Art Works Blog

#SupplyDemand

Washington, DC

2008 rendering of the new campus for Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, the site of last week's #NewPlay Covening. Image courtesy Arena Stage

Last week, as part of a new work convening at Arena Stage, I was able to finally spark a conversation that I have been wanting to have for over a year now.

Diane Ragsdale and I discussed the intersection of the commercial and not-for-profit theaters. We talked about the original impulse behind the resident theater movement in this country, the increasing role of commercial investment in shaping not-for-profit theaters’ seasons, and the too limited definition of success in use by many theaters today (attendance + revenue + national attention).

Another topic arose, one that is central to all of us who care about the arts: the mismatch that currently exists in supply and demand for not-for-profit arts organizations in our country.

Diane recently addressed this topic in her blog Jumper, and I cited the NEA’s 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), which reports a five percentage point decrease in arts audiences in this country. This is juxtaposed against a 23% increase in not-for-profit arts organizations, and a rate of growth for not-for-profit performing arts organizations, specifically, that was 60% greater than that for the total U.S. population.

When we released the SPPA results at a meeting of more than 40 national service organizations in December 2009, I said that anyone who hears these two numbers has to ask about balancing the equation, which means either increasing demand or, yes, maybe decreasing supply.

I have made this same observation to a number of audiences, but at Arena, the conversation finally took off. So I decided to write this blog post---not to retract or walk back the observation (as some hope I will do)---but to encourage us to keep having the conversation.

There are two points I want to underscore.

One. In a follow-up comment, 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. I have found no correlation between the size of an organization and its creative output. The best work in this country comes out of organizations across the spectrum of budget size---just look at the offerings from Arena’s #NewPlay Festival, which featured productions from the Foundry Theatre, Ma-Yi, Children's Theatre Company, and the Rude Mechanicals. All four are deeply worthy of support; none of them is “large.”  We should never talk about survival of the largest; we are here to ensure the survival of the most creative and most dynamic.

Two. 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 dove deeper into the SPPA data, and discovered that arts education is one of the only reliable predictors of future arts participation. Not age, race, ethnicity, or income level, but arts education. Exposure to the arts---early and often---builds future audiences.

Take advantage of related demand. As we are watching audiences at not-for-profit arts organizations shrink, we are seeing an explosion of demand for singing and dancing. Prime time network television is filled with Dancing With the Stars, American Idol, Glee, and So You Think You Can Dance. Should we dumb down what we are doing as a sector and ask J-Lo to be America's cultural arbiter? Absolutely not. But to borrow a phrase from Bill Ivey, Americans are hungry for and will seek out an expressive life. Our not-for-profit arts organizations need to also be feeding that hunger with what we offer.

Offer free samples. I have just returned from the opening of the New World Symphony, which is broadcasting concerts for free on the outside of its building. The highest quality video and audio are allowing people to sample what happens inside the concert hall. It is not exactly the same thing as the grocery stores that offer free tastes of hickory-smoked sausage, but if you offer a taste of a high quality product, people will come back for more.

Technology is key in this: the NEA’s Audience 2.0: How Technology Influences Arts Participation shows that people who consume art via the Internet and 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? Resident theaters in this country began as collectives of artists. They have become collectives of arts administrators. Do we need to consider becoming more lightly institutionalized in order to get more creativity to more audiences more often? It might also allow us to pay artists more.

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

I care passionately about the arts in this country, and I believe that they will always play a vital role in who we are as an American people. But 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.

I want to have the NEA play a role in those conversations, and I encourage you to share your thoughts in comments on this blog post. I will also be inviting other voices to join the conversation on this blog, so look for guest postings in the coming weeks with the hashtag #SupplyDemand.

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