Outsourcing Creativity To The Rich?

Newsweek recently had a short piece on the increase of Pro-Ams, though that isn’t what they called it. I don’t know that there has been a precipitous increase in the rate at which people are engaging in these activities since I wrote about it two years ago, though I would grant that it probably has since I first wrote about it four years back. I felt like they were just playing catch up on how things were developing. And not very well, either.

One of the reasons I didn’t post yesterday was because I was doing a lot of reading of other blog posts. Among them was an excellent series of posts by Ian David Moss on the Pro Am subject (h/t to Adam at The Mission Paradox). The post itself make a good argument, but his “Further Reading” links at the bottom really expound upon his point.

That point, summarized too simply in the face of many well-constructed discussions of the subject, is that as people acquire competence and are willing to perform a task for less money, or have the resources where they don’t care about their losses, starving artists ended up starving more.

It seems the age old narrative of the threat to employment coming from poor immigrants or residents of foreign countries who are willing to work more cheaply than Americans is being rewritten a little to include people who are wealthy enough or have enough leisure time. Moss mentions amateur wine makers who essentially knocked the profitability out of high end wines by accepting lower margins. But the same factors are at work when families support students through their low/no paying internships allowing them to gain valuable experience and often cachet of working for prestigious companies.

Though they didn’t refer to these things directly, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription) piece I referenced four years ago, Bill Ivey and Steven Tepper did suggest that money and opportunity were going to divide those who had a variety of cultural choices from those whose choices were tightly limited.

One of the reasons economic forecasters say that the next phase of the economy will emphasize creativity is that creativity can’t be outsourced. That may be true, but as I read these blog posts, it didn’t take long to realize that it can be underbid and even crowdsourced. If you are going to be competitive in the coming economy, your are apparently going to have to get creative about being creative.

Just as today, those who can make a living in the arts are going to have to possess skills and vision beyond that of the average person. The bar is getting raised.

While I won’t deny the reality of this situation and am concerned, I guess I have a more optimistic view over the long term. I imagine it is because my facility does a pretty active business renting out to community groups. I am using some of the proceeds from rentals to support the presenting side of things so I see a lot of it as beneficial.

I will freely admit but for the support of family and friends, the quality of the work produced often wouldn’t garner much attention. Those I interact with are not necessarily moving us toward some Pro-Am utopia. There are a lot of erroneous beliefs about how simple things are to accomplish because they benefit from the efforts of professionals with Master’s degrees, additional training, long professional experience and hearts of gold.

While I agree that an increase in Pro-Ams will glut the marketplace, over the long term my hope is that amateur participation will increase appreciation for the arts and the effort that goes into them. Some will keep at it, but eventually many people are going to realize they can’t make a living doing the art for nothing and scale back. Even if they are replaced by younger folks, they will hopefully retain an interest in the areas they had invested themselves.

The complicating factor is that these Pro-Ams are likely to contribute to changing the whole game. They may not be content to do things as they have always been done and will create new standards for what live performances look like. So we may all still be in danger of losing our present jobs even as a resurgence of interest in dance, music and theatre emerges 15-20 years down the road when younger folks today approach their 40s. Which at least these days is an age where people start to re-engage with the arts.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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