journalistic media:


For those of us that want to return to the days of books with pictures (we get it):


How to Help the Arts Without Money: A Listacle


I had fun with this which means I wrote a lot. I’ve included a too long didn’t read (TL;DR) at the beginning of each section if you want to circumvent my dorky witticisms.


1. “Kind words don’t cost much”; or tell your favorite artists that you like them:
TL;DR: In which I explain that reaching out to an artist and telling them you like them is a good thing and helps artists.


I know, the stereotype pervades the arts of huge egos and self-gratification; however, unless I just know a very rare subset of artists, most creatives, in my observation, are contrary to this stereotype. Being in creative industries requires a day-to-day struggle with money, popularity, and self doubt, not to mention the overwhelming behemoth that is Imposter Syndrome. I’m not necessarily saying, “let’s all go and pity an artist”, but I am suggesting let’s find an artist that we like or would like to support and say, “hey! I think what you’re doing is really cool and I hope that you keep doing it”. A few words of encouragement could be all that person needs to create their next great project.


2. Rice, Chess, and Telling your friends
TL;DR: In which I explain how the mathematical principle of exponential growth is true about artists when you tell your friends about the artists.


If you aren’t familiar with the legend of the invention of chess: essentially, the emperor of India was so impressed by the game that he told the inventor to name any reward they wanted. To which the inventor requested to get a grain of rice on the first square of the chess board and double it each day for each square on the board (at the time doubling his bounty of rice 64 times). You were probably told some variation of this story in a mathematics class at some point during your education. In short, doubling rice (or anything) in this manner created an amount of rice still not generated yearly in India.

Similarly to how I am not an economist and will not write about economics, I am also not a mathematician and don’t intend to turn this article into a math lesson about exponential functions.

All of this for one point: you, the fan, have the power to create exponential growth.


If you have an artist friend or artist group (like a certain alliterative theatre company), consider telling your friends about their work. This can be in day-to-day conversation, over text, over the phone, Facebook Messenger, Instagram DMs, Tinder Messages, telling the strangers in line at the grocery store…. Literally anywhere you talk to people. While it might be extreme to slide into the DMs of strangers and mention your favorite musician, painter, or a certain alliterative theatre company, you can gauge who you tell based on your own level of comfort. Even if only 1 of 10 people start following or thinking about your artist over the period of 64 days we discussed earlier, 1 fan quickly becomes close to 500 (and if those 500 hundred fans did the same? We’re quickly looking at 222 thousand fans). Clearly this mathematical function exaggerates the eventual outcomes and doesn’t take into account the law of diminishing returns, but the principle remains true: artists can’t grow unless you are spreading the word.

3. Mark Zuckerberg is already selling your Facebook likes, so why not, like, make them count?
TL;DR: In which I devalue the complexity of your life into the things you like on social media, and tell you about the three tiers of a social media fan: follower, engager, creator.


Joking aside, the 21st century has become the age of social capital. For the world’s mega-corporations you aren’t what you eat, you are what you like, follow, or even talk about (just saying, try listening to Spanish radio for a few hours and all your Facebook ads will magically be in Spanish). Even (factually supported) conspiracies aside; liking, commenting, subscribing, following, sharing, and whatever it is you do on TikTok, all of these actions create valuable social capital not just for you but for the artist you are supporting.


I can’t begin to fathom the powerful algorithms behind all of your favorite social media applications; however, we can see the overwhelming effect that engagement has in all of these platforms.

Almost every artist or artists group has a social media spread such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and (in an attempt to make this blog post exceptionally dated in probably three years) maybe even a TikTok. (I bet even a certain alliteratively named theatre company has almost all of these things…. We don’t get TikTok, sue us okay).


Engagement with social media has several layers. You can start by simply being a follower or subscriber (or if you’re still using Facebook slang from 2008 a “fan”). A supporter simply existing as a fan gives the artist clout automatically (just seeing a big number in that follower or subscriber section helps lend credence to the artist). However, subscribers or followers doesn’t necessarily denote a fan, particularly to these sorts of companies, so the next tier of fan is an engaged fan. This sort of person likes and comments on posts; they regularly engage in the artist’s community. The third tier of a fan devotes time regularly to the artist usually in sharing or even creating content related to their work. Similar to telling friends about the artist (see point number 2 in this list), sharing posts, work, or raves and reviews gives publicity to the artist and notifies your friend group about their work.


Creating fan content about your favorite artist gives the cherry on top of fan engagement, and if you share that information on the socials, you complete the social media engagement circle by including and inviting your family and friends to engage with the artist by saying “hey, I like this thing and so should you”.


4. Time is Money; and the magic of showing up
TL;DR: In which simply saying you’ll be at an event or be available to volunteer in any way means a lot.


If you happen to be in the same place or location, you can always reach out to your favorite artist and volunteer to help them out. This option of course works better if the artist is a company or organization with jobs that can be volunteered for, but maybe you have a painter or musician that you like that would just be thrilled to have someone help them put up posters around all 12000 Starbucks in your hometown. If they host free events just being someone who shows up and fills the seats can help alleviate the stress of putting themselves out there. Having a devoted fan willing to donate any spare time to their artistic cause helps support them in many of the other ways we’ve suggested as well.


Conclusion

We’re not blind to the double entendre of number four in our list. Being a truly engaged fan takes time, and that resource (more than almost any in our day) has severe limits and restrictions. Maybe you work four, five, or more jobs to make ends meet and don’t have the ability, time, or energy to devote to number four. Maybe you don’t use social media. Maybe you struggle with social anxiety so going around and talking to strangers about your favorite dance company challenges your ability to live a healthy life. We get it.


The struggles of supporting artists continues to baffle individuals (especially the artists), so, as with anything, do what you can. A word, a sentence, a paragraph or anything you can do for the artists you want to support will be a mile in the hearts (and maybe stomachs) of all of us starving artists.


 



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Jonah Kirkhart Ericson is one of the Co-Board Members and the Artistic Director of ThreePenny Theatre Company. He's written, acted, directed, and produced theatre from New York to Utah, and believes in the mission of bringing great and interesting theatre to everybody.

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