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The Buzz, 7-15: States & the Arts
Why the French Exception Matters; the Exceptional Beverly Jensen

"I have requested that the government put in place, by January 1, 2004, the date the regime of the Intermittents must be modified, a system to aid in cultural creations with a view to regulating the problem of the Intermittents, of the young Intermittents in particular, the young creators, so that their projects are financed and financed for the duration."

--Jacques Chirac, president of France, July 14, 2003

"I must feed the children first."

-- John Burton, president pro-tem, California State Senate, explaining to arts activists why Senate Democrats have proposed to eliminate state arts funding from the state budget

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Saying he has "the highest respect for the Intermittents," and with the major summer arts festival in Paris on the precipice, French President Jacques Chirac Monday ordered the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Rafarrin to come up with a plan to ensure the survival of French artists and of the French "cultural exception." Chirac's clear declarations of support for freelance artists (or Intermittents), the Intermittents unemployment compensation regime, and their forceful militating against any change in that regime should serve as a model for arts activists in the US, including those who, lead by actor and former California Arts Council chair Peter Coyote, will rally tomorrow in San Francisco against a proposal by the state's Democratic senators to eliminate the state's art funding agency and its entire $18.2 million budget.

The Intermittents' largest union, the CGT, is protesting an accord signed by smaller unions with the government and employers that would reduce benefits for Intermittent performing artists and technicians from 12 months to eight months. As well, instead of having 12 months to log the 507 hours needed to qualify for unemployment compensation, performing artists would have 10-and-a-half months, and technicians ten.

So far this summer, strikes or threatened strikes by CGT members have shut down theater, dance, music and film festivals in Avignon, Montpellier, Aix-en-Province and elsewhere across France. This morning in Paris, employees of Paris Quartier d'ete, a city-wide festival of dance, music, and theater, voted to cancel tonight's performances, a day after the festival opened. Philip Decoufle has pulled out of his planned solo show, Mathilde Monnier spoke with audience members last night about the Intermittents' situation, and Stephen Petronio's company is still expected to open at the Palais Royal Monday.

Officials at the Avignon "Off" festival, where artists had earlier indicated they would not perform if the main festival was cancelled, announced Friday that the shows -- some 600 of them -- would go on. "While the organization is in solidarity with the strike movement, it is also in solidarity with the companies who want to perform," said Off director Alain Leonard. For many of these companies, he explained, 'It's a question of short term survival." Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Gallotta, who had been scheduled to perform at the "In" festival until it was cancelled, announced he'll go ahead anyway and present excerpts of his work at an alter-festival.

Speaking to French television yesterday in his traditional Bastille Day interview, Chirac managed to both deflect government ownership of the long-simmering Intermittents problem and convey presidential sympathy for the Intermittents' unique situation.

"These are people who, in the majority, face particular constraints, and who we must take into account," the president said, adding, "These are not ordinary workers. Second, they are in the majority young people or 'less young' people, who bring the best of themselves to their art and who therefore leaven society (with art) -- one of the elements of national cohesion. Therefore, they must be taken into account."

Artists, arts activists, politicians, arts funders, arts patrons, and especially unions representing artists in the US would do well to take the "French exception" into account as well as a model of artist empowerment.

Initially, I had trouble sympathizing with the Intermittents' refusal to accept a revised regime. To a dancer struggling to make a living in the States, working five jobs so she can afford to take low- or non-paying dance jobs, even the "reduced" Intermittents regime must seem like a dream: All you have to do is log 507 hours, which can be with different companies, over 10-and-a-half months and you qualify for eight months of unemployment. You can even take related jobs, such as teaching, and continue to receive the unemployment. In this light, the freelancers here might seem to be spoiled. And forcing their own summer festivals to shut down might seem suicidal. (Or, as Gallotta says in today's editions of the Paris daily Liberation, such actions resemble "a massada de spectacle.")

But the Intermittents have been demonstrating for over a year and getting little media attention. If they hadn't forced the cancellation of the festivals and thus "perturbed," as they say here, the bourgeosie summer life style, I doubt that his interviewers would have asked Chirac about their situation and that Chirac would have attached his presidential prestige to finding a long-term solution. (It may have helped that 650 leading artists wrote him an open letter yesterday urging just such a course.)

Let me repeat that word: Long-term. California has been reeling from budget crises since at least the 1970s, when I was in high school and when, as a student at the pilot program for the School of the Arts, I benefited from professional theater teachers paid for through the California Arts Council. (Then chaired by Peter Coyote.) In my senior year of high school, facing draconian cuts in school funding because of state property tax cuts, we marched to Sacramento and protested, a ritual repeated, it seems, every year since. As the student member of the school board and president of the citiy-wide student council, I helped to lead these marches and denounce the planned cuts.

This year, they are marching and demonstrating and railing again in California. Last month in Los Angeles, and tomorrow on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall. The arts council, say organizers, "has never been in such a dangerous position and we need to show our legislators that the arts are a vital part of our social, cultural, and economic well-being."

If the recent case of New Jersey is any indication, the threat by legislators to totally eliminate public arts funding in California is probably a prelude to simply reducing the budget -- for which artists will then be expected to get down on their knees and offer profuse thanks. Next year, the cycle will start again. And artists will march and talk and indignate again, but without taking stronger action.

In this context, I love that the French example exists as a model of artists believing they deserve the best, to the point where a) they will not even accept a reduction in benefits that others might think reasonable, and b) they are not afraid to take actions that might actually piss the public off (and actions that demand real sacrifice, including not performing) in order to get what they feel is theirs.

Speaking of artist support systems, the Dance Notation Bureau Sunday night lost one of its own bulwarks when Beverly Jensen, the DNB's former administrative assistant, passed way of pancreatic cancer. Beverly would have been 50 on Thursday. Having had the pleasure of encountering Beverly's irreverent wit and irrepressible spirit on more than one occasion, I can say that she surely must have leavened the hard work in dance preservation that goes on at the DNB every day. A colleague who worked with Beverly at the DNB described her yesterday as "one of the kindest, most generous people I have ever known, not to mention one of the wittiest." Beverly is survived by her husband, Jay Silverman, and their kids Noah and Hannah Silverman. Our hearts go out to them and her colleagues, and the world feels just a little bit heavier without her.

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