Saturday, February 19, 2011

Intiman Theatre, the Detroit Symphony and the crisis of legitimacy

By Barry Johnson

UPDATE: The board of the Detroit Symphony canceled the rest of the season Saturday, after the musicians rejected a "final" contract offer. 

Trisha Mead has made an excellent argument on the 2AMt theater blog about Intiman Theatre's financial crisis and what would be lost if the Seattle company goes under.  Her primary idea is "legitimacy," and she argues that the loss of Intiman would be a blow to the legitimacy the company confers both to new plays it chooses to produce and to theater in Seattle in general. It's an interesting take, and if you're interested in the problem of how to start thinking about failing arts institutions, you should give it a read.

Speaking of arts institutions in crisis,  I then ran into "legitimacy" in the context of the arts again, this time in a blog post by Tony Woodcock, the president of the New England Conservatory, and former president of the Oregon Symphony. The context was the Detroit Symphony strike, and the intractability of that situation led him to consider whether the arts in general were facing a legitimacy crisis. He defined the legitimacy in this way -- "the moral right to exist from the approbation of the people." And he argued that the legitimacy of the arts "must be re-examined every single year and not taken for granted.  It must address key issues such as why do the majority of people feel increasingly excluded from the arts..."

A good crisis, of course, very often leads us to considerations of this sort.  And before we take a stab at making sense of Mead and Woodcock's different uses of legitimacy, we'll head to Cairo, because even the Detroit Symphony's travails pale in comparison to Egypt's.

One way to think about the uprising against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, an abstract way admittedly, is to think of it as a crisis of political legitimacy. If you took that poli sci survey course back at Dear Old Huxley College, you remember reading about legitimacy, the acceptance by the people of the authority of the government. Legitimacy in this context is about authority, and sociologist Max Weber famously listed three ways a government could get it -- from tradition, from a charismatic leader and from a rational rule of law that the people subscribe to. Of course, in practice, we see a blending of these elements.  What's a legitimate government? One that doesn't need a policeman at every corner to make its rules stick.

So, in Cairo, the people de-legitimized Mubarak's regime -- mass protests are a great way of showing that you don't accept the authority of the government. And because of the military power of the modern state, it's dangerous business: When you seek to de-legitimize a government, you are basically in revolt against it, and the consequences can be dire.

Woodcock has decided that symphony orchestras are like governments, and that the people (as a whole) should determine whether they have the moral right to exist. Right now, I want to drop "moral" from the discussion, just because I have no idea what Woodcock means. So, let's just say "the right to exist." This is a curious way to think about it. We don't say the people determine whether Starbuck's has a "right to exist." We assume that it has the right to exist, but then must figure out how it actually can exist. People will determine that, of course, but not by some sort of general agreement -- individuals choose to buy coffee there or not.

Individuals choose to support symphonies or not, too.  The great thing about the symphonies is that they form little communities around themselves, communities of individual fans, volunteers and donors, the people who support them.  In this country, we just barely recognize that the arts have important social effects outside their immediate communities, so we barely support them financially at the government level.  So, their communities of desire, we call them voluntary associations, determine the extent and quality of their "existence."

So, I think Woodcock is misusing the word legitimacy. When he says that orchestras (and the arts in general) need to look beyond their "core audiences," that's really just a bit of business advice. You need a larger community, more people to buy your coffee. And if your orchestra is suffering financially, that's pretty obvious advice. But the larger audience doesn't confer legitimacy on your orchestra, it merely gives it the food it needs to survive (money, volunteer time, appreciation, etc.).

I think there IS an issue of legitimacy involved in symphony orchestras and the arts, but I'll get to that in a moment. First, a look at Mead's use of the idea of legitimacy in her essay, which is completely different.

Applying the term "legitimate" to theater, goes back to the Licensing Act of 1737, when the British government restricted serious, spoken drama to specific "legitimate" theaters, which were subject to state censorship. Shakespeare could only be performed by a legitimate theater, for example. The act spawned a thriving "illigitimate" theater scene built on musical comedies and melodramas. That law wasn't overturned in the UK until 1968, by the way.  We may still use "legitimate" occasionally to indicate that we're talking about a play and not a musical.  And sometimes I've heard it used to describe professional theater, where the actors are paid and union rules are applied, though it's opposite isn't "illegitimate," it's "amateur." But I don't hear the term used very much anymore.

This isn't how Mead uses the word, either, though it's getting closer. And remember, she uses it as a verb (and a noun), not an adjective.

Mead sees Intiman itself as a legitimizer. What does it legitimize? New plays:
"It [Intiman] 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."
Intiman has successfully projected new plays from its stage to stages across the country, including Broadway, most famously Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle, which it staged in 1991. And its artistic directors from Warner Shook to Bartlett Sher to Kate Whoriskey focused on that function of the theater, though they've also staged many successful productions, re-imaginings really, of classic plays, too. As their successes piled up, they had more standing to launch new plays into the world.

So, let's accept this part of Mead's argument.

Her next point is that this legitimizing function for a new play isn't easily transferable to another theater in Seattle. New theaters would have to build themselves to a similar station and enjoy a similar reputation, to legitimize new work. "That lost legitimacy could take decades to recoup. In the meantime, both regional and national artists lose the visibility, resources, and access to national relationships that the Intiman has historically provided," Mead writes. We could put this another way: The rolodexes of Intiman will be lost forever! Because the relationships that Intiman has established  are critical to the projection of new work.

I'm less convinced by this argument, primarily because Seattle has other big companies to pick up the slack. Both Seattle Rep and ACT take producing new work by major American playwrights seriously, too, and Seattle Rep, especially, has had a lot of success sending new plays into the wider world.  So, won't someone else be there -- whether in Seattle or elsewhere -- to workshop Lynn Nottage's next play?

Still, I'm sympathetic to Mead's final argument, which is that the loss of Intiman damages Seattle's national reputation as a theater hotbed: "...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." My argument in a previous post was that we don't know what will happen to theater in Seattle if Intiman closes (especially close on the heels of the failure of the Empty Space theater). Change one element in the theater ecology and the whole thing can change, sometimes more rapidly than you think possible.  Mead isn't making this argument, though, she's saying the failure of Intiman may affect Seattle's "brand" as a place for innovative, exciting theater. That isn't really about "legitimacy," it's about reputation. You either have a brand that's accurate and that is effective for you or you don't; it's a practical matter, a business matter.

So briefly, Intiman is a part of the overlapping theater ecologies, the reputations of which it burnishes (or not). And it also legitimizes new plays in the national theater ecology.

But what about "legitimacy" in the sense Woodcock and Weber mean it? Is it applicable to arts organizations at all? I think it is. And I think both Intiman and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra are in the middle of legitimacy crises, not the way Woodcock discusses, not at all, but in a more direct, substantial way.

The "governments" of both Intiman and the DSO need the approval of the people to legitimize them. What people? Their communities -- not the total population of the U.S. and its territories -- just the people they depend on for support. In the case of Intiman that community comprises staff, board, volunteers, donors, audience members, artists (actors, designers, playwrights) associated with the company. Maybe their foundation and government funders, too, but usually these respond to the proposals of strong, responsive, "legitimized" organizations.

Because Intiman's community is passive (except for board and staff) and poorly organized (not used to thinking of itself as a community and working together), when a financial crisis arises, it becomes a legitimacy crisis. The authority of the board and staff and the existence of the organization as a whole become an open question. If you're a part of that voluntary community, you "vote" by giving support, primarily money. These are desperate times indeed.

If we go back to our Weber and analyze the source of Intiman's authority, I'd argue that it's built on charisma (the founders of the regional companies, subsequent "star" artistic directors) and then tradition (the way they came to conduct their business). It doesn't have a rational/legal system, and certainly not a democratic system -- of, by and for its community (in the narrow sense). And because of that, it doesn't have a good way to deal with financial crises or necessary changes in artistic direction without going through a legitimacy crisis, which in their case is the same as an existential crisis!

The legitimacy crisis at the Detroit Symphony is in the form of a "civil war," between two well-organized segments of the community, the board/staff and the musicians. But again, the rest of the community is poorly organized (audience, volunteers, donors) and the system as a whole doesn't receive its legitimacy from the participation of that community -- except passively as consumers. Again, I'm using community narrowly.

Ideally, the rest of the community would be involved enough to help the musicians and board work out their differences, which are gaping at this point. Instead, they have engaged the sort of exchange that Woodcock rightly calls toxic, one that jeopardizes the entire enterprise, as well as the careers of the musicians and staff involved.
What about the larger communities? Do the citizens of Detroit and Seattle (or rather, their metro areas) have a stake in this?  Maybe, the best thing they can do is to encourage the communities of Intiman and the DSO to repair themselves by behaving more democratically as organizations.

If I lived in Seattle and didn't consider myself a member of the Intiman community, I'd ask the company to take their legitimacy crisis seriously and come up with a more inclusive and responsive system of governance. I'd  suggest that Intiman start the difficult process of community meetings to discuss how to do that, a Constitutional Congress of sorts. I'd use the opportunity to repair some of the relationships the theater has had with community members, artists and partners in the past. The company might even discover that engaging in this process will help them raise the $1 million they need.

The DSO is a more difficult situation, because it's so much larger and civil war is the worst sort of conflict.  Here, I think outside mediation is necessary by someone agreeable to both sides. But the mediation should be about repairing and building the community, and it should invite those who aren't now at the table to help out.

Then, both DSO and Intiman can start the process of figuring out how to expand their communities and serve their their cities better. A lot of that thinking is going on already.  But they can't do this in their current state. In political terms (and I think arts organizations are very much like political parties), they have to secure their bases, make sure that they are taking care of their immediate circles of fans and donors, serving their artists, creating the best art that they can.

Both the DSO and Intiman are good at what they do, which is why we are talking about them. But the sickness and passivity in their communities eventually puts the good work at risk. And I'd suggest that the radical (though unnamed) changes that Woodcock calls for, need to start with the way they are legitimized. They need the advice and consent of their immediate communities. If their current crises teach them anything, it should be this.

Related links:

Arts Dispatch recently considered Egypt in relation to political and cultural elites.

We took a first run at the Intiman situation earlier; this post today is an elaboration on some of those observations.

The saga of the Detroit Symphony strike has occupied our space several times, many times to make the argument for repairing its community, including this example, a defense of the striking musicians.

The Seattleist blog considers some recent reactions to Intiman's problems.

Today, the Detroit Symphony musicians are voting on the board's final offer.

The LA Times account of Intiman's difficulties gives the basics.