Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Friday, February 25, 2011

Talking About Declining Arts Education, Armed with New Numbers

Recapping Research: the SPPA Follow-Up Monographs, Part 1

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to listen in on a two-hour presentation hosted by Sunil Iyengar, the head of research at the NEA. The topic was three monographs the NEA commissioned to delve into the data gathered from the Survey on Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). This benchmark report, which is fielded every four years, looks at the arts attendance habits of just under 20,000 people across the country in order to understand who’s going to what, who’s not going at all, and what that all means.

In the case of these three monographs, the researchers were asked not only to delve into the 2008 data, but also to place it in context with the large trove of data gathered by the SPPA since it was first administered in 1982.

These recaps take a while, so this just covers the first one…I’ll cover the other two next week.

The three monographs were:
All of these, as well as a useful summary document, can be found at

Arts Education in America
Building off of an initial study commissioned by the NEA in 1992 that indicated that arts education was the most powerful predictor of arts attendance in adults, this study analyzed the data in the SPPA since 1982 to understand more fully exactly how central arts education is in the creation of future arts patrons.

Nick Rabkin eased us in with some basic graphs demonstrating facts we sort of already know – that those who repot having had classes in art are far more likely to report they’ve also attended arts events across the life of the SPPA, and then that general education is itself a correlated indicator of arts attendance (more education = more attendance).

Then things got interesting. Rabkin analyzed the number of art forms respondents indicated they had studied, both as a child and as an adult, and found that an increase not only in any arts education, but of a diverse arts education yielded higher average rates of arts attendance in respondents – and that the effect was even more evident with art forms studied as an adult. To pause here for a second, this seems to go against the current prevailing mutterings from some circles that the current adult generation may be simply lost to arts apathy, and that the focus should instead completely divert to children. Here’s the graph (taken from their presentation):

F1. Arts Attendance Rate Predictions Based on Amount of Arts Attendance

Taking, then, the fact that arts education is indeed quite important, Rabkin and Hedberg began an analysis of what has happened to arts education over the course of the SPPA, and indeed, over the last century.

Starting simply, they looked at the percentage of 18-year-olds in each SPPA since 1982 who said they had had arts education as children. The numbers starkly declined from a 1982 high of 64% to a low in 2008 of 49.5%. The pace of decline is increasing precipitously as well. This itself indicates something of an issue, but then Rabkin and Hedberg did something fascinating. They extrapolated the ages of each of the respondents on every SPPA since 1982, and where from there able to figure out the year at which each person turned 18. Using that as an anchor, they laid out the percentage of respondents who experienced arts education as children for every year between 1930 and 2008, with this result:

F2. Percentage of Childhood Arts Education, 1930-2008

What this graph shows is that in 1930, about 20% of children had any arts education. The number steadily rose until 1985, when it was at about 65%. It then began a consistent downward trend, passing through 50% in 2000. Per Rabkin, this downturn was precipitated by:
  • Widespread opposition to taxes associated with arts education, beginning with Prop 13 (right here in California).
  • The emergence of school reform as a high national priority. The report that spurred this reform effort was called “Nation at Risk,” and was published in 1983. It encouraged raising standards and rigorous testing, and included practically no discussion of arts education. Per Rabkin, arts education has been marginalized ever since.

A 15% decline is upsetting, but the problem is actually even more disasterous than on first look. The issue is that that decline is disproportionately affecting non-white populations, and not just a little. Since 1982, arts education for white has essentially stayed constant at about 58% of students. African-Americans and Hispanics, on the other hand, have seen a decline from around 50% of students in 1982 to half (!) that in 2008. The graph is incredibly disheartening:

F3. % of Respondents Reporting Arts Education As Children by Race

I’ve written at length about the terribly disproportionate impact of arts education cuts on non-white populations. Essentially, it is a situation of discrimination by default—schools in less affluent districts (districts where neither the local municipality nor the parents can afford to shoulder the financial burden of providing arts education to their children) suffer more than schools in more affluent districts, and less affluent districts are disproportionately non-white. As I said in an article on this subject last year:

In a country where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2006 median household income for a whlte family was 158% that of a black family and 135% that of an Hispanic family, the fact that ubiquity of arts education is directly tied to affluence means that it’s de facto tied to race.

Rabkin closed with some thoughts on the relationship between the decline in interest in the arts and the decline in arts education, and cautioned not to draw instant, direct connections between the two – at least not only in one direction. Declining arts education may contribute to declining interest in the arts, but it can also go the other way, becoming what Rabkin called “a bi-directional issue.”

Rabkin also cautioned us to understand that moaning about arts attendance and its ties to arts education isn’t going to get us very far with our legislators. In his term, he expected such arguments to be viewed as “trivial.” Rather, we need to advocate for arts education on its own terms, secure in the knowledge that instituting such reform will likely generate some increase in arts attendance in the years to come.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The New Play Sector Talked (and talked, and talked, and talked) in the Capital

This special guest blogpost from Playwrights Foundation Artistic Director Amy Mueller first appeared on Playwrights Foundation's Blogspot. Special thanks to Amy for letting us repost.

Recently, I represented Playwrights Foundation at the New Play Convening at Arena Stage’s new Mead Center for American Theater, hosted by the Bay Area’s own David Dower, founder of Z Space Studio, who is now Arena’s the Associate Artistic Director and architect of the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage. It was an incredibly full four days, with a powerfully eclectic range of people from very different aesthetic/geographic/gender/age/cultural/ethnic identities, representing producing theaters of all sizes from all over, individual playwrights, ensemble theater makers, presenters, festivals, and yes, new play development labs and organizations like Playwrights Foundation.

We did a lot of talking together, and a lot of listening. And those many conversations were a part of a national dialogue, all recorded, tweeted and livestreamed across the country. But all that listening and talking led us somewhere – somewhere that is intangible, and very hard to talk about succinctly. Nonetheless, the momentum of this event will, I believe, succeed in pushing the national agenda about the practices of developing and producing new work and the learning about ourselves and our (un)common work forward.

Not everyone who deserved to be in this circle got to be, and I feel a responsibility to keep writing about it, to share my experience and bring your thoughts and words into the dialogue. If you were in the third circle, on twitter or live stream video, or, if you weren’t, and you want to tell me your thoughts, please respond to my posts here or on Playwrights Foundation’s Blogspot.

It seems fitting that we met up in DC where our elected reps are right now fighting tooth and nail to keep the NEA from becoming irrelevant. The NEA (a relatively tiny agency) plays a critical role in upholding our nation’s value for the arts, and its meaning to “We, The People” in a Democracy. If you haven’t expressed your opinion about cutting the NEA yet, please take this opportunity to do so! I did it in 5 minutes yesterday, and yeah, I felt that glow of citizenship wash over me. No, really, it is extremely important for us to speak up! Do it NOW, and then finish reading this. Okay, so...

Online there is a rich debate raging about NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman’s controversial and frank discussion on the issue of supply and demand in the American theater. You can read lots of interesting commentary on these links Diane Ragsdale and Arena Stage Blog and NEA Blog and I suggest you do. These are some awesomely challenging times for us. It is dangerous, I think, to be dismissive of the firestorm of anti-intellectual, anti-culture backlash. To imagine that our relevancy to the majority is a shared value is myopic. But in the face of a real and present danger, losing faith is not an option. As cultural workers, as the planters and sowers of cultural seedlings, we are damn sure we are relevant but are challenged by issues of solvency.

One of my favorite quotes from the New Play Convening was from Diane Ragsdale, who herself was quoting a professor: “A model is the representation of your beliefs about causality.” Think about it. I don't know about you, but at PF, we are constantly questioning our beliefs about our outcomes, and by inference our models of development. We are constantly making, deconstructing and redesigning our 'model(s)' (for organizational structure, staff roles, governance, and programs for play and playwright advancement). I love the notion that at the heart of all those developing models is belief about impact, a belief about what we mean to cause and how.

So we new play makers are stuck here between blind, passionate belief and the requirement to quantify our impact. Believing in our work, believing it actually does make a difference, in so many ways, as we so claim, believing in art as a transformative experience of beauty, is absolutely essential to making the work – and yet, (and yet), we must become experts in making the case for its relevancy, and become savvy in the business of solvency.

For me, sitting together with colleagues, new and old friends, and talking about our shared passion and our shared responsibility for carrying this work forward, that is, making new theater possible, was exhilarating and inspirational. I did cry a few times, and laughed a lot. Mostly, I listened, actively, heartfully, thoughtfully. It turns out that listening was itself the springboard. And you can listen, too: it's all available at #newplaytv.

Here's to: carrying the flame of passion, the innocence of blind belief, and the wicked ass savvy of financial know-how.

- Amy Mueller
Artistic Director, Playwrights Foundation

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Friday, February 4, 2011

Envisioning Alternatives

Earlier this week, we generated a heated discussion about Rocco Landesman's comments at the New Play Institute on our blog and Facebook page. I walked away from that discussion with the sense that yes, our theatrical ecosystem (from a business standpoint) is unsustainable. Many (sadly, most) theatre artists work for nothing or next to nothing. In spite of this, we are indeed witnessing a rapid increase in the amount of theatre companies springing up around the country, and that increase is concurrent with an alarming decrease in funding sources for these theatre companies. However, as the reaction around the blogosphere is indicating, simply suggesting that we have too many theatre companies without proposing meaningful alternatives to the current system is overly simplistic and frustrating to artists whose life's work is in question.

That's where this post comes in. I would like to set aside this space to envision alternatives to the traditional models that many artists follow as criticized by Landesman: to produce a play or two with friends, to identify a niche in the theatre community, or at least a solid group of artists with whom one wants to continue to work, and then to form a theatre company with said artists. I have noticed a tendency in the theatre community to view creating a new theatre company as a necessary step in legitimizing one's work and building an audience. In our current theatrical environment, this is absolutely true. But can we imagine other systems in which this might not be as much of an issue?

Should established theatre companies, for example, create more opportunities for less established artists to create? What if large companies dedicated a certain amount of resources to smaller-scale "theatre laboratories" in which fringe artists could experiment with the form without having to create an entire theatre infrastructure of their own? How would the large companies benefit from such arrangements?

Could a group of smaller companies pool their resources to establish one umbrella nonprofit coop of sorts that serves all of them (run by a centralized managing director), much as arts organizations will pool their resources to share an office or performance space? Would such a thing even be legally and/or logistically feasible? Would this eliminate enough overhead costs to justify the added logistical headaches?

What sort of infrastructure would need to be in place, do you think, so that artists would no longer need to create organizations to satisfy their artistic impulses?

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Supply, Demand and Apple Trees - thoughts on the Landesman speech

This blog post represents my views and my views alone. These thoughts are not meant to be representative of the views of any organization I work for.

NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman dropped a bombshell on the
New Play Institute national convening last week in the form of eight words: “We are overbuilt…there are too many theatres.”

I'm sad I wasn't actually there to hear the speech, though the full thing is
here. But this statement and its surrounding arguments have sparked a fire
across the theatre blogosphere. (Even the New York Times got into the act.)

Essentially, Landesman argues that we are (and have been, for a while) in an era where even as arts funding and arts attendance decrease each year, arts non-profits continue to sprout up all over the country. Here are some samples from a blog he wrote in response to some of the criticism his speech got at
Art Works, gathering around the hashtag #SupplyDemand:

“The NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA)…reports a five percentage point decrease in arts audiences in this country. This is juxtaposed against a 23% increase in not-for-profit arts organizations, and a rate of growth for not-for-profit performing arts organizations, specifically, that was 60% greater than that for the total U.S. population.”

And later:

“I care passionately about the arts in this country, and I believe that they will always play a vital role in who we are as an American people. But in order to get to where we need to be, we are going to have to have some uncomfortable conversations and prepare ourselves for a not-for-profit arts sector of the future that does not necessarily look the way it looks today.”

This whole thing reminds me of the mini-dust-up we had on this blog a while back around a post I wrote on whether art needed to justify its existence. A lot of people got really mad at that idea, using many of the arguments being made back to Landesman about his proposals:

  • that art is not commerce, and should not be treated in the same profit/loss, supply/demand way that commercial things are

  • that arbitrating value of art is a waste of time, as the value is subjective and can be measured neither by the amount of money a piece of art generates nor by how many people see it

  • that the playing field is uneven and grossly favors the largest animals in the forest.

I guess what I see here is what makes the arts world so fascinating and vibrant—the push/pull of aesthetes and economists, of artists and pragmatists (if those two things should be juxtaposed…I know plenty of pragmatic artists, although it’s worth pointing out that many of them are viewed as “sell outs”).

In a conversation yesterday about Landesman’s speech, one person who was there expressed how upset he was about what he saw as a lack of understanding that what Landesman was proposing would essentially rip the rug out from under many artists who have toiled away at this work for decades. Another said that she thought she probably agreed with a lot of what Landesman said, but that his tone was so off-putting she couldn’t be sure. I can understand both points, although from reading what has followed from Landesman, I’m not sure that’s what Landesman meant to convey.

When you strip away the tone, rhetoric and personality associated with the ideas, I find (for myself, here) that I can’t really find flaw in the equation. I think of the apple tree in the backyard of my old apartment building, which sat untended and overgrown. Every year, what seemed like thousands and thousands of blossoms would pop open on the branches, and then all of them would be pollinated and, since we none of us owned the tree, no one would pinch off any of the fruit. The tree, every year, would become burdened by all the fruit—the branches would bend, the leaves would start to look weak, and the fruit itself was small and sallow—a victim of its own ubiquity.

If we as an industry (as we have) have set ourselves up to believe that there’s always room for one more apple on the tree, that the default to success is to create a non-profit theatre company of your very own, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re all feeling a little malnourished. In this, of course, we need to lay the blame where it belongs, which is with everyone on every step of the ladder from top-heavy arts organizations that favor known artists over new blood to funders who only fund organizations (and then of a certain size, with a certain pedigree and production history) to, yes, service organizations and other support groups that have for years encouraged unchecked proliferation of organizations and an egalitarian, everyone-deserves-equal-support-regardless attitude.

Might we not, as Landesman seems to be arguing at least in part, all feel a little healthier if we spent some time tending to ourselves? Setting aside for the moment the large, scary questions about what that really means, and setting aside the reality that art is commerce, and needs to function on the same set of rules as anything else (namely that if supply outstrips demand, the correct answer is not to prop up the extra supply) – setting aside all of that, I still have to wonder if we’re best served by the current system, or if perhaps the foundation world (and it’s not just Landesman—former Mellon program officer Diane Ragsdale has
written similarly, and Hewlett program officer Ron Ragin has warned of the perils of assuming organizations' permanence) is going to force us to take a long, hard, healthy look at our industry.

Perhaps we’re at an inflection point where “more is better” needs to turn into, as Landesman writes, “we are here to ensure the survival of the most creative and most dynamic.”

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