Surviving As an Artist in the Age of Trump

This is not a picture of Donald Trump

So today is Inauguration Day and the birth of the Age of Trump.

While I have many strong opinions about politics, this is a blog about the arts and I’m just not going to go there. Suffice to say I am not jumping for joy. However, sometimes the world of federal, state, and local politics does have an impact on theatre artists, and these impacts ought to be considered.

Let’s face it, the coming Trump administration will probably be a disaster for the arts. Indeed, according to yesterday’s Washington Post, Trump is planning to kill the NEA, the NEH, and the CPB. We’ve been here before — Republicans love to use the NEA as their whipping boy to score points with their base without having to take much heat — but I don’t think we would be out of line to think that this time, with a Republican House, Senate, and White House and a Libertarian as Speaker of the House, it might be more serious than when Jesse Helms took aim at the Mapplethorpe and Serrano exhibitions back in the 1990s.

The nonprofit regional theatre scene is extremely vulnerable. If you look at the 2015 Theatre Communications Group’s publication Theatre Factsyou see that 50% of the budget for a typical regional theatre is comprised of unearned income — individual contributions, foundation grants, government grants, etc. And the smaller theatres with annual budgets of under $500,000 are in even worse shape, getting 59% of their operating budget from grants and contributions.

For almost a decade, I have written about how a business model that is reliant on handouts for half of its operating budget is simply not sustainable. The amount of money that theatres have received from governmental sources, the TCG notes, has dropped over time as the arts budgets have been chipped away, and so it is possible that the elimination of the NEA will not be fatal. At least not directly (although we could see the closing of a lot of smaller theatres). But if the Trump Administration pokes massive holes in our country’s safety net, I would anticipate that foundations will start shifting their resources away from the arts in order to address some of the social problems being created by the new policies. Now we’re talking real money, and it is money that will disproportionately affect the larger nonprofits who employ many artists. A few years ago, a national study revealed that the richest 2% of nonprofit arts organizations receive a whopping 55% of foundation grants.

But Independent Artists won’t stay awake nights worrying, because they won’t be reliant on grants. Indeed, they won’t be nonprofits at all. They will have created a business model that is 100% focused on earned income, while simultaneously they will have scaled their expenses in such a way that they can make it without begging. So if the NEA is eliminated (and with it all the state arts councils that rely on the NEA to provide portions of their funds), and foundations shift their focus to helping the homeless, the destitute, and the abused it will have little impact on Independent Artists beyond their general outrage that such a policy is being put into place.

Sounds impossible, I know, but it’s possible if you start creating your organization from the ground up with independence in mind. It’s possible if you accept Tip #0: Forget Everything about what is necessary to create theatre. It’s possible if you start with an assumption that earned income, perhaps combined with invested income, will be all the money you have to work with. What is it that they say about a person’s finances? That it isn’t how much you make that matters, but how much you keep? Same here.

So you survive the Age of Trump by making him and his minions completely irrelevant to your work.

We saw this demonstrated at this year’s Golden Globe Awards when Meryl Streep condemned Trump in no uncertain terms. Why could she do that? Because she’s badass, of course. But also because she is independent. She doesn’t need Trump for anything. She doesn’t have to rely on wealthy people who might be Trump supporters on her board of directors to contribute money. She is the CEO of Streep, Inc and she has enough talent, and enough personal capital to keep her out of Trump’s circle of influence. Trump huffed and puffed and tweeted, but ultimately she was out of his reach. She’s professionally and artistically bullet proof.

That should be the goal for Independent Artists, and if you build your business with this as the founding vision, it is possible.


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