to fail and fail big: 5 Years Later

Introduction | 5 Years Later | Conclusion

The end of 2018 marks five years since the launch of The Field’s publication to fail and fail big: A Study of Mid-Career Artists, Success and Failure.

We at The Field are curious. Where are these 5 artists now? What has changed? What has remained the same? Our retrospect includes updates from the five original artists, Okwui Okpokwasili, David Herskovits, Young Jean Lee, Miguel Gutierrez, and Somi, whom we asked to reflect on the shifts they’ve experienced 5 years later. Their reflections, shared in both video and written form, encourage us to continue to reflect on what we (the big we, arts administrators, funders, producers, other artists, audience, donors, presenters, agents, etc.) are asking of artists and what can we do to help artists thrive.

We look back to look forward, and consider how artists lean into success or failure, with varying degrees of privilege, capacity, and sustainability.

To recap our intentions for the original study:

  • Why the original study? 
    Our goal is to discern the conditions that create success, so that we can replicate these conditions for more artists. In doing so, we can help more artists thrive.
  • What is this study about?
    How do mid-career artists succeed? What are the conditions that created their success? It’s not magic but there are some unspoken truths and not so romantic notions that push one artist toward success and another toward invisibility.
  • Who is this study for?
    It’s for The Field and it’s for the field. For us at The Field, this Study is inward and outward. What we learn from this Study will impact the services we provide, how we provide them and possibly, who we provide them to. Outwardly, the Study will impact our advocacy for artists to the larger sector. For the field, it’s for artists who want to examine why they are (or aren’t) succeeding. It’s for funders who want to have a stronger impact. It’s for presenters, residency providers, donors and board members who feel like they aren’t quite getting it right.
  • Who were the original artists and why and how did we choose them?
    For the purposes of this Study we limited our scope to artists who make live arts and who live primarily in New York City’s five boroughs. We looked for artists who make music, theater, performance art, dance, puppetry, performance poetry, multi-disciplinary and hybrid work. A disclaimer on the scope of our Study The Field works mostly with the world of “downtown” live art and “experimental” work. While our Advisory Council extends from Harlem Stage to the Chocolate Factory, from LMCC to The Map Fund and beyond, it’s all of a certain aesthetic. So this Case Study does not, in any way, purport to present art and artists from all of New York City. It’s a small glimpse of a small world with distinct biases and frames.

5 Years Later - Where are we now?

Skip to: David Herskovits, Miguel Gutierrez, Okwui Okpokwasili, Young Jean Lee, Somi, and emerging artists Evelyn Lilian Sánchez Narvaez & Zavé Martohardjono

To begin our retrospect, we sent a survey with instructions to complete a smart phone video response to selected questions. This was only given to the five artists highlighted five years prior. Due to touring, scheduling, and time, we were able to catch up with David Herskovits (Founder and Director of Target Margin Theatre) and Miguel Gutierrez (choreographer, composer, performer) for video responses. The remaining artists were able to share a brief snapshot of what they have been up to as well. 

David Herskovits

Miguel Gutierrez

Okwui Okpokwasili

movie poster of Bronx Gothic, showing a closeup of Okwui Okpokwasili draped in dark blue fabric, facing right with arms outstretched; overlaid with a black silhouette of her standing, leaning as if about to crumple to the floor)Since 2013 Okpokwasili has presented and toured
  • Bronx Gothic, a 90-minute one-woman semi-autobiographical performance that she also choreographed, where she plays two young black girls talking about growing up, feeling vulnerable, and discovering sexuality. This show was also adapted as a documentary film.
  • when I return who will receive me, a group performance involving seven female performers singing, speaking, and dancing. This work was staged in the underground magazine of Fort Jay at Governors Island in July 2016 as part of The River to River Festival.
  • Poor People's TV Room, winner of the 2014 Performance “Bessie” Award for Outstanding Production,a work that considers the subject of women's resistance movements in Nigeria, specifically the Women's War in 1929, when the country was under British rule, and the kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls in 2014 by Boko Haram. As part of this project, Okpokwasili also researched the film industry in Nigeria, known as Nollywood, considering representations of women in a cinema where African and Western cultures intersect.

In 2018 she was named a MacArthur Fellow, a highly prestigious ‘Genius Award’ that allows recipients the freedom to further develop their talent. She is also a 2018 USA Artists Fellow.

Okpokwasili was a Randjelovic/Stryker Commissioned Artist at New York Live Arts from 2015-2017. Her residencies and awards include Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (2012, 2016), NYFA Fellowship in Choreography (2013), Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Extended Life Program (2014-15), The Foundation for Contemporary Arts’ Artist Grants in Dance (2014), Creative Capital Grant (2016), New England Foundation for the Arts, and National Dance Project.

Young Jean Lee

Headshot of Young Jean Lee, an Asian woman with chin-length straight black hair, wearing a boxy black blouse with white tye-dye streaks.Young Jean Lee regretfully declined to participate due to a very busy schedule. Her play, Straight White Men, premiered on Broadway during the summer of 2018.  

Since 2013 Lee has:

  • Presented and toured Untitled Feminist Show, and Straight White Men all over the world. 
  • Released a debut album, We’re Gonna Die, in 2013 with band, Future Wife. 
  • Released first short film, Here Come the Girls in 2013. 
  • In 2018, became the first female Asian-American playwright produced on Broadway for Straight White Men.

Photo credit: Blaine Davis


Somi opted to contribute to this retrospective with written responses. We recently asked Somi:

  • What do need to sustain your work right now?
    "My work has shifted to larger scale ideas, so I’m always in need [of] major institutional partnerships to sustain and carry out those ideas."
  • What one piece of advice do you have for emerging artists?
    "To strive to be just as creative with their business model as they are with their artistic practice."  

Since 2013 she has:

  • Signed her first major label deal in 2013 with Sony Music to become one of the first artists on their relaunched historic jazz imprint Okeh Records.
  • Released Petite Afrique in March 2017, her second album on Okeh Records. It is a song cycle about the large West African immigrant community in Harlem, New York City in the face of rapid gentrification. The album has won a 2018 NAACP Image Award for "Outstanding Jazz Album."
  • Become a TED Senior Fellow, a 2018 United States Artists Fellow, and a 2018 Soros Equality Fellow.
  • Written a modern jazz play about South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, currently in development and premiering in Spring 2020.

Somi currently lives in New York City.

What does to fail and fail big mean for early career artists?

We shared a survey with over 100 early career artists about their experiences with consideration to success and failure. 18 artists responded. Aggregated data of their impressions are captured below along with video testimonials.

Why do you make work?
From “relating to others” to “processing concerns relevant to marginalized groups,” early career artists offer a variety of reasons to make work.

“Moving unlocks my brain... Today’s charged political atmosphere effects my art more than ever. Inspired by artists who just keep working no matter what.”

“Self Survival + Communal Relief. I yearn to organize and share myself in order to generate strength to thrive in my life AND by sharing my true self (flawed and full of hypocrisy), I believe provides communal relief from the shame that we as a people carry.”

“The ability to both reflect and remodel realities. Expressing ideas important to me in a way that makes them important to others.”

What does success look like?
Success can look many ways, most often by financial stability or artistic opportunities. Early career artists continue to define what that means on their own terms, and whether "success" is what they’re looking for at all.

“Success is feeling emotionally fulfilled.”

"'Being successful' means capitalism. It also insinuates a binary that I do not want to support, or hold myself up to."

"Success means having a healthy and committed artistic practice that engages political dialogue, getting support from curators, programmers, funders, community organizations, having some level of exposure/name recognition in the field (whether by programmers, grant/app panelists) and some press coverage."

“Being successful means having an artistic home and artistic community in addition to platforms and opportunities to share your work with the public. It also means making a living with my artistic work or with artistic work and work-adjacent pursuits, like teaching or uplifting the artistic work of others as an administrator. It means having time to work.”

Do you feel like you can take risks in your art-making and fail?
Taking risks and failure is part of art-making and learning. The industry supports opportunities to fail in theory with work in progress showings or low-visibility low-risk opportunities, yet of the early career artists surveyed, failure does not feel like something they can afford.  

“I feel like I can, but I don’t. Maybe because I’m not willing to zero out my bank account anymore or because in searching for a more sustainable way of making work, I’ve said no to risk in ways that I would have never questioned before.”

“I believe I can takes risks but it's hard to believe that I can fail and that the dance community would hold me in compassion about my failure. I think the limited performance/sharing opportunities in our field instils pressure to please or to be liked in order to receive more (large) sharing opportunities.”

“Theoretically yes, but practically, no, and largely for financial reasons. I believe that emerging artists must take risks in order to further their growth, but productions (and even readings) are prohibitively expensive.”

“Because I have 1 foot in the corporate world and the other in the artistic world I am able to utilize my corporate income to self produce.”

“I feel like I can't afford to fail, even though I do ALL THE TIME as my work depends on taking risks, but it's hard when you feel like you already are lacking support and the more you fail, the more you risk becoming unwanted.”

What is your top challenge as an art-maker?

"Time management"

"Studio Space"

"The challenges of living and making work in NYC. Access to funds and spaces that will hire me."

"Financial stability"

"Forming an affiliation that accelerates the development of my work & me"

"Building an audience."

Hear it from the artists!

Evelyn Lilian Sánchez Narvaez

Zavé Martohardjono


by Executive Director, Jennifer Wright Cook

“I had never before been able to imagine the possibility of financial health... I only thought that I would be in the struggle from year-to-year.” Artist Miguel Gutierrez says this in Part 2 of his video response to to fail and fail big. He goes on to say, “I want agency to really direct my career in the way I want... I am just reactive to opportunities that come my way.”

These words kill me. They break my heart. It feels like nothing changes from 2013 to now, from 2003 to now. From 1993 to now.

Is it getting better for anyone? For the long-term? Holistically?

Or is the system itself so broken that no one can ever really really prosper? Can anyone really imagine a future of financial health? A future where we really have agency? Where we aren’t just reactive to the vagaries and trends of the system?

It’s true here at The Field too. I’m in my 14th year on staff and I still feel reactive and struggling. The scarcity mindset pervades nearly everything we do all the time. It’s the very water we drink.

Watch out world. Since early 2018 we have been hard at work with the brilliant Yancey Consulting on a Visioning Process that has kicked our butts. We analyzed our services, what’s urgent, what’s most needed, who are we and where we should evolve. The information from this 5th anniversary retrospective and the emerging artists surveyed added much needed lived experience to our Vision data-gathering. Our soon-to-be-revealed Vision for the Future incorporates all this information and analysis, and pushes us to address the devastating gaps in the arts and culture system that prevent artists from fully prospering holistically and for the long-term. All of this work combined will push The Field to our next highest level of services for artists - and, we believe, it will transform arts services for years to come.

You’ll hear more soon about where our work is headed but for now thank you to Miguel, Somi, David, Okwui and Young Jean for pushing us to risk and grow. Thank you to Evelyn and Zavé for sharing your thoughts as emerging artists. Thank you to all the artists who push us every day with their hopes and dreams. It’s time to let it all fly.

to fail and fail big: 5 Years Later

Prepared by Program Associate Melanie Greene