How four local artists make ends meet

  • Article by: SHARYN JACKSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2013 - 8:51 PM

Four artists talk about how they get by financially, and why they choose to live in the Twin Cities.

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Harry Waters Jr. is like many in the arts who rely on a day job — or cobble together several gigs — to make a living. Besides serving as an associate professor of theater at Macalester College, he acts and directs for various Twin Cities troupes, teaches at Penumbra Theatre and volunteers for community productions.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Being an artist doesn't necessarily mean a lifetime of waiting tables, especially in the Twin Cities. Affordable rents make it easier to get by here than in pricey arts centers such as New York and Los Angeles. The tradeoff is a smaller, more isolated (and supportive) community. We talked to four artists -- a choreographer, an actor, a singer and a TV presenter -- about how they get by financially, and why they choose to live here.

The teacher

HARRY WATERS JR.

Age: 59

Artistic path: Actor/director for Bedlam Theatre, Pillsbury House Theatre, Penumbra Theatre, Park Square Theatre, et al.

Day jobs: Associate professor of theater at Macalester College and teacher at Penumbra's Summer Institute.

He might be best known from the prom scene in the 1985 film "Back to the Future" (he sings "Earth Angel"), but Waters has worked on both coasts during a 30-year career as a stage actor, director and dramaturg. But stage work often doesn't pay, so Waters always supported himself with jobs in the industry, first as a stage manager, later with small film roles and TV commercials.

He joined Macalester's theater department in 2003 and now gets three-quarters of his earnings from teaching. That allows him to spend much of his free time volunteering for community theater projects. More important than the salary that comes with a job in academia -- about $70,000 -- is health insurance. "That's a huge thing for artists," he said.

In his words:

"The Twin Cities is an amazing place to be an artist. I've lived in New York and Los Angeles and I've had my success in both of those cities, but there's something about the depth and opportunity here as an artist that's really unique. Surviving as an artist, however, is a different kind of challenge. I would say that 80 percent of my colleagues are also teaching artists; they're working in schools, community centers, neighborhoods or with corporations.

"Working at the college allows me to subsidize working artists as well, paying artists to come in and do a workshop. And I bring my students with me into the art I do in the community, as actors and stage managers and designers. Being here, there's more opportunities for people to survive in different ways. One is through the existing institutions, or being able to bond together with alternative organizations that give you a different kind of exposure to opportunity.

"In New York there were a lot of commercials, industrials, quite a bit of film, soap operas. It's easier to survive here, but there are not as many opportunities. As an artist, you're always on a treadmill of creating work and looking for work and surviving. But in the meantime you have to do something for your career every single day. I don't know how I would make it in New York right now."

The fundraiser

EMILY JOHNSON

Age: 36.

Artistic path: Dancer and choreographer who runs her own troupe, Catalyst.

Day jobs: She has worked pretty much full-time as an artist since 2001, though she also taught Pilates until 2007 and still clocks a few hours at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis.

Johnson's income comes almost entirely from her work as an artist -- through a mix of commissions, grants and performance fees -- though she continues to work at novelist Louise Erdrich's book and native-arts shop because she enjoys her co-workers' company. She did research there for her latest work, "Niicugni (Listen)," staged last week in New York City and coming to the O'Shaughnessy in St. Paul April 21.

A former McKnight, Jerome and Bush fellow, Johnson said she spends twice as much time fundraising as she does dancing, often working 15-hour days to locate funds to pay her collaborators. In 2011, she brought in more than $100,000 on behalf of her company from 17 sources. She took home about $30,000 after paying her dancers and shelling out money for rehearsal space and other performance-related expenses.

In her words:

"I came here for college at the University of Minnesota, and I sort of jokingly tell people that I've accidentally been here 18 years. As a young, freshly graduated dancer you sort of always dream of moving to New York, but I was able to start my company right away. And I had Jerome Foundation emerging-artist funding very soon after college, so I was able to pay for my rehearsal space and dancers. My plan had been to move away, and I was like, 'That doesn't make sense. I'm able to work here.'

"Touring has always been a goal for me, and Minneapolis is the perfect home base. In the last couple years I'm here about half the time. It's always a good place to come back to; there's such a strong community of artists. There's a wonderful community in New York as well, and I try to be there as much as I can. I'm sure there are opportunities that I miss not being based there, but if I can spend time elsewhere and still be rooted here, I think it's a little more sane way of living.

"But of course being here, I really have to work to move my work out of here, too. It's not a place that presenters necessarily come to see work, so I have to find ways to introduce my work to people so that I can keep touring and build on those relationships."

The roadie

MOLLY MAHER

Age: 40

Artistic path: Singer/songwriter who leads the band Molly Maher & Her Disbelievers.

Day jobs: Guitar tech for Duluth-based, nationally touring band Trampled by Turtles. Salesperson at Willie's American Guitars in St. Paul.

Her omnipresence in the Twin Cities scene aside, Maher makes a scant living from her music. Between gigs, including a show every Wednesday at the Aster Café in Minneapolis, and sales of three albums, her Americana band brings in about $20,000 per year, of which Maher takes home $8,400. To supplement, she works about 25 hours per week at Willie's, and travels about twice per month with Trampled by Turtles, tuning and restringing guitars and moving gear. She has turned to corporate sponsorships to support her latest venture, the Real-Phonic Radio Hour, a monthly concert/podcast at James J. Hill Reference Library in St. Paul that just began its second year.

In her words:

"If I can't be playing music, I need to have my hands still on it. In my life, the bits and pieces create the sum, which is trying to have a place to live and do the things I want to do. When I'm with Trampled by Turtles, it's still a huge passion. It doesn't feel like a day job; it feels like an extension of inspiration.

"Working at Willie's, having to listen to people play Led Zeppelin riffs, I feel the grind. But working at a music store is great for making connections with other musicians, trying out new gear and staying inspired. And I can get a pretty good deal on gear. St. Paul is such an easy place to live. That's what I always tell people. It's the best to come home to. Rent is relatively inexpensive here, as opposed to L.A., New York, Austin [Texas] or Nashville. And it's a really strong community.

"I would make a record every year if I didn't have to pay for the mastering, mixing and studio time. Studio time and manufacturing of CDs are huge costs that you never even think of. It takes me five years to do a record. And I look at local people who are succeeding at making a living by making music, and they're putting out records every two years."

The TV personality:

AMY MATTHEWS

Age: 39

Artistic path: TV host/electrician for DIY Network's "Sweat Equity," "This New House," "Bathroom Renovations" and "Blog Cabin."

Day jobs: She doesn't need one anymore, but she once took reservations at a spa, worked as a restaurant hostess and even dressed as a Pokemon character.

This Minneapolis native studied opera in Boston and theater in New York, but ultimately found her career in television back home. She made her way back to the Twin Cities with a show at the Guthrie, and stuck around when she landed a job with DIY in 2004. A licensed contractor, Matthews has found stability as an entertainer who doles out home-improvement advice, but she still faces uncertainty when contract-renewal time rolls around every two years.

"As with any artist, it ebbs and flows," she said. She credits her DIY job for half her income, the rest from product endorsements and commercials. Her publicist declined to release her income.

In her words:

"There are times when I feel like I have to make the creativity happen on the set, because if I'm not getting it elsewhere, I have to do that on my reality TV show. I have to keep things fresh, keep the scenes going.

"At the beginning I was a person hosting a show, and now I can work on development and being creative. You commit long enough and you finally get to the place where you can make decisions about where you want your career to go.

"I had this weird feeling from all these friends in New York who looked at me like I gave up or I wasn't going to get into the business because I was in Minnesota. And I said, 'This is awesome, you should all come out here.'

"One bad habit in life is always wanting to be somewhere else. Sometimes I feel like I'm out of the loop, like I'm not creative, and people are doing these shows. And then I run into them, and they're looking at me the way I'm looking at them."

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