I wrote a lot about the problem of ‘brain drain’ in the American theater for my masters thesis, this idea that the best and brightest artists pursue careers in television and film because theater pays too little, leaving behind a less talented group of artists who persist in the theater despite themselves. This problem is deeply sensitive to discuss and harder still to treat, since it’s a labor problem, a wage problem, a love problem…and the wage gap between live performance (even in union houses) and the money to be made in commercials, TV and film is just too enticing. Or law school. Or culinary school. How many former actors do we know?
But I also am starting to see this phenomenon among my arts administration peers. It’s not always about money, though suppressed wages across the sector don’t help. I certainly couldn’t raise a family on the salary that I have now. I can barely take care of myself. I am subsidizing my organization by working 15 hours a week more than they pay me to, and by taking outside work in order to support myself.
But I have also spent my career supporting, caring for and managing a variety of amazing artists who honestly drain the life right out of me. I feel like there is a ‘heart drain’ happening for me and for others I know. It’s not about money, it’s about having a “normal” job where there isn’t daily yelling, crying, acting out, expectations of mind reading, unclear goals and no planning. Since I am currently inspecting my life for codependency and finding it everywhere, I will diagnose many arts administrators as being deeply co-dependent with their jobs (and the other artists they work with). Since the show must go on, “no” never seems like a real option for me. I am working on Saturday night because all the four event managers who I usually have working at the space are busy. Hey, I should also be busy. But I make myself un-busy. Because “we” have to have “someone” at the show. We have to. There is no option otherwise, in my mind, and so I fall on my sword.
As you know, I spent a lot of this year considering alternate career paths that I could take once my unemployment crisis was over. Therapist keeps coming up for me, as does the idea of pursuing a PhD in organizational psychology, or perhaps organizational management in a business school context. I wish I could be a dentist, I would be a really great dentist. I wish I could work in philanthropy.
But really, I wish I could come to work and set boundaries and have those boundaries be respected. I wish I could be paid for my time. I wish I could have benefits. I wish I could pay my staff and the artists who work in my space enough so that they felt they were being well-compensated for their time. We are trying really hard to make all these things happen. This lament is not really related to my current position–I know what I signed up for. I agreed to this. But not forever, and not even for long.
But I worry that when I look back at my career in arts administration, it will be filled with ghosts, including my own, of people who used to work in the arts, but left. Maybe because of money, maybe because of how emotionally tiring it is. I know I fit into that second category. Being broke doesn’t really bother me, but chronically worrying about money, both my own and my organization’s, is draining in the extreme. Caring for, teaching, and handling artists is tiring. Trying to build a business is tiring. Navigating government grant websites is tiring. It grates, it grinds. Eventually, it breaks.
What’s the word I’m looking for here? Sisyphean? In French, it is “la lutte,” the struggle.
For me, I chose to do this work. I remember talking to an actor in Chicago one night at the bar, who told me that if I could do anything else with my life, I should, because being an actor was so horrible. But it was the only thing he “could do.” He had to act. He waited tables and was a temp, and we almost 30 when we had this conversation. He is still acting. Just like I am still working in arts administration, though my experience has taught me that it will not really ever get better.
The older you are, or the longer you work, the more control (or illusion of control) you might have in your work. But I meet so many people who are so burnt out that by the time they are in a position to manage, lead, set agendas, and make change, they are too tired and too bitter to really enact anything other than the abuse that was heaped upon them when they were young arts administrators.
I don’t know how to solve this problem, but I know that I have to keep fighting to do a great job at most things, and not to slack off. I contend that doing to a pretty damn good job at a lot of things isn’t hard, it just requires planning. So that’s what I am trying to do at work now. Plan, share information, try to foresee crises in advance so that I don’t get slapped in the face later down the line. It’s not going to be perfect, but holy lord help us, we’re going to get some cool stuff done.