Thursday, March 3, 2016

SPENT (a BodyBusiness epilogue)

May 2016 will mark the 6th year since the first time I publicly presented ensemble dance work in NYC. I was just a year out of grad school, many pounds lighter and babysitting for a rotation of 5-6 families to make ends meet each month.

Since then, SLMDances has been flying by the seat of our pants: taking opportunities as they have rolled in and forging other opportunities when we were clear no one was going to hand us anything. With prayer, we have met our minimal financial obligations each month. I have been grateful in that time for gracious gifts from individual donors, small financial and in kind support from family when possible, the gift of rehearsal space from my alma mater, as well as some of the greatest dancers in the world. These women are my joy. Still, we have been operating on a shoe string budget with most every dime of my personal freelance work going to support SLMDances. I have believed, and still do, that I must invest in myself first to make it work.

Through the course of those six years I have encountered a number of remarks along the lines of: How do you do it?! You're still going! When do you sleep?

The truth is: Not as much as I like, nor as well as I would like.

Since I started this work I have been operating from a deficit, but what I lacked in funds I made up in sheer will and can do spirit. I have been so diligent and committed because making art while building and advocating for my communities is living in my purpose. I have been clear on that since I was a child; the dream is the truth.

Still, I am exhausted. As a fellow dancer I am working with recently remarked, she is "so tired, but you're not allowed to be tired."

Our culture and our arts economy does not function from a place of preventative care. In this business, if you don't have your own personal start up (trust/wealthy parents/wealthy spouse/angel donor) fund you are fighting the ultimate uphill battle. You can't garner resources and support for your artistic work without producing work and so, you get used to operating from that deficit. Long gone are the days of many grants that support an artist's living expenses. How radical would it be to resource an artist based on what they could do? To see what they could create under the best of circumstances, not the worst?

In a recent post over on NonProfit With Balls, blogger Vu Le writes:
Because of Budget Testing and other factors, organizations that are led by communities of color, women, people with disabilities, rural communities, LGBTQ communities, are stuck in a downward spiral, a Catch-22, the Capacity Paradox, where they are too small to get significant funding, so they remain small and can’t get significant funding. 
He goes on to say,
What’s detrimental to organizations’ long-term success is being forced to constantly Frankenstein funds together because no funder wants to pay more than 10% of an org’s budget. If funders are willing to fund 50% or 75% of an organization’s budget, especially in its early years, when its budget is relatively small, it allows it to spend less time fundraising and focus more time on building a strong program and infrastructure, which will increase its chances to survive and do its work. Funders’ concerns for organizations’ long-term success is ironically one of the biggest barriers toward organizations’ achieving long-term success.
His analysis feels like the story of my life. I am literally doing too many things to have the capacity to focus on building a strong fiscal infrastructure, but I feel like I have to do all the things to warrant and demonstrate that I deserve to earn the money, as well as be awarded grants and donor gifts. What increases the sting is that I am committed to this work for the long trajectory of my career, but the base resources of my immediate supporting communities and the politics of whose work is deemed worthy enough to support into the longterm is too often a picture of our country's systemic inequities. 

Making dance in New York City should not have to be a game of survival of fittest, with the fittest being literally only those of us who have figured out how to get on the right side of the wealth gap. With all the trending conversations on equity and diversity in the arts, if we actually want to make demonstrated change as a field we must examine not only who we fund, but how we fund. (Le makes some excellent suggestions for this as well.

Further, we can't be afraid to fund artists themselves, particularly the breed of artist in my generation -- the artrepreneur -- in a way that honors not only their artistic endeavors, but also their business savvy.

Of course, what doesn't help the situation is the inevitable question that comes at the conclusion of every artist's project, or even in casual conversation when you introduce yourself as an artist (and even I am guilty of asking it): What's next?

What's next? As if we hadn't just poured everything that we have physically, spiritually, emotionally and financially into the art that just occurred. What's next? As if you as an audience member, fellow artist, critic, educator or other person in this dance economy are disconnected from the possibility of what actually can be next.

Since the close of BodyBusiness in November, I have been having a terribly difficult time re-entering myself into the #artisthustle #artistgrind. Probably, because I was burnt out before we started producing the work. Most definitely, because I am now way below zero on the burn out scale.

So, what's next? I am sitting down. I am going to sleep. I am allowed to be tired. I am worth more than what I produce, and what I produce is worth way more than what I currently bring home in resources and benefits for my life and my family.

Starting in May of this year, SLMDances will be restructuring and will de-prioritize performance and producing new work as its main activities. We will take the next year, at least, to strategize and build fiscally sound infrastructure. We will be putting together funds for general operating support. We will be building out earned income streams which includes developing our education and community engagement programming, as well as planning future performances. 

This work will be a team and community effort. We have been in contact with dancers who have been a part of the SLMDances journey at various points since 2010, and the response has been thrilling to see how this community wants to be involved in the shaping of its own future.

This work includes you as well. I am so thankful for your excitement around both my personal story and the company's story thus far. As I endeavor to invest better in my own self care, and the long term sustainability of the company, I offer better questions to ask around excitement for our future. Instead of What's next?, what about, How can I help? What support do you need? How can we work together toward our mutual and individual goals? 

I would be remiss not to mention that this work is made possible in part by support from The Field Leadership Fund and the CUNY Dance Initiative, which will provide administrative support and rehearsal space, respectively. These were opportunities I believe garnered through building a "net that works" over the course the past six years and it is important for me to be transparent about that. 

Lastly, I invite you to attend as many of SLMDances' upcoming performances as possible in the next two months, starting with my solo performance this Friday, March 4 with Dancing While Black, and ending in April with a special SLMDances' Homecoming to perform in Baltimore (details to come). Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up to date. 

Continue to check back here as I hope to blog more often in order to continue transparency about our journey -- although if it becomes too much, I give myself permission to not.

I wish you light on your own self-care and self-investment journeys.

With so much gratitude. 

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