Monica Byrne emailed 30 Durham artists in August with the subject line “Full-court press.”
Byrne, a novelist and playwright who’s lived in Durham for 14 years, wanted to have at least two independent artists from Durham at every one of the 21 City Council meetings through the end of 2019. She wanted to gauge interest for policy proposals that would make long-term changes for local artists.
Byrne asked the group to “be polite and persistent in a way they can’t ignore.”
Last week, Marshall Botvinick, a lecturer at UNC-Wilmington and a founding member of Durham’s Bulldog Ensemble Theater, presented the council with the group’s first proposal. He was joined by Durham artists Alyssa Noble and Jack Reitz.
The Durham independent artists are asking for a $1.2 million grant program, similar to a Raleigh program that distributed $1.85 million in grants this year. They propose $800,000 of it go to arts organizations in the city and the other $400,000 to individual artists. Raleigh supports its similar program with a $5 per capita allocation, based on population, from the general tax fund.
“Many of Durham’s peer cities, including Raleigh, have similar grant programs,” Botvinick said. “And the fact that Durham has not subsidized the arts that way has created sort of a cascade of problems for this community.”
Botvinick mentioned more specific requests for the grant program in his proposal to the council, such as artist fellowships and small grants, but emphasized it’s still in the rough draft stage.
“It’s a first pass to see where the oxygen is,” he said.
The Orange County Board of Commissioners approved a similar measure last week, agreeing to rent out the Eno River Mill to provide low-cost artist spaces. The county also plans to create large exhibit and performing arts spaces at the mill, if the artist spaces are successful.
A ‘hardly viable’ situation
Byrne said artists have been getting worried over the past five years because of rapid gentrification in Durham.
“People moving here think DPAC and Carolina Theatre are the arts here,” she said. “And it’s sad.”
Artists in the city say they are going into debt just trying to pay for housing and upkeep costs for their shows. Noble, a member of Durham Independent Dance Artists, spoke about spending $15,000 just to produce a 1-hour dance show in June.
She said she often has to cut herself out of the budget if not enough money is raised, and only paid herself $300, or 75 cents an hour, to produce the show.
“The reality is ... our situation is hardly viable,” Noble said.
She said a grant would help artists “create work regularly without economic strain.”
Reitz, a co-founder of Mettlesome improv comedy group, told the council that many artists in the area are continuing their work “just for the love of the game.”
He said that Mettlesome has had to buy three space heaters and an AC unit since last winter, as well as buying a new sound system to replace the one he found in a dumpster.
“When I talk about a financial burden, I’m not even talking about paying our artists,” said Reitz. “I’m simply looking at operating costs.”
Support from the mayor
Mayor Steve Schewel’s response to the artists’ proposal was the same that it has been for their past presentations: He’s giving it a lot of consideration.
He offered the group a next step of working with the city’s Cultural Advisory Board to create a formal proposal. He gave them no timeline.
“I think there’s a will in this community, if our performing artists can band together ... to subsidize space,” Schewel said. “Either to create a theater that has space for dance and performances or to work with existing organizations to figure out how to make that part of the subsidy you get.”
Byrne said members of the artists group have met with — or are going to meet with — every council member, and that council members have “really welcomed being educated on the issues.” She also said she’s already been in touch with members of the cultural advisory board.
“It’s been a really fruitful process,” Byrne said.