We knew it would happen someday.
Back in 1989, Andres Serrano busted open a simmering debate over whether it’s right (or even effective) for tax dollars to support arts. As a high school student at the time, I got worried about whether the theatre, films, and music I was absorbing like a sponge could ever get made without help from sources like the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or various state and federal film boards.
By the time I became a public radio producer in the 1990s, my peers and I were constantly hustling for seed money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or from family foundations who might align with the need for more shows about folk music, or health care, or the history of punk. At that time, you could either create something for the mass market — meaning something that attracted tens of millions of listeners — or you needed someone to pay for something that fit a specific niche. That’s why government funding was so crucial back then.
It’s no surprise that, under the guise of needing the money for more urgent public needs, our taxpayer funding for arts and cultural insitutions is first on the chopping block. It’s too late to argue that the amount of money we’re talking about is about the same as Uncle Sam finding a crumpled up ten dollar bill in his pants pocket on laundry day. That ship has sailed. This is about an unwillingness to even accidentally fund anything that someone might ever find objectionable — and if we know anything about art, it’s that every good work should piss off at least one person.
We’re entering a period in American society when — like it or not — artists, writers, musicians, and creators of all kinds must take full responsiblity for “funding” our work. That starts with understanding that what we do is worthy of getting paid for. It’s the definition that separates “professional” from “amateur,” but it’s also okay for us to recognize that creators can do more than one thing in our lives.
You can be an accountant and a jazz trumpeter.
You can be a plumber and a landscape painter.
You can be a zookeeper and a journalist.
For some of us, this mindset means developing our craft in the nooks and crannies around a “day job.” It means embracing patronage and gathering the courage to ask our audiences to support what we do financially.
Maybe taking on this mission doesn’t sound cool. Maybe it breaks with traditions we’ve taught ourselves, that artists shouldn’t concern themselves with the tawdry act of raising money. But, as a veteran of more fundraising drives than I can remember, the person who sells the most tote bags gets to tell their story.
Some things you can do, right now, to ensure that words and music you value get shared:
- Support a public radio station. It doesn’t have to be your local public radio station, if you don’t feel yours aligns with your values. If you love singer-songwriters, support WXPN. If you love traditional jazz, support WBGO. If you love narrative and storytelling, support WBEZ. A $40 pledge doesn’t sound like much, but it makes the world of difference for small organizations who have nothing but their membership rosters to justify their existence. This seems antequated when we’ve got the Internet, but here’s the thing: not everyone does. That FM signal might be the only way a kid in a rural country gets to hear a work that inspires them, or a story that motivates them to explore their own passions.
- Support artists you want to emulate. Do you want to write like Neil Gaiman? Buy one of his books. Do you want to see your career blow up like Ingrid Michaelson? Buy something. We vote with our feet and with our wallets. I believe in karma, and I also believe that you need to elevate the work you want to see more of.
- Gather your people. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It can be a house concert for a dozen friends. It can be bringing a singer-songwriter to your conference room for a lunchtime jam. It can even mean dragging a handful of people you barely know to a “bringer gig.” If you feel like we’re in any kind of cultural mess right now, recognize that some of this is because we’ve spent a lot of the last decade hiding behind screens instead of interacting face-to-face. Even if you’re not the star attraction, take what you’ve learned to get people to experience the work you’re making or someone else’s work that you love.
If you don’t have $40, it’s time for you to figure out how to get an extra $40. Take my free First Thirty Tickets course, and you can make $100 at a small gig. If you’re still wrestling with guilt about asking fans for money, make it a fundraiser for something you love, whether that’s the ACLU or your church. Remember, this is not about one ideology over another, it’s about creating and amplifying the work you want to make and the work you want to see more of in the world.1