<![CDATA[Navatman - Courage, Conviction, and the Arts]]>Thu, 22 Mar 2018 14:34:46 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[´╗┐Courage, Conviction, and the Arts]]>Tue, 20 Dec 2016 17:29:23 GMThttp://navatman.org/courage-conviction-and-the-arts/courage-conviction-and-the-artsBy Samantha Lim Picture
Tonight, I find myself sitting in a very comfortable, colorful office with bright lights and a refrigerator buzzing in the background. It's 8pm and I'm still crunching numbers. I think back to almost exactly 2 years ago when at 8pm, I would have been rounding up a group of eager adults who had just stepped out of a long day of work to come to learn how to dance. Back then, we had a studio we could retreat to, to keep us out of the snow - the heaters didn't always work but a roof over our heads and a working space we could call our own was nothing short of magic - a miracle we had dreamt of and somehow managed to make happen. We had been called names, we had been threatened, we had had to put on strong faces when people reared their ugly sides on us - but at the end of the day, we soldiered on because of what we were dedicated to.

Dedication comes in so many different means and forms - dedication to this desk job that keeps me here after hours, dedication to students back then who would show up night after night to work on an art that does not put food on the table but enriches them in other ways, their dedication to their craft and trying time and again to understand a half count or a pelvic rotation, our dedication to each other and what we gathered to create every night - same time, same place, week after week. 

People ask me all the time about why I left non-profit, why I left the arts, why I left behind that which I continue to talk about so passionately and with such rosy memories. 

And that's exactly what they are - rosy memories. 

Some days, I think to provide a clarification - that non-profit and the arts are not mutually exclusive - while I might have left non-profit (business), I have never left the arts (practice). On other days, I see them both hand in hand as the economic reality strikes me when I think back to when I was earning a fifth of what any of my friends were earning at the time. Here's where my thoughts land most often:

1. The Arts and Money

What is the value of a person's time? For 5 hours of practice a day, for months on end, I would like you to help me see the value of my impact on you by agreeing to come to a show we've worked hard to produce for US$20 a ticket. I would like to know that I have spent money on a theatre that keeps audience members happy, without the fear of us not being able to fill it to break even. Is US$20 per person going to cut it? What if it's US$50, will people still want to attend?

"I love your work! I'd really like to attend!.... Can I get a discount?"

We're all trying to get through our bills, our rent, our priorities - I get it. But I cannot tell you how many times I heard that question leading up to a program, thinking, it's either you or me. People would come to our productions but they wouldn't see the amount of effort we'd have to go through to partner with the arts community to jack up ticket sales. An arts administrator I very much respect was once introduced to me (with no disdain at all!) as "a begging bowl tied to the end of a ponytail" and I didn't understand it until I walked the path of an arts administrator myself. 

My brain is my brain is my brain. It's the same brain I used when I was paid 10x what I was earning at Navatman, and it's the same brain I use now. But people value brains and skills differently based on outsourcing and the value they place on being able to do the same thing or the return they attribute to their investment. 

The truth is this: it's not easy to scale a niche performing art. Without scalability, what multiplier can we apply as an upside to 5 hours of a person's time?

​2. The (Un)Reality of Personalities

I used to think my inability to stay in the arts was related to my Type A personality and feeling like I was losing out to my Ivy friends, my consulting analyst class - that sense of urgency that if I wasn't climbing a ladder, the top was growing further and further out of sight. (This was before I realised everyone has their own ladder, which we'd do best to define ourselves). An even bigger realisation was that it's not about these A/B stereotypes - there are so many artists I know who are deeply ambitious and determined to be the best they possibly can be at their craft. 

I have spoken to far too many people who have been too quick to pin a stereotype on the artist - "you're doing what you enjoy so it's fine", "but you're having fun, right?", thereby reducing their commitment to having chosen what they enjoy because it's an easier or more fun path; or even worse, dancers are so often sexualised and their intelligence questioned. Some of the best dancers I have been exposed to are incredibly intelligent - but people only acknowledge this of the artist, similar to actors and actresses, once they've made it and have the validation of a large contract or having sold out Lincoln Center.

But I digress - it's not (entirely) about A/B stereotypes. Rather, about passion, courage, and risk tolerance.

Passion to doggedly pursue the arts, courage because the arts is full of just as many haters as there are lovers and you wear your work on your sleeve, and risk tolerance because you keep pushing with the blind faith that if you just keep swimming, you'll land on the right side of things.

Life is, indeed about priorities.

I remember informally polling female artists around NYC who independently expressed that many female artists whom they knew who had stayed in the arts were only able to do so if they didn't start families, or if they married someone with a more stable job... or left NYC. 

So, priorities:
1) Am I okay to leave the arts? 
2) Am I okay to pursue my career in a cheaper city where I might not be able to create a global impact?
3) Am I okay to not start a family? Or to be able to contribute to one? (Let's not even talk about filial piety #asian)
4) Am I okay to let my significant other support me financially? 

I picked (1) because those three traits didn't burn bright enough within me that I was willing to sacrifice everything that others on this path do, including my pride to let someone else support me financially.

3. Courage and Action

It's not easy to not know whether you'll be able to afford rent. Navatman has a model where each person is given a fixed salary (with increments) for their involvement in all three pillars of arts education, administration and performance. As you might have guessed, the first yields the highest returns, the second highly dependent on additional operational funding, and the third, hardly anything without scale (which is a large risk to bear). 

The first pays for itself net of rental costs, the second and third are essential but the time commitment to both are not always worth the returns, depending on how you define those returns. Passion will, unfortunately, not always put food on the table.  As an artist, it's so enriching to give back to your craft and to create something that we dream of pushing the boundaries - ours and that of this magical gift that we don't completely understand but find ourselves humbled by each and every time.

But it takes courage on so many levels to pursue this path.

Courage not knowing if the economic reality of things will justify the path you've chosen to take, courage to release yourself completely to a practice that is sometimes very much a one sided love affair.

In many beginner dance classes, you'll hear the teacher say, "Just do...". Many of us who have been educated tend to overanalyse and halt at every other count (even more so in an overachieving, highly competitive city like NYC!) and one reason beyond my lack of courage that led me back to corporate was my inability to switch off that voice in my head that questioned everything and worried about everything in a crippling way - to the extent that I could no longer "Just do".

​So where does that leave us?

With a lot of people in a really huge city, trying to make it, some are doing large deals and moving millions of dollars a day, and some are working just as hard on moving hundreds of muscles every day. Yes, their paths are their own and they're impacting different groups. A question I've been asking myself a lot this fundraising season is - what is the value of the arts to you? Why should any small group of individuals give a little more to carry a history forward for a larger group of individuals? The answer I'm left with is again - courage and action. Courage to trust in what you're putting your faith (and more) into, and the action to help make it happen.

As someone who has been deeply impacted by Navatman but with no other courage to give than some of my income this season, I hope you as yourself a similar question of what Navatman means to you. Engage people in the difficult conversations on what their ambitions are for the organisation, help them craft a plan to take it forward, and maybe we can all take a few more steps in each others shoes.