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?

  • January 31, 2011
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