Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Money Lab: Detroit, bankruptcy, and the arts

A recent article in the New York Times about the Detroit bankruptcy and the Detroit Institute of Arts brings me back to a theme I wrote about in an earlier posting about food vs. flowers. As part of Money Lab, I am trying to examine how we value art, and this current crisis put that question into stark relief.

About 10 years ago I took some trips to Detroit in order to visit someone I was dating. Anyone who has been in Detroit knows that the contrast between the city center and the suburbs is a stark one. The city is abandoned and impoverished, and there are stunning border areas where one can follow a street past boarded up buildings and then suddenly find oneself surrounded by fancy houses with beautiful lawns, literally yards apart.

There were, however, two bright spots I remember in the inner city. One was an old Beaux Arts building, which houses the still thriving Detroit Institute of Arts. The other was the new Detroit Tigers’ baseball stadium, Comerica Park.

Both were built with city money of course, one at the end of the 19th century, one in at the end of the 20th. However, it is the art museum that has continued to be dependent on public money. After many years, with the help of the tax dollars of the surrounding counties, it is now relatively solvent. However, Detroit’s bankruptcy places the museum in another sort of alarming jeopardy; the pensioners, the ones who are so unfairly in jeopardy themselves because of the bankruptcy, see an asset. The art inside is worth $2 billion. And they want it sold.

That is a bit of a blanket statement, which ignores certain nuances. The pensioners are not the city’s only debtors. Nor are they a uniform block, I am sure plenty of pensioners might regard the virtual destruction of the museum to be a tragic event. But the question, in law, is clear: will Detroit be obligated to see off the art in the museum in order to help fund the pensions?

Putting aside that legal question, which no one has yet answered, I will pose two more: what is the more economically advantageous thing to do? And does either decision have more moral weight?

Economically, it would be a clear blow, I think. Getting rid of the museum’s collection would mean that one of the few remaining bright spots in the city has been doused. The museum would have to shut down, simply because of the logistics of museum funding.  Much of the art was given with the explicit caveat that it must not be sold, and selling it would have huge repercussions on private funding, partly because it would end any chance of future art donations.  Furthermore, the blowback from the Association of Art Museum Directors would be huge: their sanctions against the National Academy Museum were extremely painful, and the NAM's offenses amounted to just two paintings. And finally, and this is the nail in the coffin really, the museum is currently being funded by tax dollars from surrounding counties, which would end immediately.  They would complain (legitimately) that their tax dollars had been spent to sustain the museum, not to get Detroit out of debt. The downtown cultural district, or what remains of it, would be effectively demolished, and the peripheral effect on surrounding businesses and restaurants will be stark. There will be even less of a reason to go into the city itself, leaving it even more of a black hole around which more enticing suburbs circle, hoping not to get sucked in.

As a comparison, the baseball stadium cost $115 million in public funding. Because that public money was essentially given to a private owner, rather than holding the stadium as a city asset, the stadium is safe. The reason behind that expenditure was the purported economic benefits of the stadium. In actuality, studies show that the money cities spend on stadiums tends to be a loss, while the smaller expenditures on museums spur enough economic growth to be a gain. But since museums are non-profit while sports activities are definitely for profit, museums often are seen as leeches. If it is economically worthwhile, why doesn’t it make money? (as a side note, it seems that even the $500 million pledged to a new hockey stadium is safe)

Of course, there may be some relief provided for pensioners, and it is hard to deny the needs of the retired population, those who have worked hard in civil service or as teachers or policeman all their lives, only to see their promised benefits stripped away. How much relief will it afford? That, I think, is debatable. How will the money be used, through what filters will it be put, how widely does it need to be distributed….will it mean a substantive increase in pension, or in essence a one time payment of another couple of hundred dollars? And what economic penalties will they pay for the further decay of the city in which they live? I suspect the benefits may be more negligible, and the loss more acute, than people initially guess.

But let us say, for the sake of argument, the benefit is a significant one. In a case such as that, what moral right is there for us to demand the preservation of a museum’s art collection? That is a murkier question. Money was spent by taxpayers so that people would have a chance to look at pretty pictures. Selling the collection doesn’t mean destroying the pictures, it means removing access to them. Some would go to private collectors. Some might be bought by other museums. What it will definitely do is remove that opportunity in Detroit. To a pensioner who doesn’t care for art, the opportunity to eat a little better is clearly the preferred alternative. And even for those who do care for art…

Well, here is a scenario. I pose it to you. Guaranteed income for the rest of your life. In return, I ask one thing. I will destroy one painting by Vincent Van Gogh. It won’t be Starry Night. But it will be Van Gogh, and it will be beautiful.

What choice do you make?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Money Lab: Excerpt from The Neurology of the Soul

The new play I've been working on, The Neurology of the Soul, addresses not only neurology, but some of these issue I'm exploring for Money Lab.  Mark, in the play, is a neuromarketer, someone who using neurology as a basis for his marketing.  In the course of the play, Amy starts making art basic on the images of her brain, and Mark becomes interested in marketing that art. This on the cost of being an artist:

Do you know why starving artists choose to starve?
It’s a choice?
Usually.  Because, let’s face it, plenty of artists are just as smart and capable as businessmen, wouldn’t you say?
I suppose.  Yes, of course.
But they put a value on something other than money, correct?
Let’s call that thing artistic fulfillment.  How much is artistic fulfillment worth, in terms of dollars and cents?
It don’t think it can be evaluated like that.
Nonsense.  Saying something can’t be evaluated simply means that you haven’t found the right formula, yet.  Let’s take a theoretical scenario.  Let’s say you compared what artists and businessmen of similar background and education make.  And say you found that, all things being equal, an average businessman makes $50,000 per year more than the average artist.  Does that seem plausible?
More than, unfortunately.  It’s probably more than that.
OK, but let’s be conservative, and say $50,000 per year.  Over 40 years, that’s two million dollars per lifetime.  Available, for you, for any artist.  Only thing is, you need to make that choice.
Some artists make good money.
No, of course not.
And you know that, going in.  Two million dollars, on average.  Maybe, less, if you’re a successful artist.  Maybe more, if you’re a successful businessman.  Two million dollars, and the choice is yours.  Business or art?
I’ve worked in offices, too.
To make ends meet, or as a career?
Does it matter why?
I think it does.  I think that makes a difference in salary.  You’re a smart woman, Amy.  You could be making a lot of money, if that was your major goal in life.  So, two million dollars, or artistic fulfillment?  Which do you choose?
If that were the choice, and I’m not sure I buy that it is, I choose artistic fulfillment.
Exactly.  As I said, everything has a definable value.  You just have to find the right formula.
What if you are artistic, and not fulfilled?  Have you just thrown away two million?
Do you feel unfulfilled by your art?
So let’s value your fulfillment at five hundred thousand.  Maybe we can fill in the rest of that value by making a few sales.
What are you after?
A commission, of course.  If my company is partial owner of the images, perhaps we should get a small percent of sales.  Or maybe I want some artistic fulfillment myself.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Money Lab: The cost of being an artist

One of the things I am interested in exploring in Money Lab is what is the personal economic cost of being an artist.  In other words, I want to compare people of similar education, age and background, and see how they compare to other (non-artists) from New York City.  I am limiting the current exploration to the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx because--well, because I have some data that applies, and going further at this point seems a bit overwhelming.

This will obviously be a limited and unscientific survey (not having the skills to create a true one), but I am hoping it provokes some thought and consideration. Interestingly, Dance NYC had a somewhat corollary survey that is much more developed, specifically of dancers age 21-35.  You can find it here.

Their survey shows how New York dancers truly struggle economically.  Which of course confirms my personal bias, which is to suspect that being any sort of artist costs big wagons full of money.  That comes partly from being from a family of lawyers and comparing my income to theirs.  And Partly from seeing almost all the intelligent, accomplished, educated artists I know struggle for money.  And partly from...well, it must.  C'mon.

But how much?  Can we find a dollar amount per year?  And is that dollar amount the value of art?  I can claim, as I have, that I did not know the cost when I first decided to pursue theater.  But eventually it dawned on me.  And I made a conscious choice to continue.  So in a way I have decided to spend most on my potential income on the one thing that has meant the most to me.

Somehow, realizing that I made the decision makes me feel a bit better.   Would I make the decision again, in college, knowing what I know now?  I'm not sure.  But on the other hand, I can't image a life without theater.  So, maybe...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Money Lab: Food or a flower, what is the value of art?

In honor of Money Lab, I will be posting a series of blog posts about economics and the arts.  Here is my first, examining the question of the basic value of art.

I was taking a cab the other day, and my cab driver asked me if I had any good ideas to help the world. He was collecting.

I work in theater, I said, so all my ideas are about theater. But I do think art can help the world.

He scoffed. If you were starving, he asked, what would you like? Food? Or a flower?

This reminded me of another incident. Some years ago, Soutine’s bakery on the Upper West Side had promised the theater company a free cake for a fundraiser. The day I came to pick it up, the owner reneged. I didn’t understand it was for a theater, she told me. I thought it was a non-profit.

It is a non-profit, I said.

No, she said. Something that does good. Like cancer research. I can’t just give a free cake to anyone who asks.

That conversation dwelled with me for a while. The nature of non-profit theater is that it depends on donations. Personal donations, foundation grants, and government grants, which are a sort of donation from everyone’s tax dollar. Why do we deserve it?

I can say that without it, the world would be lacking. Only the commercial work could survive. Difficult work that examines ideas or advances the art form wouldn’t exist. The world would be a much duller and less joyful place.

To me.  But then again I’m not starving.

This is how I responded to the cab driver: I just directed a play called The Last Cyclist, written in a concentration camp. The people, all the actors there were starving. The play criticized the Nazis, and some of them risked their lives by even rehearsing it. Most of them were murdered. But then, in that moment, they felt alive. Art is a need, a basic need, dating back to the cave drawings. It helped them feel human when they might have been reduced to pure animal needs.

He was not convinced. Yes, sure, it was a distraction. But they would have been better off with some bread.

He went driving off in search of someone with better ideas.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

20 years, 200 photos

A compilation of photos of our work over the last 20 years, made for our anniversary party.  Made the midnight before, which perhaps explains the misspelling of "anniversary"  The voiceover from a moment of our presentation in 365 plays at The Public, read by Henry Akona.