«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
The concern with financial self-sufficiency was a significant topic of discussion at the Unapologetic Burlesque meeting held after the third show, "Lost and Found". However, contrary to municipal policy expectations which foster a kind of entrepreneurialism in the face of considerable rates of unemployment and underemployment, the conversation did not center on amassing as much money as possible for individual organizers but rather on ensuring that the show was accessible to those who might otherwise not be able to attend due to disability concerns and/or the capacity to pay high ticket prices. kumari, Shaunga, the crew coordinator and I met up at a coffee shop where kumari shared the news that "Lost and Found" did not collect as much money from door sales as in past shows. We began to brainstorm strategies around how to make sure we would be able to bring in enough money to cover the costs of the venue and ASL interpretation as well as to compensate the labor that goes into making the show possible (providing honorariums to performers, hosts, backstage runners, make up people etc.). Initially, the price of admission to an Unapologetic show was set at $5-$15 or “pay-whatyou-can (PWYC), no one turned away for lack of funds”. We all agreed that we did not want to increase the price of admission because that would serve as a barrier to those who would benefit from seeing the show but who would not be able to afford to attend.
The relationship between art production and financial remuneration in North America also serves as a dis-incentive for personal financial gain. This tension was a major theme that emerged in my interview with Dainty Smith. I first met Dainty when she hosted the second Unapologetic show, “Queer from the heart”. Since then I have seen her perform and host at many other QTPOC community events throughout the city. The issue of being paid as an artist came up in my question about an observation that I made when I attended Femme Fatale, a burlesque showcase that she produces. The venue became quite crowded and despite promoting the show quite heavily beforehand to make sure that it was well attended, Dainty made an announcement Like many of the participants in this study, kumari does not solely identify with either “he” or “she” and prefers to be referred to by the pronoun “they” to the audience that they would no longer be admitting people into the space for fear of safety concerns and asked that audience members tell any friends who were thinking of coming that the show was now full and that they would not be able to get in. Later, in my interview with her, I asked her about that announcement and if she was worried that it would affect her bottom line.
She responded emphatically:
“that [making money] can't be the main focus because again, of course you're concerned about your basic necessities but if you're doing it for that… if you do anything in terms of art, if you're doing it for the money, you're going to lose every dime. You'll never be able to… I know that sounds ridiculous or ironic or clichéd but that's what selling out actually really means. The fact of the matter is… you have to do this kind of work for nothing. You have to know that you will do it if you get paid zero dollars. You have to do it because you believe in it so much that you can't do anything else” While Dainty speaks about the importance of making art regardless of the monetary compensation, it is important to note that the definition of an "artist" for many arts funding bodies is related to the extent to which someone has been paid for their work. In speaking about the situation of newcomer artists, Margo Charlton at TAF shared her insights about how the processes of receiving money for one's artwork can also validate someone's understanding of themselves as an artist.
“[There are a] number of professionally trained newcomer artists. So people who were trained in their own country in their art form and they arrived. What happens with that story? How can we help make the transition happen for newcomer artists in the way that people are making transitions happen for newcomer doctors or engineers?...The challenging part in this is that the skills that they came with were not properly used so the survival job became their life long job. The same thing is happening for newcomer artists.
It's hard for any artist to make a living but I think that [there’s] something that happens when an artist loses their identity, when they don't call themselves an artist anymore. If you're not making a living at it, or if you can't make any money on it, can you still call yourself that [an artist]? I don't have any answers to this, but what's the difference between [when] you're not an engineer anymore and [when] you're not an artist anymore. Is it different? Is it the same?
Artists fraught relationship with money was also a topic that arose in my skype interview with Ella Cooper, manager of Toronto's Neighborhood Arts Network, an initiative created by the TAF and which describes itself as "the place where arts and community engagement meet in Toronto. We are a Toronto-wide network of over 1,025 members including artists, arts organizations, cultural workers and community agencies working throughout the City of Toronto" (Toronto Neighbourhood Arts Network, n.d.). When I asked her what she thinks is
missing from existing conversations around community arts in the city, she responded:
“I would like to see more conversations that center around our relationship with money because I think that sometimes artists and social change makers have a very loaded relationship with money and sometimes that means that they actually do things to selfsabotage. And I'm not trying to say that everyone must have oodles of money but more simply that everyone, or many people, could use a conversation around money that isn't just about how to make money for your project but how you manage money and your relationship with it. I think that a certain aspect of healthy work life balance is wrapped up in that. Yeah, because I feel like there are individuals who are in a starving artist category and are constantly really strapped for cash and this is part and parcel of the nature of this work…you're not going to necessarily make a lot of money doing it. But there's also a relationship around how you manage it and how it comes into your life and how you give and how you might even run from it or how you undervalue yourself” Ultimately, QTPOC community arts organizers are placed in the difficult position of navigating municipal funding policies which encourage personal economic gain on the one hand and expectations around financial remuneration for artistic production and the creation of initiatives that are accessible to those who might otherwise not be able to participate on the other.
For many of the organizers I worked with, negotiating these tensions often meant having to deal with figuring out how to pay rent and to make ends meet. I came to understand that among these organizers (and those who participated in their initiatives), working several low wage, part time and/or contract jobs (for instance in retail, childcare or social services) at the same time is not unusual. Coordinating events, programs and shows that do not result in personal financial gain is challenging given that the labor and time intensive nature of these initiatives means that organizers are constrained in looking for and maintaining more conventional paid work. And yet even if organizers chose to pursue this route, the procurement of such work is quite difficult given that Canada’s “economic apartheid” (Galabuzi, 2006) has resulted in a growing gap between white workers and workers of color. The challenge of being able to be make enough money to survive was certainly an issue that arose in Dainty's interview. When I asked if she felt as though she is adequately paid for her art and for the organizing work that goes into producing
her shows she responded:
“For my own shows, sometimes I'd barely break even and other times I make enough money to feel like I can pay my rent this month. Financially it’s tricky and hard and it can be back-breaking to do this work without knowing if you're going to be okay. One of the things that I have learned in terms of doing this for the past few years is that art is a continual exercise in trust. You're constantly learning how to trust because so many of the shows that are put on by myself and other producers and promoters in the city are selffinanced and most of us don't have a lot of money. We don't come from money so you put everything into it. You put every spare cent, dollar, you borrow and you put it in and you just hope that enough money comes in and you can pay people and you at least have something left over for yourself to buy dinner that night…you have to make something happen and sometimes you are making something out of nothing. It's an exercise in trust because you're hoping that money can come in so you can keep on doing this work...Because it's a hard city to live [in], its expensive. You want to be able to produce and produce and produce but you also have to be able to eat and pay your rent and afford your life.15 By drawing attention to the financial struggle that QTPOC community arts organizers experience, I do not mean to imply that they do not benefit from their work in other ways. Dainty’s earlier comment about doing art because “you believe in it so much that you can’t do anything else” is similar to the sentiments voiced by other organizers who, in the same breath that they express concerns about working so hard without being adequately paid, also speak of a profound personal fulfillment in doing community arts organizing. Further, the organizers of QTPOC community arts initiatives may also gain a certain status/celebrity/popularity among those who attend their programming.
The difficult situations faced by community arts organizers like Shaunga, kumari and Dainty force us to think about the value of collective creative work under political economic conditions in which individual capital accumulation is encouraged in a context of otherwise limited alternative possibilities for making a living. As a way to make sense of these circumstances, I use the term “sacrificial entrepreneurship” to describe the seemingly contradictory process of engaging with entrepreneurial activity while resisting the policy imperative to maximize personal profit. By engaging in sacrificial entrepreneurship, groups like Unapologetic work to subvert the neoliberal incitement to individual financial gain. This disconnect between municipal funding mandates and the way in which QTPOC community arts organizers go about their work serve as fertile ground for examining the contingent nature of the mechanisms of neoliberal governance. The fact that these organizers only partly acquiesce to the demands that they behave as proper entrepreneurial subjects indicates that projects of governance are never complete and are subject to transformation.
Yet, in line with Valverde’s (1995) insight into Canada’s mixed social economy, this subversion of the neoliberal incitement to personal profit making must not be understood as some sort of battle between two sets of disconnected actors: a neoliberal municipal government and a collection of grassroots QTPOC community arts organizers. Firstly, these organizers are troubling neoliberalism from within by manipulating what is considered to be at very heart of this mode of governance: the drive for individual wealth. While adopting the practices associated with entrepreneurship, they are choosing to funnel the wages derived from these activities into initiatives attending to collective well-being. Secondly, as mentioned earlier, the very fact that this public community arts funding infrastructure came into existence is, in large part due to the advocacy work of artists and community organizers of color petitioning public institutions to be included into their programming. Later, the increased availability of municipal money for community arts occurred largely through the organizing efforts of grassroots initiatives like Beautiful City. Finally, at a more theoretical level, Foucault forwards the notion of discourse as a way to disrupt the notion that power and resistance are necessarily separate and oppositional phenomenon. He states, “it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together…we must not imagine a world of discourse divided between accepted discourse and excluded discourse…we must make allowances for the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance” (1978, p. 101).