What I Wouldn't Do For Money

Twin Cities artists draw the line

Wendy Knox: For many years, I have gathered for a biennial Thanksgiving with two of my oldest friends. We came of age together in college, then headed off in our various directions.

The Golden Boy of the Drama Department found himself on the circuit of regional theater, Shakespearean festivals, a soap opera, and several small films--accumulating in the process a résumé, a bank account, a stock portfolio, and a low golf handicap. He waved his paycheck as we ridiculed The Edge of Night.

The second crony, the Wild Child, shit-canned the idea of being an actor and turned to directing, spending years in the downtown scene in New York, staging scripts by eclectic writers. In time, he found a teaching position.

The chick in the trio (think Peggy Lipton), I snared a Fulbright, headed off to Finland for a couple of years, came back culture-shocked, and landed in Minneapolis. I did time at Red Eye in its fledgling stage and scraped up a few freelance gigs before helping to start Frank Theatre. The idea was to ruffle some feathers--to create work that would counter the late-'80s complacency on the local theater scene. Eventually, Frank evolved into the scrappy company it is now.

Which brings me to the buyout attempt. A few years ago, the three of us once again found ourselves together for Turkey Fest. Wild Child and I had both begun to find some small peace with the artistic struggle and our tiny bank accounts. Golden Boy's star, however, had begun to dim: movie stardom wasn't happening. He had a grand scheme he wanted to unveil.

We assembled in the living room as the tryptophan kicked in. Golden Boy set us up: Since Wild Child was doing this teaching thing and I was fooling around with this silly theater, he had a bailout plan. His father was ready to pass on some of the family wealth and didn't want to see his dollars go to the government. Looking for a tax dodge, Golden Boy came up with the idea to start a nonprofit theater that would employ all of us.

A slight feeling of nausea twitched my stomach. When Wild Child and I refused to take him seriously, the offensive began. My piddly income became a target. Then the ridiculousness of Frank's budget. Then the Big Question was popped: "What if I were to buy Frank Theatre?"

In that moment I realized I had something of currency, something he wanted to buy. For eight years the blood, sweat, and tears of those who'd worked for Frank had carved out something that could really only be distilled down to a reputation and a pile of videos. Yet that was what Golden Boy was trying to obtain.

"What if I bought Frank for five or ten thousand dollars?" he asked. Again, the absurdity. And the insult--that a simple drop of his trust fund account could in any way be construed as a fair market price for all the years of scrambling! What was he thinking?

My smile twisted into a smirk as I asked what the buyout would mean. It meant he would own Frank Theatre, he said. "And what would that mean?" I asked. "It would mean," he answered, "that I would get to choose all of the plays, and you would work for me."

A bit in my mouth, for only five or ten thousand dollars? What a deal.

In that moment, I realized that I was the wealthy one. With all of Golden Boy's privilege, his trust fund, his lifestyle, he was still desperately trying to buy something you can't put a price on: passion.

Pass the cranberries, please.

Wendy Knox is the artistic director of the Minneapolis-based Frank Theatre.

Syl Jones: One marvels at the ease with which money has supplanted right action to become the all-consuming goal of Americans. At the same time, a romantic notion of the "starving artist" as hero still dominates the thinking of many artist wannabes. I encounter these extremes often in this community and happen to believe both are a betrayal of the human spirit.

The advertising industry, for example, is thick with bright, thoughtful individuals who choose each day to lend their talents to creating projects of insipid or evil intent. Some are even willing to "dumb down" their work in order to make it more acceptable to paying customers. I've seen this in corporations and small companies alike, and I find it despicable.

That most who do so are money-motivated is indisputable, just as some filmmakers churn out commercially successful but vapid movies purely for profit. But there's nothing wrong with either advertising or filmmaking per se, as some artists I know seem to believe. The question is, How to make art work in the service of humanity rather than to its degradation? Not all artists seem to care about or understand this distinction. Yet a truly skilled artist can often cause a client or organization to change its values for the better. And believe it or not, that's where the money is.

I grew up believing that, in the black community particularly, artists were precious resources. We were duty-bound to become successful while also maintaining a firm grip on certain ethical principles. We could not afford the luxury of indolence or of selling our talent to the highest bidder--our history did not allow for a waste of either commitment or resources. Therefore, it has always been necessary for artists of color to create works that go beyond simple entertainment or profit-making.

The utility of art as a life-changing vehicle does not interest certain artists, and if that's how they feel, so be it. But the scarcity of resources in communities of color demands that every educated adult become active in some way in altering the status quo. This especially includes artists, who have historically been the most passionate voices of longing, of dissent, of protest in their communities.

As a published journalist from the age of 14 and a budding playwright, I studied with writers from the Watts Writers Workshop in the late 1960s who impressed upon me the need to integrate my artistic impulses with everything I did. This meant creating opportunities to use my skills in every facet of communication, ensuring that personal and universal truths resonated everywhere.

When you do this with integrity, following a socially trained conscience where it may lead, money will most likely become available. If it does not, you may need to develop new skill sets that allow you to communicate ideas with clarity and passion. What you must never do is compromise the truth as you see it or forgo a commitment to use art to fully explore the human condition. That's what art is for--to illuminate the darkest corners of life and to help others appreciate the beauty of the human spirit.

Eschewing money for its own sake, or posturing as an "artist," is a pathetically empty gesture. On the other hand, selling out by promoting ideas you don't believe in passionately, or beliefs that degrade humanity, is a cardinal sin for an artist. Other sins would include the propagation of false messages; failing to speak out against violence; and undervaluing your art (and therefore everyone else's) in the marketplace.

Another sin is listening to the mocking voices of those on the sidelines. If you make money with integrity, people less successful will often accuse you of selling out; if you don't receive attention or make much money, they'll say you're no good. And in this town, if you use your art to take dead aim at both the conservative and liberal establishments, pointing out their obvious hypocrisies, you'll be blasted from the left and the right.

That's when you'll know you've made it--not by the size of your bank account but by the symmetry of your criticism.

Syl Jones is an author and playwright, and a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Mark Anthony Rolo: Last winter my late Ojibwe mother spoke to me in a dream: "Guess what, son? Creator doesn't do fry bread over here!"

"Yer showing up in a vision just to tell me that?" I asked.

"Hey! Don't push me. I didn't like you in that life, and I could easily not give a shit about you over here," she warned. "Listen: What's all this 'being Indian is as good as gold' bull going around? You know, when I was a kid, the only thing being brown got me was a thick ruler on the knuckles from Sister Heid."

"Oh, but these are modern times, Mom," I told her. "These days Indianness is a commodity. If I played my application check-boxes right, I could unseat Jim Northrup as this state's Native darling. Imagine me draping a string of beads around my neck, sticking a feather in my hair, and busting into a little powwow two-step. You know, they give big money for that, Mom. It could lead to a solo gig at the Ordway. Even better, what if I wrote a book about how Sister Heid tried to beat the savage out of you? Ouch! That Hurts, Sister: True Boarding School Confessions would have 'em weeping in the aisles at the Hungry Mind. Or I could dig out a few phrases from Cousin Earl's Ojibwe dictionary. Grant applications written in Ojibwe are pretty much hands-down winners around here.

"But fuck 'em. I ain't selling out my red ass for any arts-foundation money. My culture is not an aesthetic. They want feathers? Let 'em go stare at a flock of flamingos at the zoo. I don't pose. And my art is no form of racial therapy to help white people deal with their guilt.

"Hey, if dressing up in Indian drag improves my chances of getting a Bush Fellowship, then screw 'em! This Indian is allergic to buckskin. If the State Arts Board insists on some raw, red ass, then they can fund this photo shoot: I'm stripped naked, in bed, lying in a fetal position, and hugging up to a just-cut white birch tree. Mom? You there?"

Mark Anthony Rolo is a local journalist and playwright.

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