Silent Barn Financial Review notes
Limited-Edition DVD Director’s Commentary AKA Please bear in mind that all opinions and curse words expressed are mine alone and NOT reflective of Silent Barn as a collective don’t be mean to me on Twitter or do whatever my life is a dumpster IDC.
Hi! My name is Jordan. I’m the Financial Manager at The Silent Barn, a collective-run artist residency, venue and studio space in Brooklyn. It’s super inspiring and a total mess all of the time, and being the Financial Manager means I am the unlucky person responsible for overseeing all the money stuff. We recently prepared a document that is a full review of our entire financial history through the end of 2016 as well as our budgets going until the end of 2022, which you can read here. If you want to tear through it in 5 minutes on your lunch break you can, but if you want inside baseball observations on how a multifaceted underground arts space operates then this is for you!
Right now we are doing our mid-year fundraising campaign which admittedly was put together a little last minute and out necessity. As you’ll read later, Silent Barn has not been doing so great financially but there are some really great plans for the future and room for growth, but first we must get out of this valley we are in between our energized start and our high-performing future, so please take the time to read through our Financial Review, learn what we have learned and if this seems like a project you want to support, please give!
So many amazing things have happened to us in the last few months. We are finally beginning to figure out the total staffing structure we need. Earlier this year we hired in-house bookers to manage our events calendar, and attendance has been on the rise. Our full liquor license came through, albeit 6 months late. A law firm has done amazing work counseling us on the proper way to transition from an LLC to a 501(c)3, so the fundraising that starts with this presentation can soon be headed by a real nonprofit. For so long we have been at sea hoping we are heading towards land, and for the first time we can not only see it but I can smell the grass and see all our friends waiting for us on the shore, and they’re all totally partying.
Programs & Rent AKA The cost of running a tight ship.
I often find myself talking to people who are starting their own DIY space, and invariably during these conversations there will be a moment when they say, “Yeah we are all going to volunteer to work shows and build everything ourselves because we don’t need things to be that nice!” In these occasions I can feel myself looking through them, not having the heart to warn them about the horrible shit they’re about to see.
Pay people! Buy nice things! Everyone thinks that they can save money by getting people to work off their good intentions and making do with everything being half-broken, but the most important thing I’ve learned in facilitating Silent Barn’s accounting is that maintenance costs money.
This concept is easy to apply it to objects and the concrete. For example, if a sink is breaking you can… A) Spend $100 to fix it for good. B) Spend $50 to fix it for cheap and spend $50 fixing it each subsequent year. Or C) Not fix it at all, wait for it to become unusable and then buy a new one for $300. Option A is the most immediate drain on your cash, but it saves the most over the years.
People need maintenance, too. When we first opened there was a prevalent idea that being a non-hierarchical collective meant that responsibility was shared amongst the collective. What we learned is you can’t split one responsibility among 60 people, so you have to give responsibility to individual people, but nobody is going to deal with it unless they receive some form of payment. You can compensate people financially, which makes it a job; compensate them socially, when they volunteer in order to enjoy themselves; or compensate them with skills or some other kind of knowledge. and there is the most valuable form of volunteer payment which is personal identity.
The volunteer spaces I have seen that perform well are usually spaces are either comprised of a very small group of people, or have one person at the top and a revolving cast of modular volunteers under them. Although they are often high functioning, they often run off the energy of such a small number of people that their identities and that of the space become one and the same. This is when a collective becomes a clubhouse.
This is not to say a collective of over-worked, burnt out volunteers too jaded and frazzled to be welcoming isn’t just as exclusive. Additionally, volunteers you are paying with fun and experience also cost money. You’ll save cash not paying people for their work, but you won’t have growth, you won’t have stable income, and you’ll find that people grow protective over the jobs and relationships and hold onto them way past their expiration date only to climax in a harsh wake up of, “Wait, why am I dealing with all of this stress for free?” Then they bounce, making the cost of running a tight ship being that it will only sail you so far because it is staffed with people not giving the resources to navigate.
For a long time we took heavy burdensome responsibilities and stretched it over a collective of dozens of people, and it was both a bad way to addressing our needs and a good way to stress out collective members who I’m sure would much rather not have to worry about figuring out our insurance bills. People don’t want to pay a bill; people wanna chill. So please, for the love of God, just pay your fucking staff.
Fundraising AKA Voluntary support.
In practice, Silent Barn is a non-profit, although we are structured as a for-profit LLC, but fortunately we have never made any money, so the two aren’t in conflict with each other! In the years we brought in more than we spent, the profits never went to the LLC but rather got invested back into the space. All of the individual donations we receive can be tax-deductible if made through our fiscal sponsor, Flux Factory, however a lot of the larger operational grants available on a city, state or national level are off limits to us because we are not a 501(c)3.
To put it best, Silent Barn is voluntarily supported meaning that without active participation in the collective and intentional giving Silent Barn cannot exist. This is the main difference between Silent Barn and a for-profit business. A for-profit business doesn’t encourage strangers to show up and tell them how they should operate; we do. A for-profit business only needs to fill a hole in a market to prosper, but we rely on people giving us money because they believe that they should.
When Silent Barn has needed the support of our outer community they have always been there. The time our fundraising has failed is when we are not experiencing an immediate crisis, which isn’t most of the time, I think? This is why we are releasing our financial history, to show people that the existence of a space doesn’t come down to one giant obstacle to overcome, but rather thousands of small obstacles spread month after month year after year, so we are inviting you to take a look at our books not just to see where it goes, but to hold us accountable for receiving your support.
The scariest thing about asking for voluntary support is it implicitly brings up the question, “Is this space worth my support?” I have faith that it is. Maybe you don’t.
The Past & Future AKA Farewell, lemonade stand.
The first 3 months of shows at our current location were real’ pathetic. We couldn’t serve alcohol and were hemorrhaging money, so there was a little card table with nonalcoholic options that cost just a little less than they earned. It was born out of short term cash panic, inexperience and a drive to do everything in our power to make it work.
“We might be losing thousands of dollars a month, but goddammit I am going to try to sell $2 worth of cider for $3 every night until I save the orphanage!”
Silent Barn is the orphanage, BTW.
It didn’t save us. It didn’t even really help, and I have come to notice this type of behavior is very common in spaces like ours. An art space’s gut instinct is to be scrappy and to make up for what they lack in resources with energy, but energy doesn’t convert to experience at a rate that can make the difference, and in many cases the urgency that comes with that surplus of energy leads to wheel spinning.
I call this the Lemonade Stand Model. You need 10 dollars so you spend 7 to make 8. It is certainly a lot of work, and it might even feel like you earned close to your goal, but it the end you are still 9 dollars short.
Largely due to the fact that I have no education, taught myself accounting on the job and only have experience in the fledgling lemonade industry, it took us years to have proper actuals or any sort of budget. All payments — all investments — were made by glancing at our bank balance and saying, “Yeah, this should work, right? Right? This is going to work?” We didn’t know where we were going, and we weren’t even sure where we had been.
Abundance of immediate needs makes us short minded and none of your energy goes towards long term planning. If you borrowed $50,000 from the bank to start you are probably spending your time thinking about how to pay it back instead of figuring out how to make $50,000 that you get to keep. You never get to thrive because starvation is always a day away.
The last few years have seen a slew of local art spaces get pushed out or forced to shut down. There is a surge of right wing nationalism that is openly hostile towards the arts. Spaces are being told that they have a responsibility to go above the board. In doing so they will trade in amounts of their thrift and freedom for “legitimacy,” and in this exchange we have replaced the old instabilities for new, stealthier ones. This New Instability might not come at night in the form of a MARCH raid but rather in quiet closures and gradual compromises. It lacks the immediacy of repeated visits from the police department, but it is no less threatening.
The lemonade stand needs to close, and in its place we need to open a Jamba Juice franchise, essentially. That might not be the most punk thing I could say, but I look forward to the day when we can worry about the future, not the present, and feel relaxed because we’re not in a state of panic. When that moment comes, I will gladly sip my stupid Jamba Juice in defiance of all the things that almost prevented us.
How can you help? AKA We can do this together.
I understand the case I am making for Silent Barn is idealistic and might not work, and I spent too much of my adolescence on BrooklynVegan to not have the ghost of its old comments section in my head tearing all of my words apart. There will be cynics, but here is the thing: if you don’t like the vision we have for this space then all you have to do is nothing. Don’t support us at the bar. Don’t buy a membership. Don’t play a benefit concert. This vision can’t happen without you, so if this is a pipe dream of mine that nobody else is interested in listening to me go on for so long about that is absolutely fine because the rising cost of being an artist in New York City will act for you.
If you are someone who posts nostalgically about the changing landscape of New York City and of spaces long gone I ask you to take the energy you spend mourning and focus it on why so many spaces are unsustainable in the first place. Maybe you can take that a step even further and ask, “How can the spaces we already have be better?” Silent Barn isn’t perfect now. Shit, sometimes I wouldn’t even say we are good, but being great is still within reach and so is a better vision that I don’t even know what it is. If you want to bet on this crazy future with us we can do it together, but we can only do it together.
Of course, if you want to donate to Silent Barn you can do so here.