OPINION: The ‘starving artist’ was all too normal before the pandemic. Let’s not repeat that toxic trope.

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Kennita Hickman writes: “We’re willing to consume the art without considering the creators.” (Photo by Sue Vliet)

As much as I’d like to hope that we’re all thinking about a “new normal,” I don’t know if that’s everyone’s truth. Some folks are so afraid to change that whatever we did and whoever we were prior to March 2020 is a welcome return.

It’s like returning to an ex. Sometimes the joy of creating a new normal is so scary, we accept that which is comfortable. Not because it’s best for us. Rather because it gives us a false feeling of safety.

As we move into this new space, I think about how unwell I was prior to the pandemic. Overworked. Tired of traveling to meetings throughout the day. I believed this was normal, that this was the way to build a sustainable career in the creative arts as an entrepreneur.

A New Way Forward

A New Way Forward

This is the fourth in a series of “Community Voices” that invites our neighbors to share what they’ve learned during the pandemic and their visions for a better Milwaukee.

When I was asked to write this piece, I thought of the things I talk about all the time:

•the importance of a standard wage for artists across disciplines

•artists being able to establish rates for their work

•the need for a pipeline to help artists build brands in Milwaukee and a pipeline to help interested artists expand beyond

•the need for an ecosystem with a culture of engaging and consuming Milwaukee-based art

You know, all the things.

But I don’t think we’re ready for those advanced steps because we don’t view artists as workers.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of artists over my 22 years in Milwaukee’s creative community. Before the pandemic, many artists struggled to maintain basic necessities while bartending at your local dive bar and using whatever money they had leftover to practice their art.

The “starving artist” trope was accepted by both artists and consumers of art as normal. It shouldn’t have been normal.

Then, the pandemic hit. I know artists who saw their hospitality job disappear. The fallback that allowed them to piece together hours just to make rent was no longer an option.

I know artists whose livelihood was built around engaging in person via live performances or gallery nights and who struggled to transition to selling online. Their finances suffered.

I know artists who simply left Milwaukee and their craft because they were barely hanging on in “normal” times.

The pandemic eviscerated a system that wasn’t all that functional to begin with.

Artists need to be able to live. Period.

We have to stop asking musicians to accept a portion of the cash made by the bar, versus just paying a fee. We have to stop asking caterers of the global majority for discounts. We have to stop paying videographers and photographers 30, 60 or even 90 days after they finish a job. Imagine me going to McDonald’s and saying, “Yes, I’d like a four-piece chicken nugget and french fries with tartar sauce. Also, I’ll be back to pay you three months from now.”

I was aghast when one of my contractors through my small business Catera mentioned that this is standard practice. As a result, creatives are waiting on checks. Waiting. On. Checks. For services that have already been rendered.

I remember once I had a boss who forgot to submit our checks over the holiday break. I can assure you, my landlord cared not. I needed to find that money.

I co-moderated an “On the Table” panel in 2020. During this conversation, visual artist Rosy Petri shared a memorable idea that I’ll paraphrase: “If people don’t see the value of art, they should consider how they’ve spent their time during the pandemic. You watched Netflix. You read books. You enjoyed a podcast. You engaged in art.”

As I write, I just finished listening to Milwaukee-based musicians. I own four original art pieces from Milwaukee-based artists, all purchased during the quarantine. This article and news outlet, in fact, are created by Milwaukee-based people. See? You, the reader, engage in Milwaukee-based media, too.

We’re willing to consume the art without considering the creators. While ignoring the physical labor that creates that art. Yes, that includes our independent artists, too.

Art is labor. It’s work. Artists are workers. This is especially true for artists of the global majority.*

So what can we do?

My recommendation is to center artists of the global majority. Always. I believe when folks of the global majority are taken care of, we all benefit. The converse is not true. We know this because the converse is the normal we’re running back to.

Here are some of my suggestions.

Can we stop prefacing “artist” with “local?” In my experience, when I’ve used the term “local artist,” people hear “artist inferior to my favorite national artist.” Let’s move to using “Milwaukee-based.” Milwaukee-based implies choice — the artist is choosing to share their talents here.

For community members, you might be surprised to learn what a share on social media can do for small businesses and independent creators of art. Perhaps you don’t have the funds to purchase a local book or an art piece, but a social media share is free. For every share you post from your favorite influencer, consider sharing two Milwaukee-based artists.

For those who are able, buy Milwaukee-based as much as you can. There are a lot of Milwaukee-based artisans, especially artisans of the global majority. Buy Milwaukee-based. Buy from small businesses. Do it often.

For arts organizations and arts institutions, you are community members first. So please see above. Next, are you providing space for your staff of the global majority to really lead in innovative ways? In ways that solve the problems they’re telling you exist? Does your hiring match the populations of folks you serve? Your role is to create a safe, brave space for this to happen and then follow their lead. We know the way.

When I managed musicians, there were no funding sources for us to tour. There was no branding company. There was no accessible company generating press for independent musicians. In larger markets, these opportunities exist. Milwaukee needs more funding resources for artists who are not visual artists. This means podcasters, culinary artists, authors, musicians, small theater companies, dancers and film. So if you have access to money, create a fund. If you manage a fund, can you find ways to support artists in other disciplines?

We all have a role to play in creating a more equitable arts community that supports artists of the global majority. Our failure to do our part with urgency leaves us stuck in 2020. I think we can all agree, 2020 was trash.

Let’s do better.

Our Milwaukee-based creatives deserve it, especially our creatives of the global majority.

*I prefer to use “people of the global majority,” rather than the term “BIPOC.” While some folks use them interchangeably, I see this term being more representative of our place globally.

Kennita Hickman is a cultural and music writer, entrepreneur and health enthusiast.

Editor’s note: Have something on your mind? “Community Voices” is the place to let Milwaukee hear what you have to say. To be considered, we need your name, email address and phone number for verification. Please email your submissions to info@milwaukeenns.org.

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