Cultural Exploitation

Disparities Minimum Wage Workers
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            New Orleans       The term “starving artist” is a dependable piece of the vernacular; a linguistic matched set.  Unfortunately, cultural cachet doesn’t pay the rent.  For all of the emphasis on “arts and letters” and the millions of gallons of ink major media from the New York Times to the local TV and news outlets spend on such hype, too much of it turns out to enable unspoken hypocrisy.

Organizing careers are not well paid, especially when relying on membership dues from lower income families and workers.  A recent piece in the Times made us look like big spenders compared to what many fulltime theater workers make. I often refer to our “volunteer army” at ACORN and in noncommercial radio, but exploitation of interns and volunteers by many of deep-pocketed, cultural and theatrical institutions was shocking, even to me.

I should not have been surprised.  I have friends who have been on this grind for decades and supporting their passions with part-time and other gig work.  I thought they were the exception, but it turns out they are the rule.  Change may be coming.  Exposure through blogs Bills, Bills, Bills and newsletters like Nothing for the Group make it clear that $15 per hour needs to be as much the demand of these workers as it is for fast food fryers.  The article reported on the Theater Salaries Spreadsheet of 543 jobs where $10 an hour was closer to the norm than $15.

How do they get away with it at the same time their patrons are dressing to the nines to have their pictures taken in the local society pages?  In these high-class, shadow sweatshops, part of it seems to rely on volunteers and unpaid internships, although that may be changing.  I spent time in Williamstown, Massachusetts, though I never went to the highly prestigious Williamstown Theater Festival.   Thank goodness!  I was still indirectly embarrassed reading,

As recently as 2019, the festival produced seven highly professional shows during its eight-week season, four at the 173-seat Nikos theater and three, often featuring large ensembles and elaborate designs, at its 511-seat Mainstage…To fill that stage, and essentially build it, the festival depended on its corps of 70 apprentices, most of whom, far from being paid for their work, instead paid for the privilege: $4,250 for tuition, room and board. (At a slightly higher level of serfdom were 50 interns, who paid only $650, for housing.) The promised learning experience was delivered in the form of hands-on hard labor and the occasional tongue-lashing.

In fact, it’s even ironic to read this story in the Times, since they are certainly an enabler, as are many others that rarely look behind the curtain and regularly repeat the iconic “rags to riches”, waitress and nobody to stars, greasing the wheels of what now seems to clearly be an exploitative and predatory industry and business model.

Under pressure some, but not all, theaters are changing, and to do so, they are cutting the level of performances and offering to pay living wages.  In an increasingly unsustainable business model that appeals to the rich and highbrow, but that such donors and patrons may not be willing to support at a higher level, that also means fewer jobs and less opportunity for newbies to break in.

Not that most of us will notice to tell the truth.  For the most part, this isn’t culture that is meant for us, nor are we expected to support it, though often we find that our taxes do so, either directly or through subsidies, including for those same donors.  Maybe there’s a future for a peoples’ theater and arts, but that’s a different world than the one we’re dealing with now.  Either way, let’s hope change is coming here too in this movement moment.