Hello dears.
I am thinking a lot about the systems that surround artists, these structures that were not built to serve our interests and that are often made to seem natural and inevitable.
Previous emails were about the endless applications artists write, the lottery logic of the arts, and the condescending “help” outsiders offer us.
I am not writing toward systems change. I applaud that work, but I am too exhausted by years of circular conversations on the topic. Rather, I want to throw powder on these invisible systems so we might stop blaming ourselves for problems that are structural.
Also, why haven't I sent out an email in a while?
Out of respect for y'all (and myself),
I only share when I have something to say.
Arts professionals have complex relationships with artists.
Many arts professionals are profoundly aligned with our missions and practices. Many build spaces and resources to bring artists’ work to the public. Many are practicing or former artists.
The systems of arts and culture often exploit artists and treat us in disrespectful, even dismissive ways. Here, I am not calling out specific people or organizations. When we do that—and it can be useful for artists to share negative experiences—we miss the structural, systemic ways artists are undervalued.
The exploitation of artists is built on exploitative values. Here are three I see often: extraction, hierarchies, fear.
Artistic products are valuable and can be extracted without supporting artists or the artistic process.
Arts organizations and arts professionals love our products, the dances and sculptures and films that come at the end of months of making and decades of practice.
Our products bring them audiences, prestige, and, in the end, their salaries and benefits. Just as industrial agriculture extracts crops while ignoring the health of soil and water, arts structures often extract our art and insights while depleting the ecosystems of practice our work grows in.
When we do get paid for presenting our work, we are rarely compensated for the hours and years that made it possible. A venue may pay me and my dancers for performing, but rarely for the months it took to create that performance, and never for the decades of training and practice underlying it.
I did my first artist residency at age forty. This place basically said: We're gonna feed and house you. You go in your studio and do your work. No need to produce or show anything, no final reports. We know the most important thing for you to do today is focus on your practice. We trust you. Holy heck. I was stunned. I had never encountered such respect and support for process, and isn't that a goddamn shame?
Arts professionals view artists in terms of rankings, tiers of external validation and achievement.
A curator wants to know my “career point.” A presenter is assembling a festival of “only established artists." A funder wants to introduce a VIP to “local artists working at the highest level, if you know any."
Arts organizations largely see artists—and see themselves—in hierarchies. They chase artists “above” them and don’t return phone calls from artists “below.” They consider what “tier” an artist is on before offering resources. This is so pernicious and prevalent it can be hard to remember it is not a given.
Each time I “leveled up” in the dance world, I was treated differently. When I got a show in New York City and review in the New York Times, Philadelphia presenters and funders suddenly wanted to talk. I thought: I’ve been here doing this work for years; the only thing that changed is where you rank me.
I am not saying artists are interchangeable. Artists have different levels of immersion in our practice; we are rooted in different traditions; we have particular bodies of work that resonate with particular audiences; we have wildly different (and evolving) intentions.
I am saying that ranking artists by “level” or “excellence” is inevitably riddled with bias and legacy assumptions, and often says more about the person ranking than those being ranked. Art making is so diverse and so particular, is it too much to ask that artists be approached with humility and curiosity, with listening and learning?
Artists are dangerous and difficult, unruly and unreliable.
Here is the emotional one.
A friend starting an artist residency was told repeatedlyby arts professionals I respect and likethat artists are “difficult” and “unrealistic.”
Who says things like that?
I taught high school dance for ten years, no easy task, but I would never call high school students difficult. They're incredible. They're functioning in some pretty limiting systems, but they are heroically creative in spite of it.
When I am disrespected or condescended to by an arts professional, I whisper one word: Fear.
Some of this fear is, I believe, misplaced envy and resentment: Why do artists get to make these amazing works of art while I only exhibit or fund them?
Imagine, dear artist, spending all your working days near the artistic process but never in it. Imagine valuing artistic practice so highly you center your life around it while never directly engaging in it. Imagine the annoyance as you watch artist after artist—some wildly young, some seemingly undisciplined—walk nonchalantly into the studio, that enchanted space where art is born, while you, curator or programmer or funder, are stuck outside, glimpsing magic through the doorway before it swishes closed.
Some of this fear comes from working in linear, rationalized, legacy organizations, but working with artists who question all of that.
If you are committed to established structures and economies and efficiencies and all the consensus agreements of functioning well, if you are not ready to question the foundations of your thinking and the systems and histories that made you possible, you maybe should fear the artistic process. Artists will pose the unasked question, and that could mean turning the building inside out, reallocating the budget, interrupting the conference call.
Sometimes I'm welcomed into an arts organization with a kind of nervous graciousness, as if my hosts are both glad to see me and worried I'm about to start breaking things.
If your well-being rests on unquestioned givens, keep artists out of your space. Or, rather, bring artists into controlled spaces only—a stage, a gallery, a panel—where you can contain our fire and fearlessness. That's my experience of arts conferences: Trot out the spoken word artist or musician or dancer to open the proceedings. Clap heartily. If their work is political or coming from the so-called “margins,” make it a standing ovation. Then usher the artist offstage so the grownups can get to the real business.
You surely don’t want artists or artistic thinking when discussing best practices and sector building.
Arts professionals love artists who question the status quo, just not their status quo.
That's too scary.

I am writing to you because you took an Artists U workshop or downloaded Making Your Life as an Artist. Focus and attention are essential to artists so if these emails take up your time without giving you something in return please do hit the unsubscribe button and go make art.