Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Up to here

[Guess who got a phone call last week to say that a 1,200-lb shipment had fallen over during transport? The slats you see are supposed to be the bottom of the crate. Yes, lots of calls have been made to estimate repairs.]

I'm going to complain a bunch, so you can skip this if you need happy news (which I will attempt to return to after this venting). I also acknowledge that while I am negatively impacted by this crisis, I am not the worst off.

These terrible times bring into focus all at once the broken parts of our systems, whether it's "public servants" who are allowed to have vested financial interests that benefit from directly harming the public, the huge numbers of poor and hungry children and adults in this "first world" nation, the push to construct a border wall in the middle of a pandemic while also clamping down on voter rights and trying to halt abortions in the hopes that no one will notice because they are too busy fighting in supermarket aisles, or the dog whistling and outright racism from the top that encourages people to attack and attempt to murder Asian people.

But these aren't my immediate complaints. I'm tired of the broken systems that affect me as a freelancer, someone who will likely get no relief from the packages being passed, floated, or debated. My income comes from teaching/lecturing gigs, art and book sales, and whatever grants I may or may not be lucky enough to get. I've lived with uncertainty my entire career as an artist and will continue to until the end.

I hate that these systems always place the money/time risk and burden onto the most unstable party: the individual artist. Travel reimbursement always happens after the fact, so I have to outlay my money to book flights, transportation, lodging, etc. The best (but rare) hosts book these on their dime. Some prepare a check to present to me immediately after I'm done but most mail a check afterwards. Two weeks after my latest gig, I have yet to be paid or reimbursed for my travel expenses (of which only a portion are covered). My next two gigs were cancelled, and I won't be reimbursed for my flight for one of them—they hope to reschedule but I have to eat the cost for now.

Individual artists also shoulder other burdens with no recompense, classified as "prep." Over a year before many gigs, I begin to spend hours and days scheduling, filling out forms, talking to people on the phone, sending emails, designing courses, writing descriptions and lesson plans and supply lists, creating budgets, and providing PR materials. This work is never compensated. The people on the other end earn salaries and sometimes benefits (yes, I know as a former non-profit worker that these are tiny, but they are real and the photocopies are free). Only two places I've taught for provided paid prep time: a non-profit that went out of business, and a state school that only did so after I asked. That only covered physical prep for class, which includes hauling tools / equipment / materials, unpacking, preparing and cooking dyes and fibers, rearranging classroom furniture, cleaning, tarping surfaces, and a million other things.

This equation sucks. Though I am still far from a functioning studio, I've fantasized about how to do better if I ever invite outside teachers to work in my space. This means valuing and paying teachers for ALL of their labor and even giving them a portion of the tuition that arrives months before class begins. While many orgs place the burden of travel costs onto students (e.g., you pay more for a class if the teacher flies in from across the country than if they live in town), there has to be another way of making up the difference. Once a class has filled, it seems only fair to give a portion of that money to the teacher ahead of time to pay for travel. So many orgs already include travel and materials reimbursements onto our 1099s (rendering it taxable income), they may as well provide the money up front. The other idea would be to provide a non-refundable deposit to the teacher when booking the class.

I know arguments against this: tuition goes up, no one signs up for class and it doesn't run, or only the richest people can participate. That's why development folks are always writing grants to subsidize programs. I also know that many orgs and businesses run less responsible practices where the tuition for your class is what they use to pay the last teacher/keep the lights on (similar to galleries that won't pay you until the next artist makes a sale—stay away from those!). But how much would it cost to start to think about better practices? A lot. But humanity should cost a lot. We are learning quickly the people we value more, and less, and it's not pretty. But I hope we can start new conversations that lead to real change that make us more deserving of all the space we take up on this planet.

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