Monday, February 4, 2008

Lowbrow/Highbrow

Caught this article ("When Lowbrow Subsidizes Highbrow") in today's Wall Street Journal. It's notable for such a pro-business publication to question nonprofit cultural organizations for adopting business models that place their missions at risk in search of money they feel they cannot attract on the basis of their missions alone.

Among nonprofit resident professional theatres, public conversations about this subject rarely take place.

Sure, there are plenty that sell their souls for the almighty dollar, detouring them from devoting 100% of their resources to their missions, but the subject only crops up during frequent quiet laments about the dwindling audience for serious theatre in the U.S.--the raison d'etre of the regional theatre movement. That's when managers ask colleagues privately for the theatre equivalent of a "stock tip," a small, inexpensive, commercially successful show they can put on their stage to pay the bills.

Few theatres today have the resources to remain 100% true to their missions, and plenty are justifying what they know to be questionable artistic choices on the basis of audience development when there is little evidence to show that lasting bonds are created with commercial theatregoers who are simply not interested in the more serious fare for many reasons (partly because they have not been trained to be interested since arts education has long been removed from our public schools).

Of course, the best example of this is the ubiquitous holiday presentation "A Christmas Carol," offered annually at so many of the nation's regional theatres--even some with outstanding reputations and high artistic aspirations. It's rationalized as being a classic--after all, it is Charles Dickens--and even highbrow arts lovers enjoy seeing it. And it's not as crass as offering [insert the name of any contemporary commercial hit here] that rival theatres find themselves forced into putting on their stages to make a buck.

But just as virtually no ballet company can survive without its annual "The Nutcracker," many theatre companies are heavily dependent upon the annual shot-in-the-arm from "A Christmas Carol." (This situation was hilariously lampooned in "Inspecting Carol" by Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Repertory Theatre, which I produced at the Laguna Playhouse quite a number of years ago."

The dilemma of financing high culture is one that is timely.

The National Endowment for the Arts just received a $20 million increase in President Bush's 2009 budget (it's still below its pre-Reagan-arts wars level, and $170 million for the entire U.S. still remains below that famous benchmark--how much the federal government spends on military bands) and the Arts Council of Britain has received a significant increase in funding (but then mired itself in controversy when it sought to cull hundreds of worthy groups from its roster).

Is selling one's soul to keep the doors open the answer?

For the arts organizations that fly "without a net" (i.e. adequate endowment), the answer is probably "yes."

But as we witness universities' tremendous success in building endowments--some so outrageously large (and targeted for criticism) that they are starting to offer drastically reduced tuition, even to affluent students--the only long-term solution is indeed a major endowment thrust.

This is not a new idea, but few cultural organizations have made it a priority.

It's far from easy (much easier to raise capital for visible bricks-and-mortar projects and even for annual operating expenses), but I think prospective donors who care about an organization can be convinced that this is the most important way that they can ensure the long-term financial health of that institution.

And for the institution, the freedom from abrogating its mission and the ability to expand access to our civilization's collective cultural legacy should be of paramount importance.

Until next time...

Rick

2 comments:

m.w. said...

At some point, doesn't theater's (or any art's) ability to remain elusive if not irrelevant to a broader public force us to ask ourselves "why?"

If a tree falls in the woods and two foundations plus annual proceeds from an endowment paid for it to be cut down yet no one is there to hear it, did it remain 100% true to mission?

I don't claim to have the answers, but I wonder if we're asking the questions correctly. There is surely some middle ground between "this is good because not so many people like it" (i.e. highbrow) and "this is obviously a sell-out because it's so popular" (i.e. lowbrow).

Isn't Death of a Salesman nearly as popular as A Christmas Carol but more of a challenge for the performers?

At some point isn't the art itself to some extent culpable?

Rick Stein said...

Thanks for your comment, but "Death of a Salesman" is definitely not as popular as "A Christmas Carol," and while some productions of it may be well attended, that's often largely due to masses of school groups bussed in to see it as a "classic."

Of course you are correct in that one can extend my argument to the extreme of producing theatre for an audience of 1 (the artist's mother, perhaps?), and that's not my point.

When regional theatre was established in our country, it was not to imitate Broadway but to provide something Broadway was not because of the commercial demands that it produce a profit.

Benignly engaging in a profit-making endeavor to subsidize the art, such as raising and investing an Endowment can be justified, versus actively devoting the resources of the institution to totally unrelated business activities for the sake of a profit.

Today, many regional theatres are now seeking profits from commercial theatrical work and doing their best to justify it as related to their mission.

My own tastes in theatre extend to commercial work as well--I just don't think that's the role of a resident professional theatre.

"A Christmas Carol" was intended to be shown as just one example (and not the most extreme one) of what some regional theatres are producing these days to make ends meet. Some are stooping much lower.