Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

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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At February 1, 2011 at 11:56 AM , Blogger Elana said...

It seems to me that there are two separate issues at play that are getting lumped together to the detriment of the conversation as a whole. First, there is the issue of funders taking a good long look at who they are funding, at what level, and why. To this end, I take no issue with the comments that Landesman made on his NEA blog post ( in support of funding fewer organizations at a greater level with the explicit purpose of ensuring "the survival of the most creative and most dynamic" companies (without regard to size). It is possible that the theatre community as a whole would be better served if larger, more meaningful grants were made to fewer organizations, particularly if these grants are given out to support risk-taking organizations rather than simply continuing to fund "the big guys." Of course, we could argue to no end about what organizations should be funded and why, but to me this seems like a decision that is completely within the purview of granting organizations. I absolutely support funders strategizing how they can best serve the theatre community, and if that means larger grants to fewer organizations, so be it.

The second (far more problematic) issue is the assertion that the funders can actually control the amount of supply of theatre companies. I find it bizarre that Landesman would think that the NEA has any degree of control over how many arts organizations there are out there, particularly given his acknowledgment that theatre companies are increasing in spite of an overall decrease in funding over the last few years. This represents a gross misunderstanding of what drives people to create theatre and art. (Hint: It ain't money.)

Additionally, I question what "over-supply of theatre" actually means to Landesman, or if it is a useful term at all, as it implies that were there fewer theatre companies, audience members would flock to those companies that still exist. To say nothing of the obvious dearth of theatre companies outside of city centers (I don't see a glut of theatre companies in, say, rural Idaho), this presumes that theatre companies are only competing with each other when they are, in fact, competing with an ever-growing supply of alternative leisure activities. When most of my friends are deciding how to spend their time, they don't reserve a specific number of hours a month to go to the theatre, they participate in whatever cultural event (or video game, or rock concert) appeals to them most at any given time. To presume that reducing the amount of theatre offered would create an increase in audience attendence for those lucky few companies spared the NEA axe is reductive and naive.

Economics aside, I question whether reducing the supply of art would even be beneficial to the art form. From an economic standpoint (disclaimer: I am NOT an economist), doesn't over-supply increase competition? And isn't competition a good thing for audiences in that it breeds experimentation, diversification and innovation? It seems to me that *creation* is what fuels artists, not money.

At February 4, 2011 at 4:09 PM , Blogger Brad Erickson said...

I was actually in the room along with others attending the New Plays Institute and the effect of the Chairman’s words were immediate and visceral. Here was the arts’ national Advocate-in-Chief declaring baldly—and seemingly without a sense of loss or regret—that the nation’s nonprofit theatre sector was “overbuilt,” and that a wide swath of our community must, for the good of all, simply go away.

Landesman sited principles of supply and demand and asserted that the number of nonprofit theatre organizations vying for support had become unsustainable. His interviewer, Diane Ragsdale, recently the arts program officer at the Mellon Foundation and now a researcher and consultant, had made similar observations on her blog a week or two earlier. Others have come to similar conclusions for some time. During even the worst years of the current recession, the number of U.S. arts nonprofits has increased by 3,000. Here in California, some 10,000 nonprofit arts groups fight for support. The thousands of arts organizations besiege public and private funding agencies and overwhelm program officers here in California and nationwide.

They also provide scores of thousands of arts offerings to the people of this state and the nation. Our own “overbuilt” sector brings live theatre experiences to communities across the country, cities and towns that had never known locally-based professional theatre until the dawn of the nonprofit regional theatre movement arose—at the Arena and a handful of other sites far from Manhattan—some sixty years ago.

Interestingly, despite the focus of the recent firestorm, the larger point of Landesman’s address was to call nonprofit theatres back to their founding sense of purpose, urging them to better distinguish themselves from the commercial theatre and offer an alternative to what Landesman called our current “Age of Success.” Rocco, the long-time Broadway producer, challenged theatres to return to their missions and create art that speaks powerfully and uniquely to their local communities—commercial “success” be damned.

To realize that vision—of home-grown, professional quality theatre speaking powerfully to local issues—in every American community we will need more theatre not less. Supply and demand is a two-sided equation. Somehow in America, we seem to be able to support liquor stores—and churches—in almost every community, no matter how tiny the hamlet or blighted the neighborhood. In a follow-up blog post, Landesman tempered his Darwinian remarks by pointing to increasing demand as a possible alternative to decreasing supply.

Landesman and many others point to where to start. First is bolstering arts education. Here in California an entire generation of public school students have been deprived of the kind of training in the arts that builds a sense of appreciation and a desire to both make and attend arts offerings that spans a lifetime. We must demand that the arts—declared by both the federal government and the state of California to be a “core” academic subject—be taught, in school, to every child. Going further, our field, as Landesman advises, should find ways to translate the public’s keen interest in performing arts-related programs like Glee, and Dancing with the Stars into attendance at live arts events. Even more, we should find ways to tap into the millions of Americans who are consuming arts online—and who, studies show, are three times as likely to attend live arts events—if we can just get them in the door.

Focusing on the audience and their reaction to our work and their relationship to our organizations can no longer be the chief concern of marketers or even high-minded foundations. Creating a real hunger for the experience of live theatre—and then sating that yearning with deeply satisfying work and not just sugary crowd-pleasers—is core to our nonprofit missions and key, in these sink-or-swim times, to our very survival.

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