The Purgatory of Pitching Projects

The problem with being a non-agented artist outside the academy (the kind of artist I’ve tried to define within the Artists on the Verge podcast), is that life becomes a purgatory of pitching projects, a never-resolving tremolo of describing what you would like to do if you had the institutional and/or monetary support. You describe the same project again and again and again to politely blinking coordinators and bureaucrats, or compose descriptions in form after form and email after email, scrambling to adjust your pitch based on various blasé reactions, until the idea you had once been so excited about sounds completely stupid. At best, you’re in an endless Spectacular! Spectacular! shimmy, at worst you’re stuck waiting for emails that never arrive.

When I started this blog three years ago in the distant pre-pandemic days, I wanted it to be a place to express freely the actual, somewhat unflattering, reality of being an aspiring opera singer. I’ve grown past that particular concern, but the basic idea remains: I want to put down in words what many artists talk about in private but which they (understandably) find uncouth to express, at least too frequently and too loudly, in the public space, be that the real world or social media. “Relatable” does not actually mean “honest.” I am not particularly relatable, but I'd like think I'm very honest. So, here’s an honest, unflattering, inventory of the artistic projects I’ve tried to launch since finishing my formal training at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague: 

  • Since Fall of 2017, Duo KaM: Originally conceived as a contemporary art song ensemble, most of our early programs were done once to no more than 10 people. We would collect money into a hat at concerts, but this never even covered the cost of recital hall rentals. This became untenable (and the pianist I had started the project with refused to go on with it), so I took a different approach and teamed up with a guitar player (a more mobile instrument, which can be played anywhere, not just spaces with a grand piano.) Now we do the same “popular” program (some accessible Early Music pieces with tambourine, with contemporary pieces snuck in in moderation) at various venues and festivals a couple times each summer (many of them unpaid or collecting into a hat, which only covers drinks afterwards even if we don’t have to pay rentals, anymore.) 
  • Since Fall of 2019, Artists on the Verge podcast, YouTube channel, and this blog: You can listen to the topsy-turvy path the online platform took before settling on its current format here. What I don’t say in this more “official” description is that I spend hours and hours editing but most episodes get maybe 20 views/listens across all platforms and the average view duration on YouTube is about 4 minutes. (I do have four patrons who send me some 30 USD a month. I should acknowledge, with gratitude, that my patrons have now paid off the microphone I use to record.) 
  • Since Winter of 2020, a film version of Juliana Hall and Caitlin Vincent’s monodrama Sentiment (the film will be called Echo): I organized a test shoot in a small theater in the summer of 2020 with a recent graduate of FAMU (the local film school), wrote a script, wrote a very complicated grant proposal which my producer subsequently refused to turn in through his production company (you can read more about that story here), fired the producer, didn’t get to fire the original director because he simply stopped responding to emails, found a young Estonian director who is very excited about the project (you can listen to our podcast conversation here), got chastised by a different Czech producer for contacting him while already attached to an Estonian director because it meant he could not apply with us for Czech grants. Now we are waiting for support from Estonian film funds and, should we get those funds, a possible minority-co-production with said Czech producer. 
  • Since Fall of 2021, a concert on an ecological farm: The idea came from my doing some volunteer work over last summer at an ecological farm. Mainly, I was looking for a way to connect audiences back to the real world after the isolation of the pandemic. Taking an audience into nature and a place where people worked with their hands seemed like a good way to do that. I contacted a radio sound technician who had won a European radio award for a kind of eco-concert in which musicians played very quietly out in a meadow with no audience (it was called Koncert pro zvěř – Concert for Animals). He ended up writing a recommendation for my eco-farm project to supplement a grant proposal and connected me with a dramaturg who, when I called her, said she had "also been thinking of something with rivers and nature and music" and, mercifully, started to do some of the work and assembled some musicians. We didn’t get any grants (except for a small symbolic one, paid out after the event is realized). The dramaturg tried crowdfunding – but we only collected the equivalent of some 200 Euros. The issue was that we wanted to pay the musicians (the concert features a flautist, percussionist, and violinist, whom I wanted to pay even if I myself sand in the concert for free). Finally, we had to call the whole thing off. The issue is that artists simply have to work for free if they wish to do projects like this. This was supposed to be a pilot concert for a series of concerts at ecological farms – I even met with someone from an ecological farming education project who liked the idea of attracting audiences to Czech ecological farms but this person also stopped responding to emails. In the end, as a compromise, Duo KaM will do one of its standard concerts there this summer, to make up for trying to organize a concert that wasn't meant to be. 

The situation here in the Czech Republic is bleak. There was some support for the arts (certainly more than in a country like the United States) during the pandemic but that waned during the drawn-out recovery. Then, the war in Ukraine erupted and post-Soviet countries started to go into survival mode. First comes plague, then war, then hunger, goes the common wisdom, one my Czech mother has been repeating, lately. The magazine Respekt published a spread a few days ago which warned that an entire generation of Czech artists may be lost. This is not only a problem of Czech artists, of course. The state of the arts is a barometer for social stability and economics in any country. 

When a society (and by “society” I mean the combination of governmental policy, the decisions of institutions which hold influence, and the collective behaviors of all individuals who comprise a culture) stops prioritizing the arts, this is presented as a matter of prudence, of focusing on “the basics” or even “what’s important.” But when we’re talking about 1% of a state budget dedicated to support of the arts being cut to even less, as has happened in the Czech Republic, recently, we are not talking about a practical decision but an ideological one. It is a kind of loss of faith, a kind of turning away from real prosperity often, incidentally or not, towards a greater concentration of wealth. 

Are there countries where the situation is better for artists? There’s only one way to find out. In hopes of saving money to leave the Czech Republic, I have applied for several “job-jobs” (I have been translating from the age of 19, and did pretty well for a while, but that work has been dwindling, in part because of the rise of AI translation software) in the past season – an HR job at a tech firm and a coordination job at a humanitarian nonprofit. But I felt a constricted feeling during the job interviews. I could not answer the question “Where do you see yourself in several years?” I cannot bear to look more than a year ahead because I didn’t imagine my life like this, anyway. Finally, I took a job as a barista in a café, and this felt better – flexible work hours, being on my feet around people, an understanding from my employers that this is not my main job. I wouldn’t have thought, though, back when I was starting college, that I would get my first café job at 31. 

I only share these things to illustrate – with greater honestly than I can responsibly ask of the artists I interview on Artists on the Verge – how the situation around the arts might play out in the life of an individual. What’s even more worrisome, is that my trudging on is only possible due to privilege. If I didn’t have time and some resources, I wouldn’t be able to spend this much effort on a dream that has so little return. I am always mad at myself when I start to lament that if I were just a little better off, and my family a little better connected, then I would be able to do more. And, yet, things being the way they are, it’s probably true that I would be. The feeling within the arts, right now, is of deep poverty, the kind that takes away everything. Real poverty stifles community, connection, will, risk-taking, hope, experimentation, even altruism. It isolates and makes us ashamed. And I have spoken to other artists who have expressed a similar sense of desperation. 

I found out I have been using the word “purgatory” wrong. I always thought of purgatory as possibly permanent, a state in which one may be tested forever even as the door to heaven remains maddeningly open. I also thought it was a state that, if resolved, could throw one into either heaven or hell. In fact, I found out, Christian mythology defines purgatory as a transient state before entering heaven, for those who need one extra spanking before they are worthy of eternal salvation. But let’s say that purgatory could be a permanently-unresolved state that could lead to either success or failure – that would be the purgatory of pitching artistic projects. It is a rather bleak state even as it is also a state of privilege. All these features make this particular purgatory particularly dispiriting.