FROM TC: At last night's Tony Awards ceremony -- the apex of the commercial theater season -- many of the top prizes were given to shows commissioned, developed, and/or produced by major American not-for-profit theaters. Should commercial success be the ultimate goal for not-for-profit arts organizations? And must today's not-for-profits adopt a for-profit mentality in order to survive or thrive in the new economy? Some recent news items and commentaries address this sensitive topic:
Lincoln Center looks to Broadway for new leadership
Gordon Cox, Variety, 5/16/13
With the selection of Broadway producer Jed Bernstein as the next president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, one of Gotham's major nonprofits looks poised to inject its activities with a little commercial flair. To hear Bernstein tell it, he views the challenges of the new gig -- from fundraising to digital growth to enhanced arts education initiatives -- as closely linked to the marketing concerns that will sound familiar to any [commercial] producer. "It's all about doing everything you can to support the creation of art -- and selling more tickets, getting butts in seats, is very closely linked to that," he said. Bernstein's for-profit showbiz background makes him an unusual choice for the leadership role at the flagship nonprofit, where past presidents tended to come from noncommercial sectors. Bernstein got his start in advertising, working at firms including Ogilvy and Mather, before he stepped into the top post at the Broadway League, the trade association of legit producers and presenters. In 2006, following an 11-year tenure that saw the development of several corporate sponsorship programs as well as Kids Night on Broadway and the Internet Broadway Database, he moved into commercial producing. According to Lincoln Center Board Chair Katherine Farley, it was Bernstein's commercial and marketing background that made him a compelling choice to fill the presidential post. "He really knows the arts. He's studied it, he's taught it, he's produced it," Farley said. "He's very entrepreneurial, and his background in marketing is particularly helpful here."
Commentary: Our long tug of war in the arts
Diane Ragsdale, ArtsJournal.com blog Jumper, 6/10/13
A couple weeks back I gave a talk called Living in the struggle: Our long tug of war in the arts concerning our necessary missions and the free market society in which we now exist, and the different directions they so often seem to pull us. I assert the following: (1) for a nonprofit arts organization, what to program, where, for whom, and at what price are not just business decisions, they are moral decisions; (2) the lines between the market and voluntary (i.e., nonprofit) sectors matter and we, thus, need to question our motives for choosing some works or strategies, over others; and (3) some of us may be sacrificing our [artists] in an effort to thrive in this "market society." While the arts sector has grown and proved to have tremendous staying power, we may have done so at the expense of the goals, values, and ideals that we set out to achieve in the first place. We have witnessed a long creep towards commercialism in the nonprofit sector in the US generally (not only in the arts), in part, because this is what the American system seems to encourage. We are in the middle of a decades-long tug of war. It is harder and harder for us to defend the existence of our organizations on any level except, perhaps, economic impact (and, as I've written about before, we need to be very cautious about going down that path). I don't believe we win this tug of war by dropping the rope -- by denying our missions or denying this market society. We win by figuring out how to stay in the struggle. The struggle is our mission. I sometimes think what we need is to overwhelm this market society with bold, ambitious art. And we must not be apologetic about it. We must not wait to be asked. We weren't meant to blend in. We are the antidote ... the resistance ... the challengers of the status quo. Though we may be in it, we are not meant to be of this market-driven world.
Commentary: What price idealism, or Who you gonna dance with?
Todd London, Howlround.com, 5/15/13
A major theme of our 65-year-old nonprofit boom, dating from roughly the founding of Margo Jones's Theatre '47, is the push-me-pull-you relationship with Broadway. Jones, the great imaginer of a theater in every major city, had affection for Broadway, even as she championed decentralization. [But when Arena Stage founder Zelda] Fichandler lost her entire acting company to the Great White Way when, in 1967, [Arena's production of] The Great White Hope transferred there, [this] started the opportunistic suck that became our theatrical equivalent of the Alaska Pipeline, drilling crude out of the regional ground, pumping it to Broadway, cleaning it up for the marketplace, and selling it to whoever will pay premium, regardless of how the practice (and dependence) degrades the source. If the practices of our theaters impoverish and alienate the artists on whose backs they're built, I don't care about intentions of administrators. I don't care about how hard we work, if our work betrays bred-in-the-bones principles. Taking money from commercial producers, creating product for the commercial theater, bringing people from the New York marketplace theater in to meddle in the local, homegrown, nonprofit art theater, using commercial success as a lure for local patronage -- these practices betray those principles. So do arguments that we can't sustain or field acting companies, that co-productions are necessary for economic survival, that audiences won't accept more challenging work, that it's harder to run a theater now. You can argue, as Christopher Ashley of La Jolla Playhouse does, that the vast majority of a theater's time is devoted to noncommercial work, to education, to community outreach, to the development of new work that no one else will see. You can argue, as he does, that Broadway is, for new work, the way to find an extended life and enter the theatrical canon. He's correct about both. But the fact remains: the time and human energy spent on the development of commercial properties is time and energy not spent on fulfilling a mission, on the care and feeding of a theater's artistic identity. Would we really suffer so much by standing for a more idealistic theater?
Commentary: "We need to have an intervention"
Andy Horwitz of Culturebot on The Brooklyn Commune Project's website, 6/7/13
In a lot of ways the performing arts in America is like a big dysfunctional family where no-one dares to talk publicly about what is really wrong, about how dad's a lush and mismanages the money, our sister's a slutty cokehead but she's daddy's favorite so he just keeps giving her money while ignoring her patently irresponsible behavior and mom cowers in the corner, afraid of Dad's wrath and we're trying to just keep peace in the family but every time we bring it up, the conversation turns into an argument filled with accusations, recriminations and hostility, a sense of crisis and fear and desperation and doom. And we can't imagine that the world could be any different because we've never known anything different. And nobody wants change because change is hard and it means giving up your assumptions about who you are and how you are in the world. And that is really fucking scary. But we need to have an intervention. We need to sober up. We have to learn how to talk to each other openly, in public, while sober, about what is really going on. And we have to prioritize it because, yes, eventually the house will fall apart, and eventually we'll grow up and dad will die. But dysfunction is passed on through generations, a child of domestic violence is much more likely to become an abuser. So we either address it now or continue to teach our children to live the same way we did.