"We are overbuilt... There are too many theaters."

--Rocco Landesman, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, speaking last week to a national convening of playwrights, directors and theater managers at Arena Stage's new building


Commentary: "We are going to have to have some uncomfortable conversations"

Posted by NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman on the Art Works blog, January 31, 2011

Last week, I was able to finally spark a conversation that I have been wanting to have for over a year [about] the mismatch that exists in supply and demand for not-for-profit arts in our country. I decided to write this post to encourage us to keep having the conversation. Two points I want to underscore:

1.     I said that the NEA has been increasing the size of our grants, which means (given a stable budget) necessarily making fewer grants. A number of people took this to mean that the NEA should only fund large institutions. That is totally wrong. The best work in this country comes out of organizations across the spectrum of budget size.  We should never talk about survival of the largest; we are here to ensure the survival of the most creative and most dynamic.

2.     When I say that "decreasing supply" has to be on the table when talking about the future of not-for-profit arts organizations, in no way do I mean that that is the only thing that should be on the table. Here are some other things that I have lobbed out in conversations:

         Increase arts education. We discovered arts education is one of the only reliable predictors of future arts participation. Exposure to the arts-early and often-builds future audiences.

         Take advantage of related demand. We are seeing an explosion of demand for singing and dancing [on] prime time network television. Americans are hungry for and will seek out an expressive life. Our not-for-profit arts need to also be feeding that hunger with what we offer.

         Offer free samples. If you offer a taste of a high quality product, people will come back for more. Technology is key in this: people who consume art via electronic media are nearly three times as likely to attend live arts events, that they attend a greater number of live events, and that they also attend a greater variety of arts events.

         Examine our arts infrastructure. There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists. Do we need three administrators for every artist?

There are many more things that we as a field need to be considering.  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.


Commentary: Supply-and-demand is a flawed way to look at nonprofit arts

Posted by Trisha Mead on the 2AM Theatre blog, January 31, 2011

Dear Rocco, You stirred the pot, poking at the survival instinct in the audience you spoke to at our convening.  You were frank with us, and we didn't have to agree with you to respect your point of view and the transparency with which you shared it. So thank you for that.  Here's my challenge, however. If, as you say, the Fichandlers and Papps of the world created a non-profit regional theater system to escape the pressures of supply and demand... in order to create space for the "R&D arm" of our culture... then shouldn't the question of how many "butts" are in "seats" at any given performance be purposefully un-linked from the arts organization's "value" to its community or the culture as a whole?  After all, you don't tell the national science community to only do experiments that will have consequences that impact a lot of people, or else stop researching. The nature of artistic inquiry is no different.  Supply and demand is a fundamentally flawed model for looking at the non-profit arts ecology, since it implies that an arts experience is a commodity that can be quantified by the number of people who had one, rather than the quality and resonating impact of each experience.  Of course, a funding organization can't measure the quality of an experience, or its transformative impact on a community the way it can measure "butts in seats." So it's understandable the supply/demand model would feel more comfortable to a sector constantly in search of "metrics".  But I ask you whether the use of it to make funding decisions is actually at cross purposes with your core thesis... that art contributes something essentially different to our progress as a culture, something that should be protected, at least partially, from not only the dangerous impact of filthy lucre but the destructive reductions of economic language itself?


Commentary: It's not just theaters that are going to see a shakeout of the weakest

Posted by Lee Rosenbaum on her ArtsJournal blog CultureGrrl, January 31, 2011

I think that Rock-the-Boat Rocco has expressed some hard truths that have relevance not only to the world of theater, which he knows the most about, but also, perhaps, to the world of art museums.  The weakest institutions -- those that haven't built a strong audience and a solid financial base -- may not survive.  The situation for art museums is more complicated than that for theaters, because many small, embattled art venues own collections that should, according to professional guidelines, not be sold out of the public domain to defray debts. If the worst occurs, such institutions should make every effort to find a home for their holdings in other public institutions, preferably in the same geographic area.  In my recent post about federal arts funding and the President's State of the Union address, I ended by observing:

"Arts funding is certainly not sacrosanct and is apt to be adjusted as part of a government-wide effort to reduce the deficit. In the likely event that cultural support is trimmed but not eliminated, the President's smoked-salmon punchline may acquire new resonance for arts mavens. As all bagels-and-lox lovers know, the most skilled practitioners behind the deli counter slice it extra thin, making a little nova go a long way."

No matter how you slice it, though, a little can't go as far as a lot. A scarcity of resources may have dire consequences for certain arts institutions.  And now, like Landesman, I should probably duck.


Commentary: An oversupply of arts orgs, but not an oversupply of art

Posted by Adam Huttler on the Fractured Atlas blog, February 1, 2011

It's hard to deny the fundamental logic behind Landesman's assertion.  It seems to me, though, that there are some unspoken assumptions in this debate that are worth bringing to the surface. I haven't yet heard anyone argue that there's an oversupply of art, just that there's an oversupply of non-profit arts organizations. The real problem is our industry still worships the cult of the eternal institution. Not every idea warrants forming a new perpetual entity just to house it. Lincoln Center is not the only valid model for eager young MFA grads to aspire to. In fact, it's a rather expensive, inflexible one, and it's particularly ill-suited to artists whose creative interests lie on both sides of the conventional boundary between commercial and non-profit fare.  We need to embrace flexible new business entities like the L3C and make greater use of tools like fiscal sponsorship that allow ephemeral collaborations to raise charitable dollars. And for those of us running the big honkin' institutions that aren't going anywhere anytime soon (that includes you, Rocco), we need to get better at supporting and facilitating this kind of work. 

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