Toward A More Artistic European Union

As promised, I am following up on Monday’s post about about the first European Union (EU) wide survey of performing arts.

I wanted to note some of the recommendations made in the study. One of the most significant was to facilitate employment opportunities across the entire EU. The study noted that every country focused on their national performing arts entities.  Additionally, Covid restrictions have delayed the training and opportunities for younger artists to gain practical experience.

Among their proposals are to create more opportunities for artists to work across borders:

To address these concerns, the study calls for theatres around Europe to create so-called ‘third spaces’ at venues to support young artists.

Such a space would connect with theatre schools and academies to programme the work and support young artists to enter the professional theatre scene after graduating.

Similarly, the study suggests creating a ‘European Theatre Showcase’, potentially as an element added on to the European Theatre Forum, to offer a long-term perspective and provide the next generation of young artists from Europe a “much-needed industry networking space.”

Something that caught my eye were multiple statements that seemed to indicate a stark separation of interaction and dialogue between schools and training programs and performing arts venues. It hadn’t occurred to me that this might be the case given that universities can often be among the most prominent producers and presenters of performing arts in the U.S. (Association of Performing Arts Professionals which is essentially the national conference for presenters started out as Association of College, University and Community Arts Administrators (ACUCAA)) Among the proposals in this area were in regard to moving toward common standards of training and accreditation so that students were more easily employed in other countries.

Other proposals to facilitate cross-border employment included amending tax laws which often double-taxed artists; addressing sexual harassment, work environment, gender and racial disparities; mainstreaming the employment and depiction of sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental ability.

Another section discussed funding sustainable construction/renovation and practices with an eye to cutting energy consumption and impact on the environment.

It was interesting to read about all the factors that need to be navigated and sorted out among EU countries. Differences regarding discrimination, harassment and social standing of arts wasn’t particularly surprising. Nor was the idea that most countries focused on supporting their national arts entities.

There were many more administrative and legal hurdles noted than I imagined. If you have ever visited a European country and watched people breezing through the exit for citizens of Schengen Area countries while you queue up to be examined at customs, it is easy to think all these issues had been long settled.

More Europe Performing Arts Orgs During Covid

Last week German arts administrator Rainer Glaap made a Facebook post linking to the first ever study of theatres across the European Union (EU).  Additionally, some of the survey participants were non-EU members of the Creative Europe program.  Readers may recall I had made a number of posts looking at how various governments across Europe were providing financial support to artists during the height of the Covid pandemic.  So I was interested in seeing what this report had to say.

One of the biggest difficulties faced in putting the study together was all the differences that exist between European countries in terms of number of theatre, definitions of performing arts activities, funding policies, training practices, etc. There were numerous times the report noted the difficulty in making and apples to apples comparison.

However, there were a number of interesting things I pulled from the report. For instance, apparently France and Germany are the primary models for presenting/touring versus producing.

The so-called ‘French oriented system’ is based on productions, touring and selling plays to other venues making international co-production easier to fit in a programme. In a ‘German oriented system’ whereby theatres operate as production houses with in-house established ensembles, international co-production is less natural since the programme is set for the season.

Since the degree to which European governments subsidize the arts is a frequent topic of conversation in the U.S., having a EU-wide report on this number is obviously of some interest (recall this is an average from 39 participating countries):

“ticket sales in public funded theatres usually amounts to about 25% of the theatre budget. Commercially-oriented private theatres and independent companies however rely mostly on revenues generated from the box office and other commercial activities. Among the surveyed private theatre venues and companies, revenue from sales (tickets, admissions) constituted around 40% of their budgets before the COVID-19 pandemic.”

During Covid, many of the measures taken in European countries were similar to those in the U.S. Many shifted to streamed live or archived performances, with results ranging from innovative to downright disappointing. Others found ways to perform in outdoor or non-traditional spaces. Companies in a number of countries started working with hospitals, retirement homes, schools and universities to offer performances. Some organizations experimented with the drive-in theatre experience where people remained in their cars. There was an account of a festival in France which replaced the cancelled Avignon Festival which provided press exposure to smaller arts organizations which normally wouldn’t get it and apparently enabled the organizer, Theatre 14 to reach audiences not used to attending theatre. I am not sure how it was organized to encourage that. I assumed it might be outdoors in public spaces, but it appears the performances were held in physical performance spaces.

There were examples of efforts to provide better support for artists, both in terms of government policy:

Good practices are emerging, such as negotiating a minimum wage for artistic work in the theatre, also for people working on other terms than an employment contract e.g. in Austria or Finland. In some countries, such as Poland, new legal acts and wide-ranging regulations are created to support this professional group. In Belgium, the situation of artists resulting from the pandemic pushed the creation of a new type of ‘fair trade’ contract, in order to improve the contractual relations between artists and cultural operators. As a result of such a contract, a play can either be postponed or cancelled, but in the latter case part of the fees must be paid to the artists.

[…]

….The project was funded via the European Commission’s DG Employment and Social Affairs budget line for Information and Training Measures for Workers’ Organisations. It helped the unions to train and put in place a strategy in relation to organising, with a focus on freelance, self-employed and otherwise atypical workers in the Media Arts and Entertainment sectors.”83

As well as acts of solidarity:

Nau Ivanow, a cultural residence space in Spain that has a venue, decided that all income from ticket sales during the COVID-19 pandemic will be given to the performing companies and artists.
Also, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic they decided to offer their two rehearsal spaces for free for the interested artists/companies.

[..]

Some of the [Romanian] public cultural institutions (National Dance Centre, National Heritage Institute, Clujean Cultural Centre, National Museum Complex ASTRA Sibiu, Studio M Theatre in Sfantu Gheorghe) announced that they did not attend this funding session in order to show their solidarity with the independent cultural operators, whose resources have been drastically diminished, and who were less eligible for support than state funded institutions.

The report also made some recommendations for the future which I will probably cover in my post tomorrow.

Encouraging Signs In Theatre Internship Programs

American Theatre had some encouraging news about a trend to improve summer theatre internship programs.  The need for this was seen last year as interns and other staff were walking off the job at some of the most prestigious gigs in the country.  A number of theatres are focused on making the experience more accessible, shifting from models where interns paid to participate to ones where they received pay as well as travel and housing.

Some programs are moving away from the premise that interns are a source of cheap labor and have redesigned the experience to focus on providing career training, networking and mentorship.

Gersten seems genuinely interested in providing hands-on experiences that are of primary benefit to the intern; the new program, she said, “doesn’t require their labor but does allow them to get hands-on experience. And the program combines time in an experiential setting as well as classroom time.”

Others have redesigned the application review process to allow for the selection of more diverse intern pools.

At New York Stage and Film, the application process itself has been democratized. Instead of one or two higher-ups reading applications, the company has “invited last year’s artists and staff to participate in the first round of going through applications, and of course they’re paid for each application they look at,” said Burney. He observed that this new process has “shifted the way people have access to our company” and “provided a deeper sense of belonging to the company” for its existing members.

Rosie Brownlow-Calkin who wrote the American Theatre piece notes that implementing these practices is something of a double-edged sword. The increased cost of providing a better experience means that fewer people are accepted to these programs. In some cases, this is a good thing because it allows for more one on one interaction with working professionals and hands-on experience on more meaningful projects. However, it also means fewer people are able to participate in what is viewed as an important career building experience.

Additionally, many of the organizations interviewed for the article note that federal Covid relief funding has provided for the existence of these improved intern programs. There is a very real sense that the quality of these experiences, if not the entire internship program, may be in jeopardy once those funds run out. When asked how they intended to sustain their internship programs, two of the organizations interviewed said they would ask their donors for more money which doesn’t seem to be a very concrete plan.

The fairness of these programs has been a common topic for my posts, so I am glad to see that theatres are giving serious consideration to the design of their internship programs. There is obviously more work to be done. Decisions related to these programs will be among the many needing to be addressed as arts organizations confront existential challenges of the next normal.

Finally, Some Details About Artistic Practice Informing Scientific Genius

We often hear about how scientific geniuses had an arts related hobby that contributed to their process, (Einstein and his violin are mentioned a lot), but we rarely get any detailed insight into how that artistic element factored in. Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily, I came across an article in Quanta Magazine about June Huh who had dropped out of high school to become a poet and just recently received the Fields Medal for his work in mathematics.

I will just say from the outset that poetry doesn’t figure heavily into his current practice. He admitted that he like the idea of being known as a famous poet, but wasn’t too excited about the process of writing famous poetry.  Just the same, as a youth, he was terrible at math and cheated outrageously on all the math work his father gave him.

Ultimately though, the interest in poetry has informed his work in mathematics:

That poetic detour has since proved crucial to his mathematical breakthroughs. His artistry, according to his colleagues, is evident in the way he uncovers those just-right objects at the center of his work, and in the way he seeks a deeper significance in everything he does. “Mathematicians are a lot like artists in that really we’re looking for beauty,” said Federico Ardila-Mantilla,…

“When I found out that he came to mathematics after poetry, I’m like, OK, this makes sense to me,” Ardila added.

He has a strict schedule of devoting three hours a day to focused work. However, he finds he can’t dictate the subject he will focus on:

To hear him tell it, he doesn’t usually have much control over what he decides to focus on in those three hours. For a few months in the spring of 2019, all he did was read. He felt an urge to revisit books he’d first encountered when he was younger — including Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and several novels by the German author Hermann Hesse — so that’s what he did. “Which means I didn’t do any work,” Huh said. “So that’s kind of a problem.”…

He finds that forcing himself to do something or defining a specific goal — even for something he enjoys — never works. It’s particularly difficult for him to move his attention from one thing to another. “I think intention and willpower … are highly overrated,” he said. “You rarely achieve anything with those things.”

Those last two sentences may provide a bit of insight and guidance. Advice to artists, especially writers, is to set aside a specific amount of time a day you will devote to your work. Instead of specific project, better advice might be to devote three hours to focused work without tying it to a specific project with the idea it may manifest in your work at a later date.

Reading the piece, it is clear that his mind operates differently than most people’s. Professors in his graduate program describe him as operating on such a high level, it was if he were a colleague rather than a graduate student. But another colleague said after talking to him about some simple calculus problems, he doubted Huh could pass a qualifying exam until he realized Huh was meticulously comprehending the fundamentals at a depth of understanding he would apply later.

The article is worth a read and is very engaging, if only to help get past attributing greater virtue to those who have reached a higher level of achievement. Huh clearly possess an immense intellect, but is also as flawed as anyone with some quirks he has had to overcome in order to be a good partner and parent.