Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dear Rocco Landesman, We don't want your Theater Death Panels

Will the NEA start to execute theater companies? 
By Barry Johnson

Portland's own Trisha Mead, recently named director of marketing and communications at Oregon Ballet Theatre, found herself quoted in a New York Times arts blog yesterday, a post by Robin Pogrebin about certain comments made by Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts. Mead wasn't happy about Landesman's comments, but before we rush to Mead's side in this dispute, we'll play it straight for a bit.

[UPDATE: I posted on this topic several times, as events unfolded. This is the first post. The last one responded to Landesman's own blog post on his original comments.]

Speaking at a conference on new play development in D.C., Landesman went off-topic for a moment to talk about the bigger picture -- support for non-profit theater in general. Landesman comes from the for-profit branch of the theater world, of course. He was the president of Jujamcyn, which operates several theaters in New York City, and he has produced many major Broadway shows (including Angels in America).  (He's had a varied background, as his official NEA bio attests.)

At the conference, talking about the difficulties of funding theater,  he said: “You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.” Demand in this case is the audience; and supply is the number companies that produce theater.

Pogrebin called him to check this quote. Did he actually tell the assembled theater people that they needed to start thinking about going out of business? Yes, he did.
“There is a disconnect that has to be taken seriously — our research shows that attendance has been decreasing while the number of the organizations have been proliferating,” he said. “That’s a discussion nobody wants to have.” Foundations and agencies like the endowment should perhaps reconsider re-allocating their resources, he said, perhaps giving larger grants to fewer institutions. “There might be too many resident theaters — it is possible,” he said. “At least we have to talk about it.”
Mead's response (before moving to OBT, she worked at Portland Center Stage and helped start the Fertile Ground festival) was to ask some penetrating (and angrily punctuated) questions: “What does he mean there’s too much supply?!? What does he mean we can’t increase demand?!? Who determines which theater companies are wheat and which are chaff?!?”

I want to back up a bit for some larger context, talk about Landesman's choice of terms (which were  poorly chosen), discuss who really supports theater in America and who doesn't (the NEA for example), what makes a healthy theater ecology, and some of the more unsavory implications of his comments.

In modern, hyper-capitalist America our cultural life is created by the massive amounts of marketing money and creative intelligence devoted to directing our attention to various empty spectacles that can be easily converted to cash -- big-time sports, Hollywood blockbusters, network television, touring pop Broadway shows and musical acts. I say empty, though that's a relative term (and I don't mean that that they don't have content that can be interesting to parse for information about our social desires, norms, obsessions, etc.). We've talked about this before.

At the fringes of this culture sits your average American theater company, operating with a tiny marketing budget, an after-thought in the great scheme of things, maybe, but dedicated to keeping a specific tradition alive (live theater) and another way of looking at the contemporary world (that of the playwrights it produces as interpreted by the company itself). It's a non-profit for two reasons: 1) it probably couldn't make it as a for-profit enterprise in the entertainment market, and 2) as a society we've determined that supporting theater by granting theater companies and their donors a tax exemption is in our mutual interest.

The federal government supports non-profit theaters directly, but not much. The entire budget of the NEA is $162 million a year. Even if all of that went just to theater (instead of museums, symphonies, festivals, etc.) and Oregon managed to snag its fair share (by population), our theater companies would be splitting less than $2 million. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival would love its share of that, I'm sure, but it wouldn't be a game-changer, less than $1 million in a budget that is more than 20 times that, so less than 5 percent. As it is, though, the NEA's support of Oregon theater is tiny, though in this particular universe, every $5,000 helps.

So, why does Landesman even care how many theaters exist out there, producing the over-supply? He does practically nothing to keep them alive, after all. He's the king of a paltry kingdom, the keeper of a poor-man's purse. But, let's assume he's eager to spend his money as wisely as possible, as opposed to just creating a bit of a stir for self-promotional purposes, and that he has the overall health of theater in America at heart.

"Demand" is a funny word for Landesman to use in this context. (It harkens back to his days as the manager of an investment fund.) The whole idea of "non-profit" is to remove raw consumer demand as the dominant consideration for our imaginary theater company (or at least moderate its affect somewhat). So far as a society, we have agreed to the following proposition: Whether people show up in droves for Shakespeare or not, we still think Oregon Shakespeare Festival should survive and even thrive, because we value the art form and what it gives us. Whether attendance is up or down, our essential "demand" stays the same -- we want it to continue.

But let's talk about attendance, anyway. I'm always a little skeptical of "research," mainly because I myself would be such a bad respondent to a survey. How many plays have I seen in the past year? Honestly, I have no idea, and not because it's in the hundreds or something, because it isn't.  I just don't keep records of that sort of thing, and I could never remember on my own. Anyway, a recent NEA study said that the number of American adults who attended a (nonmusical) play in a 12-month period shrank from 13.5% (25 million) in 1992 to 9.4% (21 million) in 2008.  Those numbers may be accurate (I have my doubts); more likely the trend is true, and theater companies have had to adjust to shrinking attendance. (Though not here -- I'd say attendance at Oregon theaters is higher now than in 1992, though I'm not sure exactly how I'd prove that, definitively, without a lot of effort; I have kept fairly close watch on these sorts of things here since 1979, in my defense.)

One of the ways they've adapted is by raising ticket prices. By failing to fund theater at even a modest level, national/state/local governments have mostly kept the middle class out of the theater (and glued to their televisions, presumably, where they can become captives to advanced corporate sales pitches), at least out of the major theater companies that Landesman means when he says "theater." (The "resident" companies he refers to are only part of the overall theater ecology, of course. Which we're about to get into.)  My hypothesis is that attendance wouldn't have gone down if the NEA had been funding theater at anything close to European levels during the past two decades; it would be much higher because ticket prices would have been lower, despite the genius and the money that directs us elsewhere.

Driven to the fringe of American culture, theater artists have figured out how to survive, primarily by funding their work themselves. The major investment in American theater, what has kept it alive here despite the poor funding levels of the NEA, has been the unpaid and poorly paid time of our theater artists. Period. Until Landesman acknowledges that, he doesn't have the standing to comment on how non-profit theater should be funded, in my opinion. Theater is more than Broadway (thank heavens), and non-Broadway theater is a creation of artists, first and foremost, and then the rest of us, insofar as we've helped.

Now, if I suggested to Portland's theater community that, frankly, some of them should give up this self-investment,  I would be presumptuous, but merely presumptuous. Who cares what I think?

But Landesman's presumption (which is monumental in this case) is particularly invidious because 1) he controls some  money himself, and 2) he's considered a policy leader in the arts as chairman of the NEA. He says that governments and foundations should start de-funding theater companies, presumably until "demand" and "supply" reach a balance (here's another question in the vein of Mead: How do you know when that happens, Mr. Landesman?!?!).  I've heard other funders say similar things, so it's not like his position is an isolated one. Landesman gives that position some credence.

What would happen if Landesman and company culled the herd, assuming that they could come up with a methodology for this killing off of theater companies that makes any sense at all? How many theaters is Landesman prepared to fund? One per state? How many theater companies should Meyer Memorial Trust or the Collins Foundation fund? The same? One? If we funneled all available money to one theater company, and managed to drive the others out of business, what would happen to attendance then? I suggest that it would drop off the map -- because no single theater company can address the needs of the public. Those needs are too broad, too changeable. "Hamlet" serves some of them, but not all of them, and sometimes I don't need "Hamlet," I need "Superior Donuts" or "The Imaginary Invalid" or something entirely different. The one big theater as a financial enterprise might do OK, but the culture itself would suffer.

One company can't generate an entire theater ecology, even in a city the size of Portland. Two couldn't, either. Or three. In fact, I'd argue, that at this particular moment, an important element of our cultural ecology is all the little theater companies that actors, directors and designers are dreaming about starting as you read this, planning to start, about to launch. This is a form of "demand." It is also a form of "supply." It is crucial to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre and all of our other theater companies -- the possibility of something new, something great, something that changes our way of thinking about things, something that keeps us looking into the theater corner to see what's going on.

Attendance is a problem that each company faces alone, but it's solved as group. Every little theater company, however evanescent, attracts a few people new to theater to its audience and shows how theater can help them. They start sloshing around to the other theaters, looking to fulfill more of their needs (I'm using needs very broadly). If they don't have a lot of money, they confine themselves to the smaller theaters or look for bargains at the bigger theaters (which have lots of them). The more inventive the companies are, the more people come. The more inventive one company is, the more inventive the other companies are likely to become. Theater in Portland is better and more interesting (from my point of view) than ever, primarily because there's more of it -- and that energy is attractive. And as I said, I believe the audiences are larger in sum, also, and not just a little larger, as a result.

Again, most of the investment is coming from the artists themselves. So, why does Landesman want to change things? Allow me to be presumptuous for a moment -- about Landesman.

I think he understands what a poor job he and the NEA do at supporting theater. I think he feels guilty about that, about all the little theater companies hanging by a thread, paying their artists very little (even when they are Equity). He's willing to make the "tough choice" (Dear funders of the arts, the artists make the most important touch choice of all by resolving to become artists in the first place), pick a few winners and call it good, so he doesn't have to keep disappointing everyone -- including himself. So he makes unsupportable or nonsensical statements, such as "demand is not going to increase." He couldn't possibly know that, even in the way he means it, not in a universe as large as the U.S., not into an indefinite future.

The NEA is such a minor player in the arts that it can't say "off with her head" to anyone and make it stick, of course. And uur foundations already pick winners and losers. Our state and local governments spread their money around broadly, favoring the larger institutions with basic operational support, though even that is a small percentage of their overall budgets, but giving lots of groups a little money. I used to feel the same way that Landesman does about this democratic approach. How much could that $5,000 possibly mean? Well, for some companies at some specific times, it can mean a lot, especially as an encouragement. And it acknowledges that each of the various niches in the overall ecology should be supported; that if one dies off, the whole is diminished.

I definitely don't want the NEA to convene Death Panels for the arts -- form meetings of foundations, local and state government agencies and large donors to decide the fates of individual theater companies.  I want these agencies, foundations and individuals to make independent decision -- if one of them believes in the little Beckett theater in Pendleton, then by all means send them some money. Don't wait for someone else to believe, too.  Again, we know a diverse ecology is healthier -- diverse in subject, approach, size, ambition, budget, you name it -- because it's more adaptive. Landesman's proposal ends in a monoculture -- a dull theater, attended by fewer and fewer people, and because it's judged by "demand," by attendance, gets less and less money in support.

Again, Landesman can't make this so, but the idea is ridiculous, so opposed to the way he SHOULD be approaching things, that sober-minded people should immediately condemn it. Consider this a condemnation. 

Mead's rhetorical questions are entirely just. "Over-supply" is a weirder word here than "demand." We have too much theater? How could you possibly decide that, except from a business, for-profit,  point of view? Do we need fewer books, too? Because people buy fewer of them these days? Will Landesman decide which get published and which don't? What's bad business, might be good culture, and Landesman should be supporting culture as chairman of the NEA, first and foremost.

We can't increase theater attendance? I'm already suggesting that we have in Portland, thanks to marketers like Mead herself, in part, but mostly because the public here has responded to the investment of the artists themselves, which luckily for us, continues to grow. The likelier we are to have our heads spun by theater, the more we're likely to go.

Who decides what theaters to support? We all do that every day, deciding to attend this show as opposed to that one, sure, but also by deciding to volunteer here or give a donation there. And by talking about the issues that the theaters raise -- psychological, social, political, historical, theatrical. Because of the nature of theater here and now, a small investment -- of time, of money, of thought -- can mean a lot. It can help generate theater that responds to our needs in the best and most surprising ways.

That's what the NEA should be talking about, that's what Landesman's "conversations" should consider, not some weird triage that Landesman wants to conduct because of the historical poverty of his own agency. With a tiny amount of money, how can we encourage the greatest flowering of theater that we can?

Dear Rocco Landesman, maybe you should ask the artists and their communities about this, just for starters, instead of thinking you have all the answers already.


Mead said...

Thank you for a well-reasoned response to Rocco's ill-considered comments. Those who regard the arts as just another consumer commodity will always be puzzled by apparent "over-supply." But you don't get great art by promoting a survival-of-the-most-commercial ethic. Rocco should get out more. For live performance, at least, the nations with the most vigorous and impactful theaters are also the ones with the most government support. The U.S. lags far, far behind them already in its support of the arts in general.

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks, Mead. And thanks for slogging through the post. It's not exactly a 'commercial' length itself!

In the U.S. we consider that a paradox -- that a theater w/ larger government subsidies would be more alternative -- but that's just because we think the "market-place mentality" is universal, its logic obvious and inescapable.

david said...

Thank you for an excellent analysis of what Rocco said. It seems a lot of ink has been spilled in attacking his words and his callous attitude. What I haven't seen so much of though is any real thought given to his ideas. No one involved in the American theater wants him to be right, it's only logical that we become indignant. And while I agree with you that the “whole idea of non-profit is to remove raw consumer demand as the dominant consideration” that’s just not the reality. Our theaters are more dependant on audiences than ever. So what if we move past that argument and entertain the idea that we have more seats to fill in our country than we have butts to put in them. What if we add up all the seats in all the performances in all the theaters across the country - we should include all the for profit and non profit, union and non, community theater, road houses and school auditoriums. What if we add up all those seats and compare it to our national population? What will we find? How many performances does each citizen need to attend to fill them all up? What if we find that we actually have more theater than we have people to see it? What then?

What we really have to face is that what we’re doing now is NOT WORKING. Our theaters aren’t thriving, they are barely hanging on. And you are correct, their success is built on the back of countless artists who live below the poverty line and are literally sacrificing their lives to the effort. So much so that we see highly talented artists abandoning the field every year. The situation breeds a field that is marked less and less by talent and more and more by stubbornness. If Rocco’s right, maybe there is a way to arrange the pieces of the puzzle so we have less working artists overall, but more of them are able to earn a living wage for their efforts.

I don’t know how we do it. I don’t think Rocco knows either. And maybe he is the wrong guy to be asking the question in the first place. And maybe we find that there are even better questions to ask. But instead of wasting energy attacking Rocco, I really do believe our energy is better spent looking at the question itself if we are to have any hope for change.

Barry Johnson said...

David, Thanks for the comment. I think theater artists are abandoning the field every day because of conditions -- or at least putting it aside for awhile. So what Landesman advocates is already happening. The problem is adding money, not subtracting actors or theater companies. And ultimately, that's a local problem made worse by national conditions and the way we think about art in general. The NEA should be thinking about how to improve those local conditions, not about how to construct a narrow national theater club. But that's a selfish position on my part, because I wouldn't be a bit interested in that national theater club.

MightyToyCannon said...

Perhaps Rocco was purposeful in adopting the cant of a provocateur. He certainly stirred the pot. I'm still pondering the points and counterpoints. I'm also considering how far I'm willing to stick my neck out if I were to express a modicum of agreement with a portion of his thougths. Nothing wrong with dialogue, right? In the meantime, here's an interesting perspective in a blog post that includes a link to your essay:

Barry Johnson said...

MTC, I saw that post (my ever-so-advanced analytics track incoming traffic from specific sites). You will face no repercussions for dissent at Arts Dispatch, except ridicule if you use the term "over-supply." Your brothers in theatrical arms, however, may punish you in unimaginable ways.

My disagreement with the way Landesman understands and hopes to fix the world is even more profound than what I've written here, as you can imagine. But until he (or more likely, you) shows me a study that proves that killing the bottom 3,000 theater companies in the country, those with the least resources, will somehow help ANYTHING whatsoever, I'm going to oppose his Death Panel solution. On the other hand, he and I probably agree that the status quo, in which accomplished artists can't make a living wage, is unacceptable.

The real culprit here is the culture itself, which funds the NEA and the arts so poorly. $162 million doesn't go very far, as I tried to show. Things can change, though, right? Government funding in Oregon is higher than it has been, and we know plans are afoot to pass a tax levy in the Portland metro area, which would get us all the way up to average. To me, that's where the energy should go, rather than the triage that Landesman proposes. But now I'm repeating myself... sorry!

Gwydion Suilebhan said...

I've scheduled my comment on this Landesman nonsense to go live tomorrow on my own site; I'll try to remember to link to it here. In the meantime, I will only add that in the argument about supply and demand, I would note that the problem may also be (whether we'd like to admit it or not) in the product...

Gwydion Suilebhan said...

And now, my response...

Aaron Andersen said...

OK, your comments about needing something like biodiversity in the theater ecosystem are dead-on. I agree with them, completely.

However, your accusation that the NEA would convene death panels is about as accurate as Sarah Palin's recent use of the term. These death panels don't exist, and were never proposed. The NEA already has to choose how to distribute limited resources, and always has. Any arts organization or artist who is primarily dependent upon the NEA hasn't been doing this for very long.

And perhaps you wrote this, and your comments, before Landesman wrote his own blog post, but he did make clear there that he does not favor larger, duller arts organizations over smaller, vibrant ones.

Barry Johnson said...

Aaron, Yes, this was written before Landesman blogged. And I've written a few subsequent posts on the issue, in which some of my thinking has migrated, though not in a way you will find congenial, I don't imagine.

You may think I'm an alarmist about the Death Panels, but I've heard enough discussion along these lines -- that arts agencies and foundations need to act in concert to solve the "over-supply" problem -- that I don't think it's that farfetched.

Though Landesman MAY prefer the smaller more exciting theater companies (he certainly isn't big on small companies in Peoria -- old joke), foundations and local and state agencies aren't going to de-fund the major theater companies in their areas. That would be politically impossible.

And thank you so much for comparing me to Sarah Palin. I'll be able to use that in all sorts of interesting ways in the future!

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