It’s Not Our Fault

05.16.10 | 4 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, ideas, rabble rousing, theatrical ecosystem

I’ve just finished reading this passionate post by Michael Billington on the Guardian’s Theatre Blog imploring Jeremy Hunt, the culture minister of the new coalition government in the UK, not to cut funding for the arts.  It’s a fairly straightforward argument, complete with the requisite data showing quite clearly that the return on investment for arts funding is solid.  It may not win the day in the UK, even with a new Beckett-loving Deputy Prime Minister, but that’s not why I’ve been thinking about it.

What I’ve been dwelling on (with some jealousy, I must admit) is just how well-funded the arts seem to be in the UK — certainly more well funded than they are here in the US.  (I’m speaking about government funding, of course.)  Even if they do suffer the 20% cut that Billington’s worried about, they’re almost certainly still getting reams more funding than we are.  Life is pretty grand in a social democracy, no?  (The answer is yes.  Yes, it is.)

Now, I’m not pointing out anything new here, of course.  Everybody knows the only tea parties in Europe come with scones and cucumber sandwiches.  The new thought I’m having is this: when we’re struggling to make a living in the theater, when we can’t seem to find a way to make ends meet, when we can’t scrape up enough dough to get a new project off the ground, even though we really have the best intentions, even though we know we’d be of service to our fellow citizens… sometimes we just have to realize it isn’t always our fault if we can’t make things work.  It isn’t always that we aren’t talented enough, or that our ideas aren’t good enough, or that we didn’t work hard enough.  Sometimes it’s just that the system is really screwed up.

Yes, I said it: the system is screwed up.  There aren’t enough human resources allocated by our society, plain and simple, to bring enough of our theatrical visions to life.

Do I sound like a 1960s refugee?  Well, maybe at heart I am.  We need to change the system, man!

I’m not saying that every playwright’s every idea should be indulged — believe me, I’m not.  That way lies self-indulgent crap, if you ask me.  I am saying, however, that there are still too many thoughtful, generous, imaginative, good-for-the-world projects that wither, rather than blooming, for lack of funding.  Too many talented artists that just give up and go home, or live less complete lives than they otherwise should, for lack of funding.

That’s why I think all of us, with some part of our hearts, always need to be activists.  (Like the folks in my hometown, DC, who are working to protest a plan to start adding a new tax to theater tickets, which will surely hurt our industry.)  Why should we settle for a pittance?  We deserve more.

More importantly: if the government gave us more, the return on that investment would be tremendous.

In the meantime, though, I hope the thought that at least part of the problem is the system, not the quality of the work we do, offers you the same modest comfort it offers me… as well as the same inspiration to make things better for all of us, by hook or by crook.

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  • thegene

    I absolutely am loving this blog, have been reading it for a while, and now I absolutely have to jump in here and try to pick a fight.

    I think your initial implied proposition is off: that arts should be more heavily funded by public $. If you look at the numbers a little more closely, taking into account the amount of money ol' Uncle Sam allows people to write off for donating to NPOs, we are actually competitive with other “first world” countries with regards to public funding and the arts. PLUS, the money we receive from individuals does not sway so harshly with the breeze of pop politics, and so is in far less danger of attack from tea party movements or recession-era budget-cuttery UK arts orgs are facing.

    So I think that part of the system, the individual donor driven part, is right on the money and is frequently overlooked. If we increased the NEA to a per-capita match of some European government arts funding arms, I think we would be asking for trouble. Our system does, however, require an artist to produce work that is relevant to an audience other than himself, which is arguably one of the most frustrating things to ask of an artist, but I think lends itself to better work. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that.

    This is not say I disagree with your point on ROI of public funds. Public arts funding is a smart investment for any community, although a hard sell (despite all of the amazing research over the last few years showing the economic benefit).

  • Consider the fight picked, as long as by “fight” you mean “intelligent discussion.”

    I think the fact that a larger percentage of our “public” funding comes from individual donations is a problem, not a benefit. The reason it's a problem is that the money is coming largely from wealthy, largely liberal, largely middle- and upper-class, largely white donors. So inasmuch as the idea that the theater that gets made has to be (or even should be) “relevant” to that audience (because they paid for it) — a point with which I heartily disagree — it's not speaking to, say, the rural poor, or urban minorities, or any other less privileged groups.

    If art were publicly funded, however — if we ALL paid for it, by virtue of paying taxes — perhaps the art that was made really would have to answer to a more diverse audience.

    I doubt it, though. I think the only thing that will make that happen is a genuine desire on the part of theater makers to be of service to audiences. But that's an entirely different point…

  • thegene

    It's like the old saying: one man's fight is another man's intelligent discourse. lol

    I think the point I'm trying to make is that public funding comes with it some very dangerous requirements. The culture wars were before my time, but the arts system in this country today is more a byproduct of that horrible bit of history than anything else. Certainly a diversity of funding is the best solution, but given the choice between public and private funding, private is the way to go.

    Of course the individual donors are liberal, white and wealthy. That describes the current audience, not just the donor base. Diversify an audience, and so shall ye diversify your individual donors. With the private money system, the people who care what's on your stage are the people who care about the art, whereas if we had a model based more on public funding, the people who care would not just be the people who attend your theatre: they are people who want to dictate what should and shouldn't be art in a more general sense. Art can include swearing, and still be good art. We would lose that freedom as artists. (and by we I mean this country. I am by no means an artist 😉 )

    Remember, too, that foundation support is also private money. I think, of all the sources, foundations are doing a much better job than any to help shepherd in a better, more professional arts environment at least on the admin level. Public funding, particularly on the municipality level, is frequently poorly executed and has lead to unsustainable vanity projects. How many small towns decided to open a performing arts center down the street from one at a neighboring town in order to “revitalize their downtown” in the last five or ten years?

    I think to the original point, that if art was publicly funded we would have more diversified art is false. The real issue with arts funding isn't supply, it's demand: there's a lot of money floating around out there, there are just too many arts organizations to be sustained, and a lot of them are unfortunately targeting the same exact audience base (white, liberal, wealthy). The real solution is to diversify our art. Diversity of audience, funding, etc. will not follow until we take that first step.

    … and now I'm off my soap box.

  • I honestly can't believe you'd make the claim that the “real issue with arts funding isn't supply, it's demand.”

    I think we fundamentally disagree here. It sounds to me like a fundamental disagreement on the nature of government, really… one that can't be solved by a series of blog comments. I believe it's government's role to support artists and the arts in a variety of different ways, including direct funding. Personally, I think we should have an Arts Corps. like the Peace Corps, in which artists are simply paid to produce art throughout the country. (We could fund the program for the price of a single fighter plane, I'm sure.) And I think we'd get plenty of diverse art that way. I can't see why we wouldn't.

    As for arts organizations? I don't care about them so much. I care about artists. That's who I'd fund.