As a single Black woman, living alone in New York City away from her immediate family and managing a fledgling business (SLMDances), by the numbers, I am living an unsustainable life; however, I am committed to the figuring of living as an artist in this city for as long as I can. I hope this profile helps to demystify how I am doing this. Through my work BodyBusiness and other projects, I intend to offer as much information as I can from my experiences navigating the arts and culture field. Shout out to fellow artist jumatatu m. poe who inspired me to share this information on my website.
What follows are the ways in which I have been able to establish and sustain my life:
I was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest of three, and the majority of my family (both maternal and paternal sides) continue to live there. My family has mostly been emotionally supportive of my artistic career, and while my parents can not pay for my life (and I have no rich uncles), I am not financially responsible for them in any way. I also have the safety net of knowing that if I could no longer sustain living in New York City, I could move back home. Additional resources my parents provide: my mother is the co-signer on my apartment, as well as my accountant; my father purchased hardware for my office such as a printer; and my parents house & feed artists (myself, friends, colleagues) who pass through Baltimore on artistic endeavors. My sister also takes on some administrative work from time to time, usually with compensation. Various family members make annual contributions as individual donors to SLMDances, anywhere between $25-$300 each year.
I am blessed to have built multiple deep friendships over the course of my life that have made it possible for me to live a life full of love and care, even when apart from my family. While all of these relationships are significant to me, there are three in particular that have made it viable for me to establish and continue to live my life as an artist in New York City.
After finishing graduate school at the University of Iowa, I immediately moved back to New York City where I roomed free of charge with my friend Darius, then, a new corps member of the New York City Ballet. For a month we shared his room on 135th street, and then moved into the living room of a two bedroom apartment where two of his friends were already living. One friend moved out, he took a bedroom, and I took the living room as my own, and as soon as I was able, we split the rent three ways. I lived in that apartment 17 months.
During that time, I reconnected with my college friend and artistic collaborator Ebonie who lived only two blocks from Darius and was interested in taking on a roommate. We were able to find a two-bedroom apartment in her same building and she was able to be the primary lease holder due to her salaried job. We received a discounted rental rate due to her tenant history, and we continued to live together for 4.5 years without a rent increase, before she decided she was ready to live alone again. I continue to live in that same apartment. I took on another roommate for three years, but currently live alone for a total of 10 years in the same home.
Nia, currently, SLMDances’ Strategic Visioning Partner has supported my artistic work over the years in a myriad of ways but there have been three significant contributions to my financial life. First, when I decided to resign from my position as a high school dance teacher in the Bronx in 2016, they created a lifeline by offering me work through their company PURPOSE Productions. Not only was this an immediate source of income, but the onboarding training they provided allowed me to cultivate a prospering business as a freelance arts administrator right away. Next, as a part of the strategic planning process that they led for SLMDances, we were able to strategize toward me living alone, turning the second bedroom in my apartment into the SLMDances office. Currently, as the Strategic Visioning Partner for SLMDances, they not only manage the company budget and accounting, but also assists with my personal financial management, as SLMDances is a sole proprietorship.
Loans + Debts
Compared to most college educated folks in my generation, I finished my undergraduate studies at Barnard College with a relatively low student loan debt amounting to about $12,000. Most of my education was subsidized through grants via the College’s need-based financial aid policy. In 2009, I was able to consolidate my various loans freezing any additional interest so that I have only been paying down the principal for the last ten years. I have less than $5000 left to pay off which I have been paying at a rate proportional to my income, about $100/month.
Additionally, I received my MFA from the University of Iowa completely free through fellowships and teaching assistantships. I took out one loan for $2,000 during graduate school to cover the cost of travel for a study abroad trip to Brazil, which my parents agreed to pay and was paid off as of December 2018.
It is only recently that I have acquired significant credit card debt, relying on credit cards in the past 2-3 years in moments of drought as a full-time freelancer. I am currently paying down this debt.
Creation Money + Paying Myself
For the majority of SLMDances’ tenure, I have not paid myself for my artistic work. From 2009-2016, I worked as a early childhood and K-12 teaching artist which earned me just enough money to cover my living expenses. Any additional fee for service work including performing in other artists’ work, speaking engagements, and arts administration, went directly to SLMDances to pay dancer labor, costumes, and other company expenses. Yes, you read correctly: I would dance in a show, collect a check, and then split that money up to pay my dancers. I only began to pay myself for my artistic work in 2016 out of necessity, since I no longer received a steady paycheck. Between 2019-2020, I let go of all additional freelance consulting work not directly related to SLMDances so that I could fully dedicate myself to my artistic work. Please note: I could not actually afford to do this, but energetically I was overwhelmed and uninspired by that consulting, and laser-focused on creating.
SLMDances did not receive its first grants until 2015 (through the Field Leadership Fund and CUNY Dance Initiative), and so in addition to my personal financial investment in the company as named above, we have mainly been supported by individual donor fundraising, generally totaling between $2000-$3000 each year from 2009-2017, and the in-kind resources of our various communities. One of the most major resources has been Barnard College’s Dance Department, who allows me to use studio space for rehearsal and events free of charge as an alum and occasional adjunct.
In 2018, we were invited to become the Manhattan Community Artists in Residence through Lincoln Center Education, a multi-year residency program focused equally on community engagement practice and artistic creation. This support, which includes rehearsal and event space as well as financial support, sustained us from 2018 to 2020.
The events of 2020 affected my personal finances and those of SLMDances in a few ways: Personally, the pandemic cost me all of my performance gigs as well as my annual summer course, Dance in the City. I was also suffering from illness and burn out and physically and mentally unable to hustle up consulting work. Much of my personal income arrived in the form of emergency relief grants, mutual aid from friends and family, and direct asks for compensation for speaking on issues of race and racism on social media and other public forums. At the start of the pandemic, SLMDances income wavered as contracts were cancelled or significantly delayed; however, the sudden, increased racial awareness and reckoning led to a significant increase in one time individual donations, monthly donors, earned income inquiries, COVID relief grants, and grants earmarked for small-budget and/or BIPOC creators. By the end of 2020 we recovered, earning just shy of our initial budget projections for the year.
It is honestly a miracle that SLMDances has been able to produce work for so long as No Budget Production Queens, but we are still here, making work and growing. We are on track steadily increasing SLMDances’ earned income revenue through our Education programs, are in network and consideration for larger grant awards, and have increased our individual donor contributions which surpassed $12,000 in a single year, for the first time ever in 2020. I have feelings about this.
While we experienced a serious growth spurt in the last year, we are no where close to living wages for myself and all SLMDances Partners. Our Creative Partners are imperative to this continued growth, development, and sustenance. Their investment and active partnership in SLMDances is how we all thrive.