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.”
“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.”