"A work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, works of art exist simultaneously in two "economies," a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art." Lewis Hyde, The Gift
From looking at our programs, you might think that White Pines was founded from a concern for people with disabilities, or education for young people in the arts, or improvisation, or improving the quality of life for senior citizens. But no. White Pines was founded from an economic concern.
I had just turned 50 and I was frantic: trying to raise two kids, preserve a marriage which was falling apart, and never, ever being able to pay my bills. I had reached the "top tier" of Philadelphia stage actors. The only stage I hadn't acted on was the Main Stage at The Walnut Street Theater. I was on a first name basis with every artistic director in the city, and I was auditioning all the time. I could confidently plan for two Equity shows per year, possibly three.
The most I could count on in earned income from my professional acting was about $7500 per year before taxes. That's right - let's say one show at the Arden, one show at The Lantern, maybe half a holiday show somewhere else (Dec - Jan) = about $7,500. Two kids, a mortgage, health insurance, you do the math. So I filled in the gaps with teaching as an adjunct. Between 2000 and 2012 I taught at almost every institution of higher learning in the region, from Villanova, to Ursinus, to The University of the Arts. I might teach two courses and earn $3500 per course per semester. So add another $14,000 in teaching income. We're up to $21,500. Two kids, a mortgage, etc. Not even close. And then there was the scheduling nightmare: rehearsal schedules, academic schedules, and . . . where are my kids?
I have a B.A. with honors in Theater Studies from Yale College. I have an M.F.A. in Acting from the Yale School of Drama. Ask people who know if I am a good actor, and most will say Ben is an excellent actor (maybe a little difficult sometimes, but an excellent actor). Ask people if I am a good teacher. Most will say I am an excellent teacher. I am a published author of two books on theater, education and creativity. In 2012, when I turned 50, I had a long resume of accomplishment as an educator, producer, actor and director. And I was begging my family for help paying my bills.
White Pines was my mid-life crisis, born out of this realization: that I would never be able to support my family living the way I was living in 2012. Then my mom sent me the book The Gift by Lewis Hyde. I read it and a lightbulb came to life. I realized I was foolish for asking my art to support me. I admitted something I had felt and believed for many years: that my art was not something I was comfortable selling, that I experienced it as a gift I offered people from the stage, and that my compensation for that act of generosity was spiritual not financial. I realized that my art was not property. I saw that as an actor, when I fully immersed myself in the commercial marketplace of the performing arts, I became an object, an object I despised. The book helped me see how much I began to hate my art when I demanded that it meet a set of financial criteria. It never could, and it never will. It was like continually kicking an apple tree because it wasn't a swimming pool. Swimming pools are nice to have, but they take an entirely different set of activities to create than the care and nurture of apple trees. I decided to live my values, and create an organization that leaned into this paradox:
The artist is an essential member of any healthy community, but cannot be valued through commercial means for her creativity.
White Pines is a performing arts organization that is designed to address the economic concerns of the "citizen artist" - the name I have given to the members of my artistic community: gifted artists who make a commitment to the communities they live in by putting down roots in them. I determined that asking people to pay artists for making art was a waste of time. It is a subjective exchange dressed up to look like an objective assessment: I like what you did/made, it's worth $40. No, it's worth something you can never pay; it is beyond money and its worth lies in the territory containing love, meaning, passion, empathy and other virtues that are not for sale. But I'm glad you like it.
Dearest artists, the world will not compensate you adequately financially for being fabulous. This doesn't mean you're not fabulous. It means that to make money you need to apply your creativity to activities which more comfortably wear price tags. And so White Pines offers all those programs named in the first paragraph, and some others. These are programs which address social or organizational needs. White Pines lives in the two economies Hyde writes about, simultaneously and overtly: the market economy for addressing needs, the gift economy for making art.
My dream is that White Pines will grow to become an organization which will offer salaried positions with benefits to an extraordinary ensemble of performing artists who transform people's lives for money, and perform for free. That ensemble exists today, but we have not yet realized that dream. Each year brings us a little closer though.
In The Gift, Hyde writes about the motion of gifts: "The only essential is this: the gift must always move. There are other forms of property that stand still, that mark a boundary or resist momentum, but the gift keeps going." As opposed to capital, which is acquired and hoarded, a gift must perish. That is, it must be consumed. If I give you a sweater, I expect you to wear it, not put it in some "bank" somewhere. If I make you a casserole, I expect you to eat it. And if I perform for you, I expect you to take my gift inside you and allow it to affect and transform you. The motion of gifts is cyclical and the receiver is moved to continue the motion by giving in return. Hyde writes:
"Not surprisingly, people live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift. To begin with, unlike the sale of a commodity, the giving of a gift tends to establish a relationship between the parties involved. Furthermore, when gifts circulate within a group, their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges."
So this is perhaps the most complex request for support you will ever read! I felt compelled today to explain myself to you, in part because the times we are living in seem to call out for the expression of meaning, and because I take the request for your support as sacred. I am asking for you and me to be bound in a relationship based on gifts, not commerce.
Or, you can watch the Sophies explain it for you. One of the needs we are addressing is the need in the Homeschool Community for creative arts programming, and classes which breed social connections among students, who may feel isolated while being homeschooled. The Sophies are two essential members of our community. I hope you will be essential too.
- Benjamin Lloyd, Executive Director, White Pines Productions.