Monday, July 23, 2007

Central Square Business Association and the Performing Arts

Last week, whilst in the midst of rehearsals both for my solo show and for Macbeth I attempted to resolve a situation that concerns many Cambridge-based performing artists. It had been my hope to deal with this behind the scenes to ensure good will, but my powers of persuasion were not up to the challenge.

In 2005, the Central Square Business Association sponsored the first ArtsCentral. As with many art festivals that receive sponsorship from the business community, the idea is that by allowing artists working in different media to show their work, the audience will then spend their money not just on the arts but also on the goods and services of the sponsors. Seeing this as an opportunity to build a mutually beneficial relationship between the arts and business communities in the Central Square neighborhood of Cambridge, I agreed to donate my services pro bono for that first year.

Two years later, I was to read the Artist Registration Form and noted that all artists had to provide a registration fee. This is not unusual in the case of visual and plastic artists, since they are renting out space to sell their work as vendors, however a fee is irregular with regards to the performing arts at festivals of this nature. This fee is not a rental of a performance space for a period of time in which the performers can sell tickets in some sort of co-production deal common with some fringe festivals. While the form indicates that performers may sell merchandise to offset the fee they have paid, many performers, notably those working in theatre and dance, often do not have merchandise, or the merchandise they do sell is supplemental to whatever income they might take in from ticket sales and fees when performing for a client. The point is that artists were being asked to pay for the privilege to perform. Typically, when I have performed at festivals sponsored by business organizations, I was paid a fee, and my job was as an artist, to keep pedestrians engaged with the festival so that they would spend that extra time and be more likely to also spend money on the wares and services offered by vendors and storefront businesses. The performing arts simply exist in a different economic niche than do the visual and plastic arts.

Artists often donate their work pro bono to educational and cultural institutions-- often as a way of giving back to the community, sometimes we even donate our work in an attempt to create a mutually beneficial relationship with the business community, but here, it appeared that at best, the Central Square Business Association did not understand the economics of the performing arts.

I attempted to explain these issues to Margaret Farmer, the executive director of the CSBA via email, and after an exchange that began on July 16th and ended July 20th, I became convinced that not only did the CSBA not understand the economics of the performing arts, that they had either not included anyone with knowledge of the performing arts community (especially dance and theatre) in the planning, or that they had not listened to the advice and expertise that was offered to them. Indeed, it was explained to me that one of the reasons performers are being charged a fee is because the Business Association is convinced that performers are more likely to show up as scheduled if they have paid-- not realizing that the fee was a disincentive for performers to even want to be on the schedule.

Perhaps, because I was a lone artist speaking my mind, I was unable to persuade, but if you are a performing artist who presents your work in and around Cambridge, perhaps you wish to express your opinion. Please be diplomatic.

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