The Precarious Artist

Musicians performing in Nashville. (Alamy Stock Photo)

A stunning vote to oust the current president of the Musician’s Union and replace the leadership was prompted by grave concerns about the on-going difficulties of a musician’s professional life. Michael Cooper of the New York Times writes, “The leadership team of the New York local of the musicians’ union — the union’s largest local in the nation — was voted out of office on Tuesday in a stunning upset, amid concerns over the underfunded musicians’ pension plan and broader changes facing music, the original gig economy.”

Valid concerns about the underfunded pension plan is what sparked the vote to change leadership; it also sparks larger questions and concerns about the ways in which union representation has failed to keep up with the needs of membership — not just with the musician’s union, but with all unions. Artists have long lived the life of “gig economy” practitioners, and unions are meant to protect them from the many ways in which a capitalist culture undervalues, underpays and exploits their work. Fears that union representation is out of touch with its membership are well-founded; it is one of the reasons that younger artists are opting out of union membership.

The newly-elected president of the Musicians Union, Adam Krauthamer, was elected with a robust 67% of the vote. Before his election, he founded Musicians for Pension Security, out of a growing concern about mismanagement of the union’s pension funds.

The widespread insecurities of life in the arts cannot be off-set by unions which fail to ferociously guard the well-being of their membership. Addressing such problems is essential in an economy that makes survival of society’s artists even more at risk. Looking beyond the issues with unresponsive unions, it isn’t hard to identify problems with the financial well-being of visual artists, writers, poets, photographers…..In a society that refuses to adequately support its artists, that leaves us to try and protect ourselves. We here at Hidden River Arts welcome ideas and comments about ways in which we can all support each other – how might the artistic class (I don’t use the phrase “creative class” since that term has been usurped by the business community) build their own networks, inter-disciplinary networks, in order to support and protect each other? What sorts of projects and protections might we establish to protect our fellow artists?

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Live Arts: A Combined Effort and Commitment to Community and Creativity

One of the most important things for a vital community is a live arts network where musicians, writers, poets, playwrights and their audiences can meet, share some food and drink and enjoy a night of creative exchange. Hidden River Arts is located in Philadelphia, where we are fortunate to have such vitality. We are blessed with arts organizations of all sizes, and with venues that range from those of the most expensive theatres to small pubs and community spaces where art can be made and shared. Our intern, Nancy Allen, writes of her experience at one such event. Nancy is a student in the Creative Writing program at Temple University here in Philadelphia, and is just beginning to explore such opportunities. I’m grateful that she was willing to share this information with us. I hope that, as you read through, you will be thinking about the possibilities and opportunities that might exist in your own part of the world. We here at Hidden River would love to hear about them. One of our goals in 2019 is to begin building networks for artists – live arts venues, venues for book and poetry readings, spaces for gallery shows and other mixed-art activities. If we all share our knowledge of our own communities, towns and cities, we will be able to build such a network from our combined information. Then, with that network in place, we can begin to create “tours” of indy artists who can work cooperatively to support each other’s work, to invite each other to different parts of the U.S. and to other countries, other parts of the world…making it possible to create some really wonderful fellowship among artists and audiences. Boy, do we ever need it!

Debra Leigh Scott
Founding Director

Nancy Allen is an intern here at Hidden River Arts as well as a Creative Writing major at Temple University

On September 26, Moonstone Arts held a poetry reading at Fergie’s Pub hosted by Alina Macneal and Jennifer Hook, where Catherine Bancroft and Lisa Grunberger performed, and the reading was followed by an open mic. Moonstone Arts Center, for more than 35 years, has held events for poetry all across Philadelphia. It is a Philadelphia institution, the likes of which every city and town deserves. Moonstone Arts began in 1981, in a second floor space above Robin’s bookstore. Both the bookstore and the programs were run by Sandy and Larry Robin, and both quickly became Philadelphia institutions. The Moonstone fundraiser, “Sounds and Words,” will be held this year on November 10.

An institution for over 20 years in Philadelphia, Fergie’s Pub is a popular spot for live arts and social gathering

Fergie’s Pub, over twenty years old, has opened its doors to a variety of arts programs, live music, theatre readings, and literary activities for years, believing that a traditional “publick house” was meant to be a center for all sorts of creative and social activities.

Catherine Bancroft is an artist and writer who has performed her poetry at the Philadelphia Poetry Festival, Green Line Cafe, as well as other venues. Catherine has had her work shown at Muse Gallery, Off the Wall Gallery, The Sketch Club, The Main Line Arts Center, FireWorks Gallery, and many other places. She works mainly in collage, acrylic, mixed medias, and altered books. Her current Ellis Island Series was inspired by photographs of early 20th century immigrants. Catherine has also co-written two children’s books, Felix’s Hat and That’s Philomenia. She has also written book reviews for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Lisa Grunberger is a professor in Temple University’s English department. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Religions from the University of Chicago. Grunberger is an award winning poet, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, and she is the author of Yiddish Yoga: Ruthie’s Adventures in Love, Loss and the Lotus Position (Harper Collins Press), and has recently staged her new play, Almost Pregnant, at The PlayGround at the Adrienne during the Fringe Arts Festival this past September.

As we mentioned, Moonstone Arts Center is having their 1st Annual Fundraiser on November 10th at 7pm. Eleven poets and two bands will be playing that evening. You can find more information and purchase tickets through their website, moonstonearts.org. If you are interested in discovering more about the poetry scene in Philadelphia, check out Phillypoetry.org, which serves as a great resource for events and places to go in the city for poets and poetry lovers.

It’s important for writers to stay connected and attend readings and live arts events throughout their city. This is great for the community and offers wonderful opportunities for the artists. We would welcome hearing from you in our comment section about the sorts of live arts events that help to create community and support local artists in your town or city! It would be a wonderful thing to begin building a national network of community arts venues and organizations to help artists move beyond their own local territory, grow their audience and develop relationships with colleagues across the country.

Autumn Activities Begin


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Welcome to Autumn, 2018 everyone. We are back at our desks here at Hidden River, and I thought I’d give you a heads up on some of the activities. This will, essentially, be a kind of blast of information. The fully detailed blogs will be coming for each of these headlines, so be sure to subscribe to our blog so you’ll be notified when more is published.

We’ve been hard at work reading manuscripts, naming semi-finalists, finalists and winners for our literary awards. We are working with our newest writers on our forthcoming titles: Catharine Leggett, whose Eludia-winning manuscript, In Progress, is….you guessed it, in progress. Jeffrey Lesser, whose book on vocal technique, Your Voice, Your Instrument: Learning to Play, is launching our newest imprint, Many Frog Press (yes, Frog is singular — and there is a story to the name). We will shortly be releasing the eBook of Cheryl Romo’s book, Ruby Hands. The paperback of the book was released in the autumn of 2017. Complete profiles of our new writers, and more information about each of these releases will be coming shortly. It’s hard to believe that it is already October, since here in Philadelphia, the temperatures have remained in the high 80s, and are only now beginning to drop. The leaves have been slow to turn, but our Philly Fringe Festival has ended, our students are back in school, and there are signs everywhere that Halloween is fast approaching.


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Recent winners of several of our literary awards have been named. We will be writing profiles and providing much more information about each of the winners, as well as posting the complete list of semi-finalists and finalists of each category very shortly. Jeffrey Voccola, of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, is the first winner of our Blue Mountain Award, for his wonderful novel Kings Row. Marjorie Sandor of Corvallis, Oregon has been named the first winner of our Tuscarora Award for historical fiction for her fascinating novel, The Secret Music at Tordesillas. Our inaugural Willow Run Poetry Book Award has been won by Carol Tyx, of Iowa City, Iowa, for a powerful collection of poetry, Remaking Achilles: Slicing Into Angola’s History. And our latest Eludia Award winner is Justine Dymond, of Belchertown, Massachusetts, for her remarkable collection of stories, The Emigrant and Other Stories.

We continue to work on our literary award submissions, and will shortly be naming the winners in our script awards and several other categories. This is the first year since we’ve expanded the award categories, and the dedication we feel toward the writers who have submitted to us causes things to move a bit more slowly than we had hoped. But the choice is between rushing through the creative work with which we have been entrusted, or providing several readings for each manuscript, done with intention and attention — not to mention great affection and respect.


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We are a bit buried in all this work right now — but it feels wonderful to be this busy with such wonderful activities. Stay tuned for more details of everything we’ve mentioned here, as well as for other blogs, the launch of our book reviews and news about other Hidden River Arts activities.

Enjoy your autumn — and if you are doing NanoWriMo, have lots of fun. Be sure to follow us here, so you won’t ever miss a new post.

The Semi-finalists and Finalists announced for 2018 Eludia Award and the 2018 Hidden River Playwrighting Award

Hello, everybody. Just wanted to let those who submitted to our 2018 Eludia Award and to our 2018 Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award that we’ve announced our semi-finalists and finalists. Please see the full lists here.

Please note that these announced semi-finalists and finalists are for manuscripts submitted for the 2017 deadlines, and will be considered as recipients of the 2018 awards.

For further information about the latest round of the Eludia Award, which deadlines May 15, 2018 and the Hidden River Arts Playwrighting Award, which deadlines June 30, 2018, please see the links. There you will find guidelines and submission information for both.

Please be sure to follow our blog for the announcement of the Eludia and the Hidden River Playwrighting Awards.

As ever, our sincere thanks go to those who have entrusted us with their creative work. We here at Hidden River have always devoted ourselves to the careful reading and consideration of your manuscripts, and will always be in awe of the wonderful, talented community of writers whose work has been shared with us.

Defining Creativity

“What is an artist? A provincial who finds himself somewhere between a physical reality and a metaphysical one…. It’s this in-between that I’m calling a province, this frontier country between the tangible world and the intangible one—which is really the realm of the artist.” — Federico Fellini

Questions about creativity, art, the creative process, the artistic life — however you phrase it, the curiosity is based on one thing: the fact that those who do not experience their own creativity are incapable of understanding those who dwell within theirs.

Fellini is right that the artist lives in a liminal world, between dream and manifestation. But so do we all.  The biggest difference is that the artist recognizes that world of liminality; others aren’t aware of the fact that a part of them lives in that place of dreams all the time.

The best way for anyone to understand creativity is for them to be introduced to their own creative energies.

We live in a world that has systematically devalued and destroyed opportunities to experience our creativity.  Standardized testing, rote teaching, drilling and killing — that is too often how our children are “taught”, and with that kind of numbing out, adults rarely have ever felt their own creative energy.  And to live a life without ever having felt your own creative energy surging through your mind and body — well, that’s not living at all.

Pedagogical theorists are, finally, realizing how under-developed our students are when they are denied time to explore creativity.  But after reading mountains of educational theory on “teaching creativity”, I’ve come to the conclusion that none of them know what they are talking about.  Unless you are an artist, you cannot introduce someone to art.  I saw this in the years when I was a residency artist in the state arts council programs.  I remember one day, walking down the hall of a public school in New Jersey, overhearing a kindergarten teacher giving instruction to the children:

“We’ll be drawing pictures of apples today.  And what colors are apples?  They are red, green, yellow.  There are NO purple apples.  No blue apples.  So, let’s be sure that we use the right colors, everybody!”

I wanted to scream.  I wanted to rush into the room and push her out of the way, and tell the children, “YES there are purple apples!  There are blue apples!  There are polka dot and striped apples!  And where are they?  In your imagination!  So draw whatever kind of apples you can imagine!”

It is impossible for a non-artist to teach creativity.  There, I’ve said it.

So what we need is an avalanche of artists, a flood of artists, entering all levels of the population — interacting with the youngest children and the oldest seniors — inviting them to see their own purple apples, to imagine their flavor, to smell their perfume.

Our society needs its artists now more than ever.  They are the shamans who will lead the way into that liminal province, that is the place where all is possible, pre-manifest and yet real.

So how does one begin to experience their own creativity?  Here’s how:

Go find the artists.   Turn off the TV, the computer and the smart phone.  Surround yourself with live art, if only a little bit, each and every day.  Go to an art museum, listen to all kinds of music (not just the kind you are most used to!), learn about the theatres in your area, and buy tickets — or better yet, go to their preview nights, when audience is often invited to view for free.  Watch live dance performance. Go to poetry and literary readings. Attend open mics in your neighborhood.  Read books – all kinds, but especially literary works and poetry.

Carry a notebook in which you can sketch and write.  Consider taking music or singing lessons.  Try acting.  Draw.  Take a pottery class.  Dance — even if it is only in your living room when nobody is watching.   Invest in some inexpensive art supplies – a sketchbook, some pencils, maybe some water color.  Buy a cheap camera and start taking pictures.  Buy a box or two of those magnetic word poetry kits and play with word combinations on your refrigerator each morning, as you wait for your tea or coffee to be finished.

Buy yourself a copy of THE ARTIST’S WAY by Julia Cameron and read it.  Do the exercises.  Follow her guidance.

Hang out with artists.  Get to know some of the people in your community who are involved in the arts, and spend time with them.  Get involved with what they do.  Your life will begin to change.  It will widen, and suddenly feel more infused with energy.

YOU will feel more alive.  You’ll realize that artists are all around you, and that the world is filled with creative wonder.  You’ll begin to feel the flow of that creative energy moving  around and through you.  You’ll never need to ask again, “What is creativity?”  You will know for yourself, and it will feel wonderful.

Defining the Role of the Arts in Dangerous Times


(Image: Street art in Lisbon, photographed by Maria Panichelli)

That we are living in times which are both insane and very dangerous can’t be disputed. That such times have occurred throughout human history is also indisputable.

As Founding Director of Hidden River Arts, I think it’s essential to examine the role we play, as an arts organization, in supporting artists and the arts at such a time. Our mission has always been to “serve the underserved artist”, and we’ve done our best to live up to that mission. There are so many kinds of underserved artists, however, that it feels overwhelming. Still, this mission seems even more important, during times when the budgets for arts funding are stretched to the limit, when grants for individual artists have all but disappeared across the United States, when other countries – most whose funding for the arts has far outstripped that in the U.S. – are also falling victim to neoliberalism, austerity and the winds of authoritarianism. Art is always under attack in such times, and this is no exception.

What also seems important in these times is to explore the kind of art we, at Hidden River, are supporting and promoting.

Diversity is increasingly important, both in the artists we support and in the art that we are helping to fund through our competitions, our live events, our publishing. A chorus of voices, a multiplicity of perspectives, a growing community willing to honor and celebrate each others’ differences – that is very much a part of what we hope to build. This is an area where I feel we still have a lot of work to do. We will be working harder than ever this year and onward to reach out to communities of artists both here in the U.S. and internationally, which are more racially and religiously diverse. It’s true to say that we have always tried to do that; it is also true that we need to try harder.

This autumn, I left my academic work in order to focus more of my time on Hidden River Arts and its programs. I did this for several reasons, all which constellate around the idea of hope. I left academia because I no longer have hope in the possibility of restoring American higher education by fighting from the inside. I plan to work as an educational activist now, standing outside the institution. I choose now to focus on my own creative work and on the important work we can do through Hidden River. That is where I feel an enormous amount of hope. As an individual, I have come to a crossroad, and I believe that Hidden River has come to its own crossroads as well.

On a personal level, I am no longer willing to allow useless negativity, victimhood or learned helplessness to exist in my life. That there is negativity, that people are victimized, and that feeling helpless or hopeless has become a kind of default state – all this is true. It’s actually a normal reaction to the abnormal conditions we find ourselves in. But I’ve personally lived weighed down by such negativity, with a sense of victimization and helplessness for too long. I know I’m not alone; I think that far too many of us have, in the last several decades, fallen into this kind of despairing state. There are some who would say that this is part of an intentional crushing of the human spirit that comes in times of great inequality and growing authoritarianism. So, as an individual artist, I want my work to stand in opposition to that which crushes the human spirit. That doesn’t mean that the negativity we observe and experience shouldn’t be addressed. Quite the contrary. What it means is that addressing the negatives is only part of what must be done. Seeing beyond them to the newer visions, to possibilities for rebirth, to the rebellious and the revolutionary – that is essential. Art is essential to rebellion and revolt as Chris Hedges says so beautifully. That’s why authoritarian governments work so hard to control it and to crush what can’t be controlled. Vercors believes that the very source of art is man’s revolt against his own ignorance, and his desire to create a universe over which he has some sovereignty.

And as Director of Hidden River, I want to rededicate our organization to that same goal: to stand against that which crushes the human spirit. We want to call forth rebirth, rebellion, and yes, even revolution.

What This Means for Artists

That means that we stand against that which crushes the artist. In this economy, that means the invisibility, the desperation and the struggle which are likely to be the realities of those wanting to live creative lives. This year, we are expanding our programs to offer more supports to artists: that includes interviews, craft discussions and reviews on this blog. It also means a brand new series of podcasts, online classes and an online interdisciplinary arts journal. We are going to be very busy.

We are also expanding our competitions, offering more awards and publication possibilities to writers in a variety of genres from literary fiction to historical fiction, to speculative fiction to YA. We are offering new playwrighting awards, poetry competitions and non-fiction competitions. We will also be offering awards to visual artists and musicians, filmmakers and animators . Our online journal will include all these genres, and will be published bi-annually. It’s about growing our community, providing platforms for artists to speak with each other, to discover and build their audiences, to create transformative networks.

We are growing our internship program, which is already robust, so that more students and interested beginners of all ages will be able to work with us, and will have opportunities to work with the many artists with whom we hope to be building community.

Hidden River Arts has never pursued grants or funding from organizations that would then claim the right to have oversight of our choices or our activities. We have only held one small fundraiser in our entire 20 year history. That will change this year, since the expansions will require that we hold some crowd-funding activities. But pursuing that kind of fundraising means that the power remains in the hands of the people who are members of our community, not in some hierarchical power structure to which we have to answer. It also means that the power to make their own kind of art lies within the purview of the artists themselves. Art by and for the people, not for the powers that fund.

For The Community

First of all, it means that we are looking to make our programs more accessible to the larger community. Out of financial desperation, there are arts organizations, theaters, performance venues and programs which are now “rebranding” themselves for exclusivity, charging exorbitant ticket prices to guarantee that the audience is filled with members of the 1%.

We will never turn ourselves into a luxury brand. We are here to provide, as best we can, for the 99%.

This restated focus means that we will do our best to make our programs available to as many people as possible. We have always offered free live arts events and readings, and will continue to do that. Our podcasts and craft discussions online will be available to everyone. So will our online journal. In other words, we stand against anything that crushes the spirit of our arts audience as well, or anything that would turn audience away for lack of funds.

It also means that we will be looking more actively for art that speaks to the human spirit and the social predicaments, the economic struggles, the issues of human rights. It does not mean that we will be looking for preach-y or pedantic work. Nothing crushes the spirit more than that! We want work that looks closely at the human experience, the social worlds within which we live, the governments, the economies, the power structures and how we can navigate our way through them, as individuals, as families, as societies — maintaining and acting through our many strengths.

We want art that presents truth while reminding people of their own power. We want the energy of the trickster to be alive and well. I was asked recently, “Do you want to be a victim or a trickster?” I think the answer should be obvious to all of us. We want artists and art to reflect the ways we can remain unvanquished, resilient, buoyant, rebellious, triumphant. That is our re-clarified mission at Hidden River Arts, and we hope that you will join us.

Enter the flow of Hidden River

Hidden River Arts is the independent literary and performing arts organization based in suburban Philadelphia, dedicated to the service, support and celebration of all artists. Named after the Schuylkill (Dutch for “Hidden River”) which winds its way through the region, Hidden River™Arts is committed to nurturing the artistic community by providing varied and supportive services to creative writers, and artists of all genres.

Hidden River™Arts is committed to the “Outsider Artist” —  living up to our name — in the on-going search for creative talent and creative activities.  While we would never exclude any artist, we are dedicated to finding the artists who exist outside of the expected places: those creative people developing their craft and finding their voices outside of the MFA programs, those independent writers’ or artists’ groups not affiliated with a university or any funding institution. We will search for the writers who are finishing their novels while working as Emergency Room nurses, sculptures working as steam-fitters, song-writing dairy farmers or choreographer cowboys. We want to reach out to all creative talent, including that which is grown, nurtured, matured in the kiln of “real” life experience. We will endeavor to present information about independent arts groups and support organizations. It is our belief that many, many talented people go unheard because they labor in obscurity or isolation. Many are dispersed throughout the non-academic population with little or no support for the practice of their art. Since it is our position that college campuses should not be seen as the sole training ground for creative talent and skill, Hidden River Arts will always strive to reach out and encourage those more far-flung voices, to aid and support them in their efforts to be heard.
Another of Hidden River Art’s objectives is to offer support and guidance in the form of arts education through outreach and workshop programs for all ages groups. Through our education program, we hope to provide support in all disciplines of the arts. Currently, we have an extensive program called Hidden River Writers, where we offer a variety of workshops, tutorials, on-line teaching or manuscript review, residencies and classes which address the needs of all those aspiring creative writers among us, ages 5 to adult, who want to learn more about the art of creative writing. We are excited to offer support to our very youngest writers. Just as children are given private lessons in dance, or music, or the visual arts, Hidden River Writers believes that lessons in creative writing should be available. Similar outreach and private supports are offered for the teen and adult populations, and we offer private classes, workshops and programs in all kinds of places, including private, public and parochial schools, homeschool populations, Veteran’s Hospitals, Retirement Homes, Clubs (or Communes!) It should also be noted that in all of our creative writing programs, Hidden River is happy to work with individuals or groups with special needs. We are always willing to work with adapted processes, needs for technical support, differentiated instruction. We believe that the study and creation of art should be accessible to everyone.

Our outreach programs now include something we call Hidden River Live. We will be working with venues throughout Philadelphia to create community outreach open mic opportunities for musicians, poets, writers and performers, as well as chances to display for visual artists.

We are always interested in hearing from artists. Let us know how we can better support you and your creative process. And for those independent arts groups out there: please let us hear from you — we would love to partner with others who support the independent artist, in every discipline and genre.  Email us at hiddenriverarts@gmail.com