THOUGHTS Failure & generosity-1 (2012-09-June)
Here's a cool photo of the Famous Alebrije, as an advance door-prize for reading through this:
The foto is by CARLO OLMOS CARRILLO.
The Alebrije (google this if you don't know what they are) is by ELSA CRUZ.
I have wanted to write about this for a long time here. I wasn’t ready to until now. I think what made this moment happen was re-reading an extraordinary posting by Polly Carl, on the Howlround site (http://www.howlround.com/notes-on-generosity-in-the-theater-by-polly-carl/). I’d first read this over a year ago, when Tom Cott included a link to it in his wonderful You’ve Cott Mail clipping service, and I found it enormously moving and inspiring at that moment. Today, I was reminded of it for some reason and went looking for it. Re-read it, and understood it in a completely different and far more personal way. This is why:
My second commissioning and recording project, Canto de la Monarca: Mujeres en México / Song of the Monarch: Women in Mexico was more ambitious than the previous one, Rumor de Páramo / Murmurs from the Wasteland, a musical homage to landmark Mexican writer Juan Rulfo involving –over the course of its two recordings—23 composers from five countries and three generations. For Monarca, I planned a double CD, to avoid the unplanned second child phenomenon that happened with Rumor. I budgeted not only for a small salary for me (10,000 pesos per month, about US$900), but also for a real composer’s honorarium of 25,000 pesos (ca. US$2000) for each of the 17 composers. Rumor had paid a completely symbolic honorarium of 10,000 Mexican pesos. Based on my quite good fundraising success with Rumor, I had it all worked out that I would be able to raise the almost US$75,000 –of which the composer honoraria were $34,000-- through governments, foundations, and private individuals.
I was so wrong. I started fundraising for Monarca just at the time when the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression was hitting with full force. No government was interested in giving money to a project, however beautiful, especially one whose commissioning artist was not of its own country. It didn’t matter that I’d commissioned music from eminent composers of Brazil, Colombia, México, and Spain; as well as from my own two nations of México and the US. There was simply no money. There was no money from any government.
Undaunted, at the beginning of 2011 I decided to try my hand at crowd-funding. I did this first on a platform called Kickstarter, which in spite of not being the first of its kind seems to be the Most Famous. I did, I thought, all the stuff you are supposed to do: personal emails to people in my own community (those who responded were all Mexicans, not one single foreigner); personal emails to people in my fan-base; Tweeting and Facebooking like mad, all that stuff.
Kickstarter have an all-or-nothing philosophy. This meant that of the almost US$3500 that we raised, Monarca saw not one thin dime. Rubbing salt in the wound were the people who, in spite of me explaining it in every single blessed email, bulletin, etc, didn't get that if we didn't meet our goal their credit card wouldn't get charged; and when we mounted TWO new campaigns on IndieGoGo, never returned to donate. I mean, JIMINY.
The people who supported Monarca were, and are, the people who have always supported my projects: a relatively small group of folk who are mostly, although not exclusively, friends and admirers whom I know personally. The circle enlarged excitingly, though marginally, with some wonderful supporters here in México; but only a few. I kept Monarca going out of my own savings, which by the Spring of 2011 were almost gone.
All this time, all through the second half of 2009 and all of 2010, the music was wonderful. My time at the piano was incredibly rich, with the ten pieces whose World Première I was to perform in the 38th Festival Internacional Cervantino: Tomás Marco, Carlos Cruz de Castro, and Pilar Jurado (a cliff-hanger, this last, due to the important opera première she had in Madrid … but it arrived in time!); Charlie Griffin and Jack Fortner of the US; Silvia Berg of Brasil (as with Solo Rumores, one of the first composers to deliver and an extraordinary piece); Marcela Rodríguez and Horacio Uribe of México; Paul Barker of the UK; and Alba Potes of Colombia’s minimal and eloquent work.
There was going to be a Board of Friends, which would shoulder the major fundraising work. This didn’t work out. It was not a failure, but it was a fairly mediocre first try; mostly, I guess, because I really had no idea of how to do that properly. So my producer was working on fundraising. She is an excellent producer but fundraising was not even remotely part of her job description. Meanwhile, because she was working so hard on looking for support, she couldn’t spend time working on concert bookings, so I wasn’t making any money. WHAT A MESS!!!
Monarca had become a crushing, Sisyphean burden. Increasingly, in the Spring of 2011, I realized that I was Depressed. Every time I thought about the non-music part of Monarca I had the urge to weep, and sometimes did. I started waking up with a recurring nightmare of being tortured by unknown people in the middle of a wasteland where no one cared about me or would rescue me.
I felt angry, deeply and personally and reactively angry, at people who I knew could easily afford to support Monarca with US$500, and who gave only $25, or didn’t even respond to my personal emails. This was highlighted by contributions from México of US$100, where –for example—my niece as a fresh-out of law school considers herself lucky to be making 6,000 pesos a month, about 500 US greenbacks. I started to feel bitter, as in Oh, this is how much these people really appreciate my work When Push Comes To Shove.
And all of this was starting to affect me at the piano. It was also affecting me as a person, which I suppose is another way of saying the same thing. I was beginning to look at everyone I met in terms of how much money he or she might be worth to Monarca. I am neither depressive nor reactively angry, nor given to nightmares, and least of all given to sizing up people in terms of their Net Worth. None of this was Cervantes, or at least the Cervantes I want to be.
At the same time as all this was happening inside me personally, the Philadelphia –the first US orchestra to play in China!-- was filing for bankruptcy. As the crisis spread its terrifying stain practically all over the globe, arts organizations and Arts Councils all over the US, as well as in other countries, were frantically trying to justify their existence in the terms dictated by the World of Business and Finance. A world which says, basically, that it is perfectly fine, in fact recommendable, to size up every new person you meet in terms of his or her net worth to your particular project. Which said, better yet, that the vilest deceit and trickery were perfectly fine as long as you made tons of money and didn’t get caught.
Sorry, but every molecule of my soul rejects this way of thinking about art, in fact finds it a detestable way of thinking about anything.
Of course, arts organizations in the US had been doing this for years: contorting themselves completely out of shape, pretending to be something they aren’t and never aspired to be. I don’t mean the vile trickery part, I mean the part that says your art has no use unless it fits into a model in which, for example, everything is measurable. A great deal of we do is simply impossible to measure, at least with the tools we have. Yes, you can measure whether a child is physically malnourished, and argue convincingly that she learns below par because of that. How do you measure the malnourishment of the soul? Yet we know that it exists: high teen pregnancy rates and gang violence are, to my mind, incontrovertible proof. I would go further and argue that the vile trickery of the Business and Financial world, as well as the lack of firm legislation to put a stop to it, is another symptom of spiritual malnourishment.
This sort of business model, even if it is good for Business In General (which I doubt) is totally inappropriate for the arts. It is a terrible mistake for art to somehow buy into this model, give it legitimacy, by trying to design itself according to these guidelines. It is, in fact, art which has the only chance of educating the people in these other spheres, which must help them to have soul and to become rich in other ways which they have never been educated to imagine.
I have felt for some time that vast numbers of people in the US are fundamentally amputated from art. The argument is made that they themselves choose this. I don’t buy that. If they choose it, it’s because most people there are subjected 28 hours a day to a set of pseudo-values so twisted that many of them choose things that are really bad for them; rather like one of those dreadful auto-immune system diseases where the body attacks itself. Watching more than three hours a day of television, for example, which is known to cause depression. You can bet that wouldn’t happen if they were listening to Puccini or to Amanda Palmer three hours a day.
The way Kickstarter is designed seems to me evidence of that amputation from art. People are hungry for art, and hungry to feel they are stakeholders in it. At the same time, they’re so dumbed-down by that disconnection from art that the only way they can imagine getting involved is through this bizarre TV game-show mechanism which is totally gladiatorial.
Would I feel this way if I’d been able to raise some significant amount of money on Kickstarter? It’s a good question. Maybe not … but I am 99% sure I’d still feel that there was something radically out of kilter with the whole business.
OK, back to Monarca. I understood intellectually that The Crisis was the problem, and not me, but I still felt terribly responsible. I felt like a failure. I had designed this project and offered the composers a decent fee for the pieces I’d asked for … and now I couldn’t come through.
I was still capable of rational thought, thanks to my work at the piano. I realized that half the project’s budget was the composer honoraria. Asking myself what the priorities were, the answer was to GET THIS MUSIC OUT THERE. So, I should abandon the composer honoraria, and concentrate on raising the money to record one CD first, and then the next, later, when I could Raise More Money. The mere thought of presenting this idea to the 17 composers was agonizing, but I could see no other way. I figured that they would prefer a happy and healthy Cervantes, playing their wonderful Monarca pieces all over the world and with their beautiful pieces on a brand new CD, to a pitiful depressed Cervantes with nothing to show for all this pain and suffering.
The last straw was running into L***, a woman here who loves my work and has been a constant source of wisdom and humour for me, every single time I see her. She was walking up, and I down; and when she asked me how I was, I burst into tears. I said, with terrible anguish, that the only way out I could see was to not pay the composers their honoraria. So do it, she said, they know you and love you and respect you. I am betting that not only will not only not hate you, they will be grateful that you persevere and record their pieces. You’ll see.
I consulted, finally, with A***, also wise, rigorous and compassionate. She said something very important: No fue el momento, It was not the moment. More than six months later I would understand just how wise that was.
So I wrote to the composers, as concise an email as possible, in Spanish and in English; still feeling like a failure as I recited these terrible facts. That Monarca could not pay the composer honoraria, that in my view the priority was to raise the money to make the first CD and record it; and then raise the money to make the second one and record that. I said that if anyone wanted to take back his or her piece I would be sad, but I would understand.
Almost every single composer –except the ones who never respond unless your subject line says YOUR HOUSE IS BURNING DOWN- wrote back and said things like, “I wish more interpreters were like you” or “if I were Minister for Culture you would have a lifetime stipend” or “don’t worry, I have another grant, I’m covered”. The worse response was something along the lines of “Bad news, but not unexpected”.
Tears of gratitude.
So what did I learn (my perennial question)? OK, here goes, it was a lot:
Know thyself: I had to recognize –Yet Again—that I am simply not an arena rock sort of performer. I do best in smaller halls, where I can really talk to my listeners, and even better, talk WITH them. So, by extension, I am probably not a Crowdfunding Gal. I knew this. I fell into the very trap that at that very moment was entrapping colleagues and arts organizations. So therefore,
To thine own self be true: and thus, speak truth to power. I never thought I’d say this again after 1990, but I swear never again to Fake It.
… doesn’t seem like a lot? But it is. It’s at the core of everything.
At least a month after all this happened, I came back with Estrella my blonde dog from an afternoon walk and it suddenly popped into my head: WHY do you feel like a failure? Well, I responded, because I couldn’t fundraise. Hmmm, said that little voice, How can you be a failure at something you don’t even DO? And I realized: I play the piano. I am not a professional fundraiser. I am not a failure. It was one of those Epiphany Moments.
So what was it about Polly Carl’s blog posting that made this finally come out? It was her Observation #6, and I quote: “Get over the myth of entitlement. No one owes you anything in this business or in life. The surest way to feeling victimized is to feel owed and to feel owed is to be at a deficit. Deficits leave you with nothing to give.”
That was how I was. Feeling victimized. With a deficit. I couldn’t see it that way a year ago, because I was in the middle of the nightmares and all. That narrow way of seeing the world leaves you with a permanent deficit.
This is, in fact, one of the reasons we Need Art. I mean, artists need it too! When we get detached from what we really do, and start contorting ourselves into something we’re not –and which furthermore is a pretty questionable thing in my view— we get malnourished. So we must apply that generosity to ourselves as well.
The moment. The moment came some eight months later, as I undertook the work of a rather significant grant application to the FONCA (National Foundation for Culture and the Arts) here in México. Sort of like a Mexican MacArthur grant, except that you can actually apply for it. My project is to finish the second Monarca CD and spend three years just performing, bringing this splendid Rumor and Monarca music to audiences all over the world; by itself and in mixed programs where I put it into dialogue with pieces from the classic repertoire. Classes, lectures, concert-conversations, all the stuff I do. It is time to lay down this crushing administrative burden and do what I was born to do: play the piano for as many people as possible.
This process required me to pull together my entire professional life, in effect, from that very first solo recital when I was 14 years old. Every press clipping, every review, every concert program. It galvanized me into doing concert bookings, and the response from presenters has been heartwarming and enthusiastic. My three-year calendar of projected activity is a full one. Now is the moment. The moment is now.
The Business-Enabled among you will surely ask, Yes, but the funding? How will you get THE MONEY?? And I will answer: I don’t know. But it will happen. The moment is now.