The True Cost of a Commission

It's Friday afternoon.

My to do list is not shrinking, in spite of feeling like I am getting things done, and my belly is rumbling because 1.55pm means that I've left lunch a little late.  

Just as I am about to grab a bite, a notification pings and I check it.  It is a weekly 'Artists Opportunities' newsletter.  I decide that I may as well read it before lunch because that way I can at least delete it and keep my inbox at the nice round figure of 100 unread messages.

I've only read the first opportunity and now I am writing a blog so forgive me if I come across as slightly 'hangry'.

Ignition Festival is in its fifth year of presenting a programme that supports community dancers, emerging artists and mid-career choreographers to create new choreography.  It is produced by DanceWest and supported by Arts Council England, London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham and Royal Borough of Kingston.

DanceWest has a mission to engage people of all ages and abilities in high quality dance activity, improve the mental and physical health and wellbeing of all people through dance, and create new performance and employment opportunities for dance artists across West London.

The festival is offering five commissions to celebrate its fifth anniversary but the figures simply do not add up.

On offer are:
2 x Solo Commissions at £1200 each
1 x Duet Commission at £2000
1 x Trio Commission at £3000
1 x Quartet Commission at £4000

The artist will also receive the support of a producer (to help with all elements of the programme), studio space, one to one dramaturgical sessions, photography and video footage.

In return the choreographer must generate an entirely new piece of choreography for performance at the festival - the call out specifies that the piece must not already exist. They will also have written the application and attended an interview prior to receiving the commission.

Let's break it down using one of the solo commissions as an example and imagining that the artist is making a twenty minute work:

Option One:  The choreographer performs their own work.

  1. £150 day rate to reimburse the time spent writing the application, attending the interview and optimistically to cover any other administration the project entails.

  2. £150 day rate to attend technical rehearsals.

  3. £500 one week research*

  4. £500 one week development*

  5. £150 per performance day (Equity Minimum).

    TOTAL: £1450, not including the cost of any collaborators (because a choreographer is not a designer, sound designer, lighting designer... and making solo work generally requires you to have other eyes in the room if you are doing it well), PRS costs (because other artists should be paid when you use their material), production costs (because it is unlikely the performer will be naked, without any props or any technical needs), travel expenses.

This is already £250 more than the Commission.

Option Two:  The choreographer employs another dancer to perform the work.

  1. £150 day rate to reimburse the time spent writing the application, attending the interview and optimistically any other administration the project entails.

  2. £300 day rate for Choreographer and Performer to attend technical rehearsals.

  3. £1000 Choreographer and Performer Fees One Week Research*

  4. £1000 Choreographer and Performer Fees One Week Development*

  5. £300 per performance day for Choreographer and Performer (Equity minimum).

TOTAL: £2750, not including the costs loosely listed above.

This is already £1550 more than the Commission.

*These time scales have been given due to the period between the interview process and festival launch being approximately two weeks.  An artists creation period is extremely personal but acknowledging that Lloyd Newson took up to two years to produce each new work; when producing Savage Glance, Eliot Feld was quoted as saying it would normally take one day to produce one minute of the piece; or, if we are to relate to the world of self choreographed solo performance, that when making The English Channel Liz Agiss began with 18 months of research before she even set foot in a rehearsal studio, then two weeks is in no way enough time to make an evolved, high quality performance.

So, as far as I see it there are three potential outcomes:

  1. The choreographer, and potentially performer undertake a minimum of two days work for free to make this happen: performing naked, in silence, with no technical needs and paying their own travel costs.

  2. The choreographer spends time seeking co-production support (although given the tight turnaround (interviews are 25th April and the festival launches on 14th May) this will not be possible.

  3. The choreographer works to the given budget and the festival presents an under developed work of relatively low quality.

None of these options are healthy, good for the work, good for the festival or good for the long term survival of the sector. 

Please don't imagine that this is about calling out DanceWest.  They are simply a case study in a sector that does not want to talk about money and seems to have lost sight of what creating high quality work entails.  This is about reigniting the conversation.

Personally, I am also part of the problem.  Only last year I accepted a commission that did not cover the true cost of what I was being asked to deliver and proceeded to secure further support from Creative Scotland to bolster the projects needs.

When you are so eager to make the work and know that there are many others in a similar 'desperate' position, there feels like there is little choice but to say yes.  This is one of the huge systemic issues that artists face today - we are not valued by our sector - and if this is the case why should the rest of society place any value on our work?

I have no doubt that all of these commissioning organisations, including DanceWest, are working beyond capacity and trying to stretch their budgets to bring their projects to life but what is the true cost of this?  

Everywhere I go right now I see brilliant artists who are not only struggling to make ends meet but who are starting to feel like their work is not 'good enough' and in turn that they are not enough.  So many festivals aim to improve the health and wellbeing of people through dance but this does not seem to extend to the wellbeing of the artists whom, without which, there would be no festival.

I know that the situation seems impossible but it is a conversation that needs to be kept at the forefront of people's minds if we ever want the work we make to reflect the quality we are told to aspire to. It has been 4 years and 5 months since Bryony Kimmings brilliant You Show Me Yours blog post and subsequent #illshowyoumine movement.  What has changed?  If these commissioning rates are anything to go by, not very much.  What do we do about it?

Do we stop celebrating or even the word commission unless it genuinely covers the cost of making the work.  Use bursary? Blatantly say 'commission to cover part of the cost of'..?

Do organisations only commission if they have the budget to cover the true cost of the work?

Either way, the only way to find the answer is to talk about the issues and present solutions, beginning with normalising conversations about the actual cost of making performance. 

*This blog took approximately 75 minutes to write and was reviewed by one of my freelance peers before publishing on a website that I pay for annually and maintain myself - I have no training in web design, I have had to teach myself how to use this platform.  These costs, both time and money, are covered by the income I am able generate through paid work, touring or commissions.

Emma Jayne Park