Across America, arts institutions are trying to shed the "edifice complex"

From The Christian Science Monitor, December 21, 2010

Flash mob, art mob, or random acts of culture. Whatever the name, these spontaneous gatherings are hot.  Art institutions across the board are trying to shed what Opera America president Marc Scorca calls "an edifice complex."  Partly fueled by declining audiences, he says, but also responding to a deeper need to reclaim the kind of central cultural relevance that such venerable institutions as the ballet and the opera once had in a community, these groups are struggling to break free of traditions that make them seem either outdated or nonvital.  If we can't draw this cohort into the conventional four-wall theater space, then "we have to bring it to them," says Teresa Eyring of Theater Communications Group.  Data on the bottom-line effectiveness of such strategies are scarce in these early stages, she says. But "anecdotally, we are seeing that more awareness leads to more participation in some form down the road."  However, she adds, the real goal of this self-examination and experimentation is not strictly financial.  It is about exploring what it means to be an artist and the value and place of art in a community.  There is already organized support for flash/art-mobbing as an art form of its own.  In November, Knight Foundation launched a three-year, eight-city grant project dubbed "1,000 Random Acts of Culture" [and] in California's Silicon Valley, the nonprofit ZERO1 commissions new art.  Spontaneous "art mobs" are an important tool in that process.


Commentary: New York needs more small commercial theatres

Posted by Kimberly Kaye on The Economist's website

That nearly two dozen [Broadway] shows have shuttered since the 2010 autumn season began is nothing to sniff at.  However, the hysteria over the death toll is both predictable and an over-reaction. "Yes, it's been a bad few months on Broadway," admits Paul Wontorek, editor-in-chief at, "but there's always a cycle to these things.  It's not unusual for a lot of productions to close the first half of the year."  The preceding five Broadway autumns were all peppered generously with big musicals and big Hollywood headliners. This autumn, however, eschewed celebrity vehicles and big musicals for shows that had done well off-Broadway.  But the gamble did not pay off.  The season's inability to sustain off-Broadway transfers has spotlit one troubling issue that cannot be pinned on 'the state of Broadway'. The market has not been kind to off-Broadway.  This means successful off-Broadway shows increasingly have nowhere to go but Broadway.  "The loss of a viable middle ground of commercial theatrical production has had untold impact on the ecology of New York theatre," says Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theater Wing.  "There is work that deserves a longer life in this city [that] shouldn't be forced to meet the economic demands of even small Broadway houses."  " about tourists," says Wontorek. If they are spending the money, they want to go home and brag that they saw something huge."  Such events shouldn't be hard to find in coming months.  So the record number of closings on Broadway should not be seen as proof that the theatre scene is terminally ill, but as evidence that Broadway is not the only patient. In order for commercial theatre in the city to get a healthy glow back in its cheeks, the industry must be treated in its entirety. New York needs more small commercial theatres.


Commentary: Chicago needs fresh thinking about theater venues

Chris Jones, writing in The Chicago Tribune, December 30, 2010

It's time for resolutions. And so - because I prefer to suggest them for others rather than make them myself - here are a few for the Chicago theater community in 2011.

Think outside the usual space. Theaters are understandably reluctant to leave home and pay rent elsewhere. But you can't tell me that Steppenwolf could not do a little local leveraging of its brand name and profitably stage a show in Chicago outside of its usual confines and its usual season.  Nonprofits in New York long ago burst out of their own walls. Chicago's bigger nonprofit theaters are at a comparable level of maturity. There's no reason that couldn't be done here. Jobs for artists, and a richer set of cultural offerings for audiences and visitors, would be the result.

Build that creative gathering place. There is still no large-scale indoor space in Chicago where audiences can encounter theater and other arts in an informal setting: I'm thinking a place where you can eat or drink, and where you might watch a platform discussion, listen to the lunchtime playing of a string quartet or a late-night jazz combo, find politicians mingling with artists and academics, that kind of thing. Almost every other great global creativity city has such a space. Its vexing absence in Chicago is a big hole in the heart of the city.

Plan to build or restore that 1,000-seat theater. I know it's a recession. But recessions end. Chicago sorely lacks a Broadway-style rental theater that's ideal for plays. There's one, of course, inside the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. The restoration of the Studebaker Theatre will take a lot of money, work and, yes, negotiation with its difficult private owner. But it's a missing jewel in the Loop necklace.

Get it together on Block 37. This half-empty mall has gone up in the very center of the theater district without any contribution to the city's culture. It's not too late for some renewed negotiation with Teatro ZinZanni, the Second City or some other entity that has expressed interest in an outpost. A movie theater alone is insufficiently distinctive. Without a cultural attraction to draw traffic upstairs, who'd want to run a restaurant in that place?

Get it together on Navy Pier. Chicago Shakespeare Theater needs that proscenium theater, and it has shown it could run one. Didn't Skyline Stage just get half blown away? Use that space instead for indoor entertainment. By all means, wait for the grand plan. But don't wait forever.


In London, two small theatres with big impact are moving to better homes

From The Guardian, December 26, 2010

Two small theatres which punch mightily above their weight [the Arcola in Dalston and the Bush in Shepherd's Bush] are about to embark on new chapters.  Both theatres have built stellar reputations despite working in largely unsuitable premises.  Dalston is a part of London that, when the Arcola opened 10 years ago, would never have been called fashionable or trendy - epithets that are applied these days.  "It was terrible," said founder Mehmet Ergen. "People said I was mad to open a theatre here, they said there's no tube, it's a back street.  We had nothing."  Over the years, the Arcola has managed to attract the best actors, playwrights and touring companies.  The Bush is a squashed 81-seat theatre, but one held in a great deal of affection.  "Fantastic things have happened here but there are a number of problems, one of which is that the fabric of the building has quite publicly failed us at certain points," said artistic director Josie Rourke, referring to the 2008 season when the lights would not even switch on.  In spite of all this, the Bush established itself as a powerhouse of new writing.  Despite the regard held for the old space, Rourke concedes the theatre [nestled above a pub since 1972] "has been thinking of moving from its venue since almost as soon as it moved in".

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