I have found that surviving as an artist in our free market world is a life-long challenge. To make sense of it I have to resolve two questions for myself: What is an artist’s responsibility to her/his community? What is a community’s responsibility to its artists?
In June of 1976, I sat on the steps of Northrop Auditorium, a BA freshly in hand, wondering what to do next. I decided “Just keep dancing, and see what happens.” By most measures, other than financial, I made a great choice. My relationship with my communities has grown to be rich and complex. One example: I have found myself at times in a sort of sacred clown role, sought out to speak truth to power. This came about as a confluence of many factors: the culture wars, Act Up, my network, my expanding opportunities nationally and internationally, and my activism around gay and HIV issues. I cherish this role.
Looking back, I realize that my life as an artist began with the never ending process of developing my artistic voice, the tools to express myself. At some point my evolving voice started to emerge. So I had to find something to say. Much of my work is autobiographical, this means diving deeply, intimately, to discover my personal truths. Then I wrestle and play with the material to understand it. Next I find the courage to start to share it with the world. Through this process I trust that by daring to be unflinchingly personal, I can approach being universal.
My responsibility to my community — if I want them to recognize me as an artist — is to develop my voice and have something to say.
What is a community’s responsibility to its artists? Ideally an artist is supported by her/his community. In our free market society this presents a big challenge; how do I develop my community so that it can and will sustain me? I don’t get to unilaterally decide that the planet, or the USA, or Minneapolis, or the gay community is my community and owes me a living as an artist. Sadly, having a career in which my sole financial support comes from working as an artist has grown increasingly problematic over the decades. It’s easier to support myself as an arts administrator than as an artist, but I have found over time that I can’t sustain my artistic energies if I do too much admin.
What would it mean if we assumed that a successful artist is supported by the community in which she/he lives? Nearly twenty years ago I was an artist advisor to the National Performance Network (NPN). At a meeting it occurred to me that we were all working on an unspoken assumption – that a successful performing artist would tour a lot. I challenged this assumption. Touring should be optional; I tour when it is attractive to me. Can I generate a sustainable income within my community/ies?
I have never had very much money, yet I have always had enough. But, financially, I am concerned. Along my artistic path, I have not found a way to build a nest egg for old age. Approaching 60 my biggest concerns are making sure that I keep my health insurance, and fearing that if I became unable to provide for myself, that the Franklin Avenue Bridge might seem like the best option.
This of course leads to a larger political problem, not unique to the arts. I don’t get to unilaterally decide that the planet, or the USA, or Minneapolis owes me anything as an old person, but we could decide as a nation to care for the elderly. Let’s revisit that, including its implications for artists, another time.
In the meantime, it would be a luxury to only have to create art. If I want financial support, I also have to engage with my community/ies, as an artist, developing social contracts with those who recognize the value of my voice. Let’s also revisit what those contracts can be another time.
Patrick Scully took his first dance classes forty years ago as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. He has worked as an activist and performing artist across a range of settings and countries in a variety of disciplines, including founding Patrick’s Cabaret.