Everything Artists U does is open source and free for artists. Why?
I get asked this a lot, especially at the national level where “professional development” for artists usually comes with a fee attached. They say: people value things they pay for. They say: you get better attendance and follow-through when you charge for it.
And, of course, programs want earned revenue. They have a lot of overhead, and most are funded by grants that love love love to see that little slice of Earned Income.
So why is Artists U always free?
1) Cost is a barrier.
Many artists are living hand-to-mouth in a way that most arts professionals, even in their scrappy, early 20s moments, never do. Artists in their 50s with families with low and unpredictable income. “Successful” artists with significant professional recognition living on $18,000 a year, mostly from day jobs.
And psychologically, many artists misunderstand their money. Too many of us don’t have a budget, we don’t know what our lives cost. We actually could pay $25 for a webinar of $175 for an online course, but many of us won’t. Our scarcity mentality leads us to under-invest in things that are essential.
One goal of Artists U is getting artists to the point where they would pay for a professional development workshop.
2) Cost is also a filter.
The skills and cultural fluencies that allow artists to access resources and opportunities are not distributed evenly. Artists who grew up middle-class and artists with college or MFA training tend to acquire the soft skills, hard skills and markers of class membership that make it easier to advocate, communicate with stakeholders, and get funding.
The good news is that these skills and fluencies are teachable. But we need to “preach to the unconverted,” start conversations about sustainability in all communities of artists. Professional development for artists has some big equity challenges. As of now, it’s primarily serving artists who come from the nonprofit, MFA-based arts world. That population skews dramatically college-educated and middle- and upper-middle-class. In America, that means it skews white.
This does two bad things for artist professional development. First of all, many artists who need these tools don’t get them. And, second, professional development programs don’t get the tactics and wisdom that artists in many communities use to thrive and make their work. As one example, I see more and different models of artist entrepreneurship in communities of color, and the professional development world needs that thinking.
Professional development, potentially a platform for addressing inequity, risks reinforcing it. The scary way of saying this: professional development is currently training artists who receive a disproportionate share of resources to get an even bigger share.
Charging for professional development (and where you do it, and where you publicize it, and the language and images you put out) filters for those artists who see themselves as belonging to the nonprofit high art world.
I have sat in hundreds of rooms of Artist Professional Development. The only ones that were as diverse as their communities were the ones without fees.
3) There is funding for this work.
Here’s a sad fact, artists: a lot of people make a lot of money to “fix” or “help” artists. There is a significant amount of money paid to consultants, strategic planners, and facilitators in the arts sector.
Funders often referred my dance company to strategic planners and consultants. “Here, Headlong, go work with so-and-so, and they’ll fix [your project] [your marketing] [you].” A few of those people were massively helpful, many were so-so, a few were horrid.
When I learned that one of our consultants made $150/hour (in 2001!) to meet with us, I began to ask: why aren’t artists doing this work? Why can’t someone pay a choreographer, an artist who actually knows what I’m going through, to consult with me?
One strategy of Artists U is to take a small portion of the funding that goes to consultants and pay brilliant, rigorous artist consultants to do the work. (You might look at the funding in your community that goes to consultants, and ask: could some portion of this be used to hire artist consultants?)
(Another strategy is to keep infrastructure low. We are hosted by organizations in each location, so we have no office space, no administrative staff, just programming costs. And we are flexible: when there is more money, we do more programming. We are more of a “temporary autonomous space” than an organization.)
4) Free things scale (if they’re good).
I put out my book, Making Your Life as an Artist, as a free download and an $18 paperback. 75,000 people have downloaded it and 400 have purchased it. That’s about 200-to-1. The free book has tens of thousands of readers (probably more than 75,000 because people have started distributing it on their own), and that’s with a marketing budget of $0. I simply put the book out, told everyone I knew, and artists took it from there. Every month, the book reaches more artists than I’ve worked with in ten years of workshops and programming. And it costs nothing to distribute.
(An artist I know who has a similar, not-free book has done 50 book talks all over the country and sold 4,000 books.)
There is so much great content about professional development out there. It’s been created by tax-advantaged, public grant dollars. So why not make it open source and free?
I’ve been blessed to connect with many great programs (you know I love you, Springboard for the Arts, ArtistINC, Creative Capital, GYST, Fresh Arts, et al). But now I want to move beyond programs and build a movement. A movement led by artists and that is exactly as diverse as our country. A movement with free, open-source tools that artists can use and share. A movement with ways for artists to self-enlist. A movement that understands what programs can and cannot do. A movement that interrogates how education, class, and race privilege impact the art world and artists (and how artists can make change).
We are going to put all of Artists U’s tools online for free: videos and podcasts, a downloadable workbook, and even – gasp – an app. We are going to work with any artist who wants use our tools (and other tools) to convene artists to look at building sustainable lives. We are going to gather those artist leaders together for a national conversation.
And all this can be yours for the low price of $0.