Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Know Before Whom Thou Standest

Initially I was going to name this post "Who is working for Whom?", but for some reason I thought of the words on the wooden arch stretching across the ceiling of the sanctuary at the temple from my childhood, several thousand years ago in the ancient land of Lancaster. I would sit for hours and ponder my endless doubts of the concept of someone sitting high up above, looking down, and doing nothing.

It seems there's some confusion concerning where the power falls in the employee/employer relationship. While putting together the Amagansett Fine Arts Festival I can't help but feel that I'm taking on a new job, with no less than 40 or 50 new bosses, and all of this without any actual monetary compensation from any of them.

It seems that the great diaspora of all the foreign populations to this great melting pot of the United States comes with a deeply seated sense of independence. We celebrate the concept of independence oddly enough on the very weekend of the Amagansett Fine Arts Festival. We own our yard, and the fence around our yard that separates ours from all the others. We can't wait to get our driver's licence, to get out of our parents' home and make our own decisions and live our own lives and make our own mistakes. Our own place to live and our own job gives us the satisfaction of independence.

What is a job, without a boss, a task, a sense of sacrifice and duty and dedication? It's easy enough to say we work for our boss, for the company, in compensation for the paycheck. As long as there's someone else that might want our job, the boss can always consider us as the next tier down on the chain of servitude.

Enter the self-employed. Suddenly the concept of "who are you working for?" becomes more abstract. Working for a bank, for a mortgage company, for your bills, for the grocery store, all of these things become faceless versions of your "boss". When you take on assistants, you're now faced with the task of keeping them busy, and more importantly, paid. The people that are helping you wind up being the same people you're working for, to provide some sense of job security by thinking ahead to more than what you need, but with considerations for a much bigger picture that includes the people you hired. This notion of interdependence is probably the most binding factor for human communities.

The Amish are known to pull together and raise a barn so that one family can be a more intrinsically useful component to the financial support system of the entire community. In Thailand they have what's called "som nok boon koon", which is essentially an unspoken "favor bank". The perceived debt for favors given in good faith and generosity is what provides the foundation for respect among each person. In the modern world it's too easy to view the employer/employee relationship as some version of a caste system. Acquiring a position includes a sense of entitlement and privilege that didn't exist before, and the value of "earning" an advancement is the insulation it provides against the necessary respect and kindness that binds people of varying levels of opportunity together.

I've seen some art festivals grow and flourish through care and consideration, and festivals that are just vast and complex money machines. At what point does a show promoter stop thanking the artists that make an event? At what point does the financial venture of promotion overshadow consideration of the individual artists that make the event a reality?

Artists invest in an art festival as a marketing base. From one year to the next, the marketing base will grow and develop and mature. As long as an artist can understand this concept, each event will be nothing short of a plethora of opportunities. This investment in an art festival is crucial to the joint venture between the event promoter and the artists that support the event with their attendance (and more importantly, with their booth fee). An artist-friendly or artist-run event will always figure out ways to continue next year, in an agreement as binding as an unspoken debt between the members of a respectful community. No single artist would consider profiting from their fellow exhibitors, but instead would work together as a cooperative union of similar business interests to always consider future growth and prosperity.

Most artists like to whine. It's a sad fact, but every one of them (or I should say "us") will complain about some higher power that decides on their misfortune and discomfort. Maybe they should spend some time staring up at the ceiling of the sanctuary mentioned in the beginning of this entry. I can usually bring any conversation with artists to an awkward close by asking "What's the difference between puppies and artists?", and the answer "puppies eventually stop whining" usually gets a chuckle for the split second before realization of the subtle insult sinks in. Get over it, there's always something to whine about, but in the grand scope of things we're all living the life, enjoying the thrill of risk and reward, embracing our creativity and enjoying the vindication of our efforts as measured by the response of our audience.

It's up to us to make the most of what we have, and for me, the Amagansett Fine Arts Festival will be what I'm offering to a select group of artists as a grand vessel of opportunity.

Who am I working for? Obviously...every single one of these artists.