What do artists feel when we're surrounded by wealth?

Dear fellow-traveler, 

I spent this past weekend in Philadelphia, where I was lucky enough to be one of four musicians touring with Manual Cinema. We performed their beautiful show, My Soul’s Shadow, at the Barnes Foundation, a stunning architectural gem of a museum.

The Barnes Foundation is the kind of place that oozes money—and beauty, and design sense, and artwork, yes—but primarily, money. It’s the kind of place where, as a working artist, I personally feel (a) deeply grateful for the privilege of working there, (b) ambivalent about where all this money may have come from, and (c) uncomfortably out of place.

It’s funny how, from time to time, artists find themselves very, very close to a lot of money. We don’t really belong among the wealthy, yet sometimes we end up there, trotted out for enjoyment and entertainment and edification. I’ve had experiences where I’m playing a brief concert for a bunch of wealthy donors: taking a train and a bus to get to the venue with homemade leftovers in my backpack; changing into concert black in the bathroom; getting onstage and playing; schmoozing with a bunch of people whose lives are very different from my own. Acting as if I belong; trying not to eat all the shrimp cocktail myself.

During our time at the Barnes Foundation, we were spoiled with particularly fancy catered lunches and dinners. We marveled at the gluten-free wraps filled with kale and curried carrot salad. We gazed at the bottles of orange-ginger-pineapple juice in wonder, and then quickly drank them. We laughed about how well we were being treated. “Is it weird that being in places this nice makes me uncomfortable?” one of my colleagues asked. I felt precisely the same way.

And I think we all know, intuitively, that our discomfort with wealth may in some ways be holding us back. It may be keeping us in starving-artist mode. We may need to get comfortable with money in order to free ourselves from the bonds of financial instability. That’s been part of my journey lately, but my experience at the Barnes showed me how far I still have to go.

It didn’t occur to me while I was in Philadelphia, but for advice on this topic, I could have consulted the Suze Orman personal finance book I recently bought for ninety-nine cents at a used bookstore. Its title, The Courage to be Rich, makes me squirm. I literally removed the dust jacket so that I could read it on the train without feeling like a complete hack.

Right in the very beginning of the book, Orman writes:

I want you to take a few minutes to consider how you feel about your financial situation today. Don’t think in terms of numbers, the bills, how much you owe, how much you’ve saved. Think instead about how you truly feel about your finances. Is money—the money you’ve spent, the money you have, the money you need—a source of constant worry for you? Do you feel that you’re not good enough to get what you want or that you don’t deserve what you have? Are you embarrassed by how much you have? Envious of what others have, angry that you don’t have such things? … You might surprise yourself by uncovering emotions that have been long buried.

When I got home from Philadelphia, it felt good to buy groceries, to cook my own food, to dwell in an environment built for comfort and not for status. And yet, the beauty and luxury of that arts institution supported the work and livelihood of twelve working artists for four days. There is no question that all that money was a force for good.

So here I am, admitting that wealth both frightens and interests me—mostly because of the power it has to sustain our art practice.

Here’s to getting a little less uncomfortable with money each day. God knows that if we can get it, it won't go to waste.

Yours,

Ellen