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Dear Rocco

01.31.11 | 20 Comments


CATEGORIES conversation starter, funding and support, non-profit theatre, rabble rousing

Mr. Landesman has responded personally on the NEA blog (did you know the NEA had a blog? I did not.) to the conversation/controversy regarding his statements about the supply and demand of the American theater. Its a great read, I highly recommend it, with much to agree with actually. After reading it, I have the following to say.

Dear Rocco,

Here’s what I like about you. You stirred the pot, poking at the survival instinct in every member of the audience you spoke to at our convening. You got the conversation going, and you stuck to your guns.

You were frank with us, and we didn’t have to agree with you to respect your point of view and the transparency with which you shared it. So thank you for that.

Thank you for this post, as well, in which I find much to agree. Yes, we can increase supply (by investing in young audience development, aligning our content with things of relevance to the general culture and being more proactive about allowing people to sample our art form in the time and manner that is most comfortable to them).

And yes, to say that we are over-supplied is not necessarily to say that the oversupply exclusively exists in the smaller end of the arts equation. For most of the theater community, that is the most reassuring statement that can be made- after all, as Kirk from the Rude Mechanicals pointed out, a $5000 grant for their small company can be tranformative in a way that an additional $5k to a larger institution may not be.

So thank you for addressing those key points, and for reminding us that, whether we agree about the ways, we are 100% aligned on the whys- that non-profit theater should exist for the good of the culture- that the arts in general are the “R&D arm” of our society, testing what it means to be human and reflecting back the concerns of the moment in ways that, to quote Meiyin Weng, can “move the body politic one room at a time.”

Here’s my challenge, however. If, as you say, the Fichandlers and Papps of the world created a non-profit regional theater system to escape the pressures of supply and demand… in order to create space for the “R&D arm” of our culture… then shouldn’t the question of how many “butts” are in “seats” at any given performance be purposefully un-linked from the arts organization’s “value” to its community or the culture as a whole? Seen in that context, the relative abundance of arts institutions compared to the audience they reach should be seen as a natural product of the “R&D” model- after all, you don’t tell the national science community to only do experiments that will have consequences that impact a lot of people, or else stop researching. It is in the nature of scientific inquiry that the “game changing” insights cannot be predicted in advance. You’ve got to do lots of experiments – large, small, weird, obvious, not-so-obvious, seemingly frivolous and accidentally essential – before you uncover the one that will transform everything we know about our world forever.

The nature of artistic inquiry is no different than scientific inquiry in this way.

Let’s say arts attendance is truly in decline (which is a statistic I question, since I am not clear on the methodology of how it was arrived at- who was included in the counting?) Wouldn’t Zelda and Joe have said that the impact per person (and the potential impact on the culture as a whole) of a given performance was un-correlated to the number of people who were in the room at the time? Wouldn’t they also say that the transformative impact of that performance was un-correlated to the number of other performances happening at the same time around the city or around the country?

Wouldn’t they have argued that the power of the arts to transform lives, communities and cultures is based, not on its universality, but on its specificity? A world transformed, one life at a time?

In which case, supply and demand is a fundamentally flawed model for looking at the non-profit arts ecology, since it implies that an arts experience is a commodity, like flour or oil, that can be quantified by the number of people who had one, rather than the quality and resonating impact of each experience.

Of course, a funding organization can’t measure the quality of an experience, or its transformative impact on a community the way it can measure “butts in seats.” So its understandable that the supply/demand model would feel more comfortable to a sector constantly in search of “metrics”. But I ask you whether the use of it to make funding decisions is actually at cross purposes with your core thesis… that art contributes something essentially different to our progress as a culture, something that should be protected, at least partially, from not only the dangerous impact of filthy lucre but the destructive reductions of economic language itself?

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  • “something that should be protected, at least partially, from not only the dangerous impact of filthy lucre but the destructive reductions of economic language itself?”

    Well. There are quite a lot of embedded assumptions in that last sentence, which you only lightly unpacked above (arts are not a commodity) about arts, about economics, even about disciplined ways of thinking across disciplines. “The destructive reductions of economic language itself.” I’m shaking my head here at how immediately and forcefully you are willing to write-off the possibility that insights for art might come from the “dismal science”. You might be interested to know that economics concerns itself with more than commodities. You might also be interested to know that the world of business is more and more interested lately in taking lessons in collaboration and creative thinking from the performing arts. Apparently crossing disciplines is good for the goose, but not for the gander?

    • Aaron,

      You know that I am absolutely the first one to say that because we are an art form does not mean we are immune to market forces. And that my past posts on this blog make it all to clear that I think the arts have a lot to gain from spending some time with basic economic theory.

      In fact, I’m shocked I haven’t been clled out yet on my use of the term “filthy lucre” in this post, given its prominent use in my posts on dynamic pricing.

      I think the arts can and should use economic models to seek ways to grow audiences and support our artform. I just think that we should also recognize that what we do is not a solely economic activity. The exploratory/experimental value of our art form was much on my mind this week, particularly as we were deep in discussing new work.

      It’s an imperfect metaphor, granted. And worthy of much more unpacking. But the supplly/demand metaphor is equallly imperfect and reductionist.In my opinion. Looking forward to hearing more of yours!

      • I do think economics has more to teach us, particularly about markets for philanthropy (which are even more full of irrational behavior and information assymetries than even the markets for audiences). I think Landesman missed this entirely. You’re right that I should bring my own thoughts into the conversation rather than play Waldorf or Stadler to others.

        And I caught the self-deprecating tone of your filthy lucre comment, but wasn’t entirely sure where you were going with it. Yes, we are multi-dimensional people, and we ought to give eachother more space for that.

      • Stkbkr95

        Well said!

  • Great blog, Trisha. I am hoping that the work currently being conducted by Wolf/Brown and Theatre Bay Area on intrinsic impact will give us a wider vocabulary with which to talk about the effect of theatre on audience & society. We’ll see. For more info, visit http://www.theatrebayarea.org/programs/intrinsicimpact.jsp.

    • Very much looking forward to that intrinsic impact study. And it was AWESOME to meet you in person, Amy! Let’s do it again sometime.

  • I don’t think butts in seats is a measure of the importance, success, or validity of a work of art, but having said that, I am still adamant that butts in seats, or perhaps more relevantly brains above seats, matter. I give some of my opinions about why and what to do about it here: http://www.facebook.com/#!/note.php?note_id=299471029414.

    None of this contradicts your assertion that a great artistic expression can have value no matter how few people experience it, but it is hard for me to think of many cases in which more isn’t still better.

  • RLewis

    If the arts received the kind of funding that big agri’ and oil companies received, I think that this would be a moot point. Like they need it. I still know farmers in my home state of NC who get govt money to not grow tobacco on their land. Can you imagine getting paid to not do plays in your theater?

    Communicating the value of our shared humanity through entertainment is hard to put on the scale of supply & demand, but then I learn more about the tax breaks and govt handouts that other industries receive, and I wonder why are we always the ones who get taken to task?

    • Scott Walters

      Whoa! Whoa! Farm subsidies are about maintaining artificially low prices for the American people, and for subsidizing not farmers but agribusiness. If you are looking for a model that would shut down all but the biggest theatres in the nation, then look to agricultural policies as a model.

      • RLewis

        I didn’t say anything about “looking for a model”, but you are welcome to, Scott. I could care less about that corrupt system. I just want an equal share of my tax money back. We can find a much better way to disburse it.

      • stkbkr95

        subsidized theater? Why do I continue to hear cries for the 2012 version of the WPA!!

        • RLewis — I simply object to urbanites swinging stereotypes about farm subsidies based on little knowledge. You’d be safer looking at the defense budget…

          Stkbkr85 — Um, we already have subsidized theatre, right? Federal and state grants, private foundations, tax breaks. Nothing new. However, the WPA had one thing going for it: it had a commitment to the arts for the nation as a whole, not just certain communities. We might learn something from that.

    • Stkbkr95

      Can you imagine getting paid to not do plays in your theater?

      What would happen if the community was only allocated a specific number of Mamets, and Durag’s per year?

  • Trisha, I would like to respond to all the blog responses, but time is limited and yours was so thoughtful and challenging that I picked it for a reply. Alas, as much as I enjoy spirited dialogue, even controversy, the distance between our points of view is shrinking by the hour.

    First of all, I wholly concur with and endorse your notion that if I’m going to cite the idealism of the “Founding Fathers” (and Mothers) of the resident theater movement, then I can’t simultaneously endorse a survival-of-the-fittest, how-many-asses-in-the-seats standard. My answer is that I don’t. I think we do have to think about the size of the not-for-profit theater world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean making the strongest stronger. We should encourage the boldest, most compelling, high quality productions wherever we find them. I do take some issue with your idea that a shotgun, rather than rifle approach is called for. To go to your analogy, funders do not fund every scientist who hangs out a shingle. In our panel process, a group of peers makes qualitative distinctions among applicants, not according to size or reputation or the standard metrics of “success” but the perceived value of the work.

    I couldn’t second more strongly your impatience with the increasing obsession of foundations for data-driven measurements. Those may be fine if we’re assessing the socio-economic impact of art–how it can promote social cohesion, child welfare, mental health, economic development, etc.–but what about the reason each and every one of us got involved in this often discouraging but occasionally thrilling work? We all had some encounter with a work of art that left us a different person than we had been before. In the end, that trumps any other “metric”, any compendium of data, any instrumental benefit. The emotional effect is unmeasurable but it is profound. Sometimes the marketplace and non profit funders look at work the same way with the same methods of evaluation: box office, attendance, reviews and national validation. The whole impetus for the creation of resident theaters was to find a safe harbor protected from such exigencies. Within that protection, work could be riskier, longer-gestating, often counter to the prevailing culture. Chekhov, as always put it best: “We must take the theater out of the hands of the greengrocer.”

    It is my fault if the use of the term “supply and demand” conjures up images of the marketplace. Maybe “right sizing” is better, though that has some of the same stigma. I do think there may be too many theaters and perhaps if we had fewer of them, with more support, theater artists could be paid a living wage, something that is clearly not the case today.

    In any case, I am delighted that this conversation is under way. In my opinion it’s overdue. I thank you for engaging this issue in a way that is both passionate and provocative.

    All best, Rocco

    • Rocco,

      Thank you for being both frank and accessible, allowing us (the national theater community) to feel heard in the conversation, even as we agree to disagree at times.

      I have been thinking a lot since this conversation began about WHY the prevailing model seems to be to launch a theater company at the drop of a hat. I think one potential issue is something that was only tangentially discussed at the #newplay convening itself: that there is no clear path for a director to develop his or her career without founding their own theater company. Young directors found institutions in order to build reputations, and then those institutions linger on, long after the founder has moved on to more established institutions. So perhaps a solution to the pop-up theater problem would be to look at the way we draw new leadership talent through the system. Perhaps by inadvertently requiring them to prove themselves as producers before allowing them to work within our institutions as directors and artistic directors we are creating a system which rewards theater companies that are made in haste, repented at leisure?

      • We could also do a better job allowing some companies to “pop-down” when they’ve done what they need to do. The Nine Chicago is one example of a company that is intentionally finite.

        As a finance guy, it is my JOB to help organizations sustain themselves indefinitely, but perhaps that needn’t be the only model.

      • Stkbkr95

        If we did not have the ability to have a theater at the drop of a hat, then the whole concept of Mickey Roney and Judy Garland putting up a show in the barn goes out the window. We should have MORE throw up a show in the local bar / back room and less government, state, local and municipal regulations that prevent and hamper the capitalist idealism that is a part of theatrical magic!

      • Stkbkr95

        If we did not have the ability to have a theater at the drop of a hat, then the whole concept of Mickey Roney and Judy Garland putting up a show in the barn goes out the window. We should have MORE throw up a show in the local bar / back room and less government, state, local and municipal regulations that prevent and hamper the capitalist idealism that is a part of theatrical magic!

    • Margie

      Is it just me or does arguing for a living wage for artists feel like a red herring? Wouldn’t that be more easily solved with more restaurants – or a new Law and Order series in every city? The only result I can see from fewer theatres is less opportunity for theatre artists – regardless of what they are paid. What if we look at the exponential growth as an indicator of potential demand? What if we look at the decline in funding as the problem to be addressed? Where is the argument for investing in audience engagement initiatives to reverse the trend of declining attendance? Who’s to say that decline is an indicator of failed mission rather than a loss of market share to the more heavily financed commercial media? Isn’t the new data from social research telling us that people want more participation in the arts? Why do we expect the artists to market their own product when they clearly can’t compete? Why isn’t this conversation about the responsibility of the business sector to invest in the arts that enriches their community? What happened to the Art Works argument? I liked that one better.

  • Paul Botts

    The facts around us appear actually to suggest that regarding demand for the arts in America, Rocco is correct in detail and incorrect overall.

    Demand for the specific experience of sitting in the seats watching professional artists do what they do onstage is indeed flat or declining. That appears simply to be less of what Americans want to do with their time and that decline appears to be long-term.

    Demand for the personal experience of being artistic, however, has been steadily rising for at least a generation now and there is no flattening in sight. There are two basic ways that demand is expressed: attempting to become a working professional artist, or making creative activity part of one’s daily life.

    The former just keeps rising without regard to facts on the ground such as competition for arts jobs. The National Arts Index reported some really startling data on this: the number of young people seeking college arts degrees, the number of American high school students choosing to take four years of art or music, etc. Music and theater conservatories are just booming, literally cannot build capacity fast enough to meet the demand for enrollment. And of course the steady ongoing boom in young artists starting new arts organizations, recession be hanged, is the entry-level-professional expression of this same demand.

    The latter form of arts demand — adding creative pursuits to daily life outside of seeking to be a professional artist — is also booming. We’ve all seen the various statistics about the “rise of creative participation” that’s going on in this society and the obvious signs of it are all around us. The steady rise in the numbers of Americans signing up to take dance or music or art lessons, the proliferation of reality-TV shows about singing or dancing, and so forth. The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago literally cannot build new classrooms fast enough to meet the demand and that story is being told in every city now. Etc.

    So if we want to discuss demand for the arts and what potentially to do about it, we need to be clear about _which_ demand for the arts we’re talking about. Or do we mean some sort of overall sum total? It’s not clear that either Rocco or any of those responding to him have yet reckoned with this critical distinction.


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