The Legitimacy Paradox, or: What to do about Intiman


Up here in the Northwest, the crisis du jour has been all about Intiman Theatre’s recent public cry for help… they need about $1 mil by summertime or they are going to need to close their doors.

Suddenly, Rocco Landesman’s provocative statements about the American theater being oversupplied had a poster child/test case. Was Intiman, in fact, one of the companies that should be allowed to fail in order to re-allocate their artistic and audience assets to other, suddenly better-resourced arts organizations? What was lost if Intiman were to fail? And what, exactly were the replacement costs?

Provocative questions. Particularly considering that there’s nothing hypothetical about it. Real, living, breathing artists and administrators would lose their livelihoods. A real living, breathing audience would lose its artistic home. But in theory the audience would relocate; the donors would give the same amount, just to another organization; and funders would be able to allocate their resources in larger (or at least different) chunks to other Seattle area organizations. The best of the administrators would land on their feet at other organizations that could use their skills. Some might decide to pursue other lines of work.

Plus, there is a strong economic argument to be made that the dot com boom of the nineties encouraged a non-profit bubble in Seattle… all that new Microsoft money looking for tax shelters and a place to do something meaningful with their wealth pushed all sorts of nascent arts organizations from hungry to huge, practically overnight. Back then there was a sense that there was just money, you know, lying around.

A lot of that money evaporated when the boom went bust. The young rich microsofties who remained started having kids, changing hometowns and generally using their wealth in different ways and in different geographic regions. When bubbles burst in any market there are casualties. Perhaps Intiman was just a decade late in feeling the effects of that *pop*.

Then there’s the issue of reputation. As someone who lives in the NW but not in Seattle, my knowledge of Intiman as a theater company is as much a function of the industry rumour mill as it is their official communications (or even the analysis of the official press). And through that rumour mill, I must admit, I had gotten the impression that Intiman has been helmed, for some time, by Artistic Directors of high quality who were, perhaps, a little cavalier in their relationship with their own Seattle-based audience. The story went that their eyes were on tonier climes, and Intiman was simply a wet mossy stepping stone on the march to Broadway, or at least Steppenwolf. I have no idea how accurate this last assessment is, and I feel absolutely un-qualified to assess its accuracy myself. But the fact remains that this has been said about Intiman. Many times. By many people. Of varying levels of credibility . In marketing terms, what many people “know” about your company is part of your brand, whether it is actually accurate or not. And this notion, that Intiman has not connected with Seattle well because of too much focus on the national scene, has been bandied as a key reason for its current troubles and a chief justification for allowing it to fail.

The argument from some Seattle artists circles has been, “They don’t care about us. Why should we care about them?”

So should they be allowed to fail? What (if anything) is ultimately lost if they do? Perhaps a Seattle without Intiman would have the space to organically grow a better arts institution that was more responsive to its own audience?

In search of my answer to that question, I find myself stepping away from the facts and figures of institutional economics and instead recalling a conversation I had with David Loehr on #2amt a year or so ago. We were discussing the barriers that new plays have to overcome in order to be read, produced, and ultimately shared with the world. Set aside quality, for a moment, which every play needs. Let’s assume we have two plays of equal quality. What factors determine whether a play gets produced and has a life in the American Theater?

These three came to the top in our reckoning:

1. Visibility (people had to have heard of it)
2. Recommendation (it needed to be recommended by someone of trusted reputation)
3. Relationship (a personal relationship the playwright has with the institution)

All three fell under the umbrella idea of “legitimacy.” A new theatrical work must be in some way legitimized if it has a chance to make it to first production and beyond. It’s an absolutely critical resource, and the trajectory of any new work can be measured by the legitimizing influences that speed it along its path. Have I heard of it? Do I know someone who recommends it? Do I know the creator him or herself? What other orgs have done the piece? Are they of the same quality as us?

Perhaps you can see where I am going with this.

Intiman, the Tony -Award winning regional theater with artistic directors who went on to direct on Broadway and a stellar reputation for stewarding plays and productions that have gone on to national prominence, is a hugely legitimizing force in the Northwest theatrical scene. It has arguably been a legitimizing force for the national scene, when you look at the plays (like Lynn Nottage’s Ruined) that have started there and gone on to national prominence. The relationships its artistic directors have cultivated, and the brand it has built for successful new work development are a critical resource for both the regional and national arts ecology.

And the tricky part about legitimacy as a resource is that it is not tranferrable like other organizational assets. Once a company is dissolved, the value of its advocacy on behalf of the art it champions can’t be passed down to new, smaller organizations (although any individual organization might ultimately claw its way up to the level of legitimizing influence that Intiman enjoyed). That lost legitimacy could take decades to recoup. In the mean time, both regional and national artists lose the visibility, resources, and access to national relationships that the Intiman has historically provided.

Plus, the failure of one legitimizer has unintended consequences for the whole field.  Intiman’s reputation helped burnish the reputation of the entire arts community in Seattle. It helped make the Pacific Northwest a more viable place to make a living in the arts. And its loss would potentially shake the confidence of the entire Seattle arts community; and the artists, funders and audiences it serves.

Let me tell you from personal experience what happens when an organization like Intiman reaches the brink of failure: the press and the public go digging under the floorboards of every other arts non-profit in the area, looking for bodies. If a Tony Award winning theater can fail, the thinking goes, then perhaps all of our arts organizations are more vulnerable than we imagined.

So quibble all you want over the hows and whys of the Intiman’s current precarious situation. But when you ask whether or not an organization like Intiman should be saved, be sure you are looking at the whole costs.

Ironically, the complaint that makes some resistant to assisting the Intiman in its time of need (that it has been more focused on national relationships and reputations than on cultivating its relationship with its own community) is paradoxically the exact reason it should ultimately be saved. Those national connections, that stellar reputation, are priceless intangible resources that Seattle can ill afford to lose.

Could those resources be put to better use in service of the community it calls home? Absolutely.

But you have to conserve those resources to be able to re-direct them effectively.

Don’t worry though: Any company that goes through a “dark night of the soul” like the Intiman is currently experiencing (and lives to tell the tale) steps into the future keenly aware of the deep debt it owes to audiences and community that helped to save it.

  • February 17, 2011
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