Earlier this year I started taking some classes at Upright Citizens Brigade. I figured, I'm in LA, what the hell! I was signed up for a course due to start a couple of weeks ago, right after UCB announced they were ceasing operations, with no mention of a refund.
Then came the mass layoffs.
Let's look at a brief timeline including some bits from my e-mail inbox:
- 3/12 E-mail subject: UCBLA: Update on Operations - Please Read. UCB locations are closed. A couple of choice quotes from this one: "We would like our staff and community to take this time to care for themselves and their family." Also, "Consider your course paused or postponed (if it hasn't started yet)."
- 3/17, E-mail subject: UCBLA: New Dates Online with Instructions + Teacher Change. I was informed my class had a new teacher, a new start date, and was online. "We pushed back the start date of your class to give everyone a little more time to get online." Note: there was no intermediate e-mail. Additionally, the word "refund" has not been mentioned to me one time, despite the fact that my class had moved, my teacher had changed, and I may or may not have a Google account, an effective internet connection, or regular access to a computer where I live.
- Also 3/17: The mass layoff e-mail went out as specified in the above article, and the above article was published.
- 3/17: I receive an invitation to the Google group for my class.
- 3/20: I received an automated e-mail reminding me about my class where the only real change (other than, you know, the different teacher and the online-yness) was that the address of my class location was now just "Your [as in my] Address"
The day after (3/21), Seth Simons continued his reporting by following up with the CFO of UCB, Daryl LaFountain – who in the previous piece had asked Simons "never to call [him] again"– for a fascinating interview (spoiler: LaFountain is a fucking bonehead).
Just so I don't get sued for calling this guy a "fucking bonehead," let me provide some quick evidence before continuing.
SS: UCB is owned by Amy Poehler, a multimillionaire.
DL: I should be a multimillionaire.
I'm not talking about you.
I should be the king of England.
What do you mean?
Because a lot of them aren't and a lot of them should.
Yeah, they should.
Okay, so I should be the king of England.
Just to further underscore the boneheadedness, although Simons here was discussing the fact that the rich owners of UCB should be fully paying the staff during the shutdown, this came up because of the even less controversial issue of UCB not paying out its employees sick days. It's not required by either relevant state's laws but it's hard to see something like that as supererogatory given the circumstances.
Anyway, the rest of the conversation is Simons trying his best to at least present a perspective and LaFountain acting like – read it out loud, say it with me this time – a fucking bonehead.
But that's one of the only things wannabe landlords know how to do!
Get Opaque Money Out of your Art Community
You might need an actual landlord (for now). You might need to lease a space or rent a space or come to some agreement for your festival or your show.
But you and your artistic collective or community don't ever need a wannabe landlord.
As of right now, that's all UCB is, institutionally.
But it's not alone.
Opaque money in thin-margin, poor artistic communities is the norm. It's sort of shocking how much of a parallel UCB's setup has to the comic festivals I complain about so often:
A few people at the top charge hundreds of dollars a head so that the people who fund the venture have the opportunity to perform free labor and then maybe some of the people involved luck out and get substantial monetary returns as a result.
I might as well be describing TCAF! Well, minus the hundreds of thousands of dollars in government grant money.
You may think that UCB is different than these things because it exists as a perpetual free labor machine for people in the community to pay into; but, collectively, the comic festival circuit already does this job!
"But Austin," you're thinking, "this is awfully dramatic. There are no millionaires in comics colluding to keep this going."
Right, because the economics of this setup fucking suck. That's why they're wannabe landlords. Also, the UCB 4 aren't rich because of the current setup of UCB (all evidence suggest that financially it's been a mess, but we have no idea!); however, they still reap benefits from it. For instance, UCB signed a cable deal. You could argue that deal was from Poehler's fame alone, given how famous she is, but the fact of the matter is UCB is a wieldable brand and it was that brand that got the cable deal. The same brand built on thousands and thousands of hours of free performer labor and fees from artists, in some cases merely paying for the privilege to work for free.
Art communities lack self-determined collective infrastructure and it is showing right now. I cannot believe that "We would like our staff and community to take this time to care for themselves and their family." is a real line that UCB sent out in an e-mail just five days before mass-layoffs where they did not even pay out accrued sick leave, let alone explicitly offer refund options to financially vulnerable students.
Part of the problem is the lack of a real social safety net in this country. In fact, I think the most valuable thing anybody can do for working artists in this country is to push for an aggressive expansion of such things beyond the scope of Covid-19. But safety net or not, these organizations need to be held accountable for how they use the community's money and time.
Who is going to do it?