If this piece seems a little more polished than usual, that’s because it is! I wrote this with editorial oversight from a dear friend and occasional colleague. Earlier this year he approached me with the topic “denial as a strategy for working in the arts” and asked me to write a piece for an upcoming trade magazine. The magazine’s launch date was delayed back in May and is now postponed until next January so I decided to share it here while it’s still relevant. Enjoy!
The Denial Generation
I am a Millennial, the generation that set out on our professional lives saddled by staggering student loan debt just as the world’s bedrock financial institutions slid into bankruptcies, bailouts, and acquisitions. Given this harsh start, we are a uniquely optimistic bunch, our idealism burnished by perhaps unprecedented levels of denial. Intellectually, it’s clear that the game — and the country — has changed completely during our lifetime, but we ignore these shifts because the rules by which we were taught to play are from a different era. Our post–September 11, post–Great Recession America is nothing like it was just a couple of presidencies ago, yet we deny that this is not the country we were promised. In the face of so many uncertainties — from Social Security and retirement, to housing markets and the very question of whether there will continue to be a National Endowment for the Arts — we bury ourselves ever further into denial just to show up for a job in the arts.
Anyone like myself who has ever looked someone in the eye and said, “Why, yes, I am really majoring in clarinet performance,” must be well rehearsed in denial (pun intended). The foolhearted who answer the call of a less-traditional career path must cling to it for dear life, but to what end? Especially in the increasingly expensive Bay Area, what makes being an arts professional worth the turmoil?
The arts transform communities, boost the economy, increase cultural understanding and build empathy — all things that are good and valuable to society, and the Millennial Denial Generation has proven to be nothing if not extra-devoted to the causes it cares about. We are uniquely resourceful, bringing change through new channels such as crowdfunding and horizontal problem solving. Having been born during one of history’s greatest technological explosions and growing up with social media has given Millennials agency to disseminate and value their own voices. Yet it is precisely the ease with which our perspectives get amplified, combined with our collective denial, that make us believe we have more power than we actually might. Still, in the face of an overwhelming number of problems that have been handed down to us by previous generations, believing we have power is better than the alternative. To quote the Millennial patron saint Beyoncé: Lemonade, ya’ll.
Seriously, though, despite our hopefulness and uninhibited idealism, conversations about sustainability are practically part of my weekly routine as my peers and I poke our heads out of the sand to ask, “Is there still room for the arts?” Polls show 46 percent of Millennials want to leave the Bay Area in the near future, and as I advance in both my career and age, I find that denial isn’t serving me as it once did in calming my anxieties.
I get it — it’s not easy for nonprofit arts organizations to pay a competitive living wage. But neither is sacrificing the desire for employer-provided health insurance, retirement savings, or to live comfortably in this region. The hard truth is we are caught in a catch-22: If the nonprofit arts were to offer salaries and benefits comparable to the for-profit sector, then most would go under — leaving only the very well-funded symphonies, ballets, operas, and major museums. While this would be beneficial in preserving the Western hegemony, it goes against the inclusivity and diversity that sparked my passion for the arts in the first place.
So, is the ostrich approach the only answer? With nonprofits resorting more frequently to telecommuting to retain their staff members (even at the expense of organizational culture) and arts professionals sacrificing long-term goals and independence to remain in positions they convince themselves they are lucky to have at all, there has to be a better way.
This could be my optimistic denial talking, but I believe in this generation and this sector to come up with a new set of strategies for this changed America. Who better to redefine the workplace and culture of the arts than the generation that donates more of its time and money than any other? With one-third of Millennials actively seeking professional development outside of their job and 88 percent willing to personally invest in their own training, this is clearly a workforce devoted to the arts and dedicated to adapting to the game.
Artists have always been innovators, so it’s time to innovate the end of our denial. What would it look like if we could talk honestly and realistically about the challenges our sector faces while still recognizing all that it has to offer? Who would we be as arts professionals if we did not just ignore the real problems we create for the sector as a whole when we accept too little for ourselves? History has taught us that the resiliency and ingenuity of the arts is not to be ignored. Our denial may have served us well to get us to this point, but we better snap out of it if we want real change.