Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wealth Inequality in the US and the South Asian Performing Arts

We all know that wealth is currently a major issue in the US. We throw out terms such as "the gap between the rich and the poor are growing" and "1 percent" without knowing what it really means. Until I stumbled across this YouTube explanation. (Be patient, it is absolutely worth the 10 minutes of your time):

I was shocked at how bad the distribution really is - 50% of Americans struggling along the poverty line seems crazy to me. And another 30% of us floating just above it...

As artists, we constantly talk about "devaluation of the arts" and people not recognizing or appreciating or understanding the worth of our work.

But what if we are thinking about this all wrong? I keep talking about the devaluation of arts, like everyone else, the dying of classicism, etc - but what if its less that people don't appreciate it but simply don't have money to afford it? I am sure the answer is some mix of the two - but if 80% of Americans are making $40,000 or less - how on earth can you afford an arts program that regularly runs at the rate of $35 or more? Classes that can cost upwards of $60 for a private lesson?

Yet, here's the rub: you may say, well, artists should just charge less - but ask yourself this:

How much should a  person, amazing at what they do, touching hundreds of lives, in the private sector? How much should they make? Let us even begin with the premise that we as artists have made a choice to "do what we love" and thus, should earn less. What is this number now? $90,000 a year? Maybe the amount an average college professor makes? Not so bad right? How about $60,000 per year? That's an entry level starting analyst position at Goldman Sachs. The lowest rung. Still not horrible. Maybe you have a little savings now...

How about 50,000? Someone considered the best of the best? How's that? Not so great, considering at this rate most artists are now kind of scraping by, especially if you have a family to support and living near a city where the arts thrive.

But even that $50,000 mark is a long shot for even the best. Forget me as an example. I am definitely below the poverty line, but I am also a small business owner. So maybe this is what year 3 or 4 is supposed to look like. But I work with high level, in demand, critically acclaimed artists all the time. I know that many of the top earners are earning between $25,000 and $35,000 a year. This is absolutely insane to me.

You may say, we need to charge more, or we are not hitting the right economic notes, or maybe this is the market value of what the arts are worth. But I have now been watching the trends for three years. I think many students would agree at Navatman that our classes are worth more. But we price them on the cheap side to reach more arts lovers. Even then, the number of students who want to learn and have to scrape by with payment plans or volunteering is just astounding. It also shows me something about the arts - the want and need of everyone to participate in it and the lack of funds to do so.

So, I do not think the south asian arts are dying around the world because people don't care for the arts. I think they are dying because 90 percent of us are struggling to make ends meet and find a way to enjoy the theater at the same time. We must undervalue our shows, our classes, our booking fees, to try to provide people with a means to go, but at the same time this results in less food on the artists' plate.

When the best of the best are not paid well, the American dream becomes endangered.
So I truly believe our supply and demand system is broken. There's a finite amount of cash and with only 20 percent of the country being able to afford tickets and classes - when we need maybe 40 percent or 60 percent to do so, life becomes an impossibility on a micro level as a south asian performing artist, creating a complete lack of sustainability and a ridiculous amount of necessary patronage from those who do hold the wealth of this country.

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