Monday, November 17, 2008

Asking the unpopular--is there too much art?

The economic crisis is starting to trickle down to arts organizations all over the nation. Recent casualties of the crisis include Opera Pacific, Milwaukee Shakespeare Festival, and several Broadway shows. To adjust for the weakening economy, planned productions have been abandoned at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Washington National Opera, the New York City Opera and even at the seemingly untouchable Metropolitan Opera. Not to mention the St. Louis Museum of Art postponing its $125 million expansion or the Shakespeare Theatre missing its gala goal by $300,000.

The impact of the crisis will be felt in communities all around the country. Quite simply, the casualties listed above won’t be the last. Arts organizations will fail and close as contributed income dries up, and earned revenue weans. Although tragic for the artists connected to these organizations, the unpopular question that continues to emerge with my colleagues from around the nation is: are the closings of these organizations necessarily a bad thing?

Is there just too much art? Take for example an article written in the Washington Post on April 23, 2008 which cites a study by the Helen Hayes Organization that says in 2007, there were 402 more performances by theatre companies than the previous year but attendance was down by 36,000 patrons. From this report, it would seem that supply has significantly surpassed demand, and this isn’t surprising when you take into consideration the boom of new theaters in the Washington metropolitan area.

Artists, including myself, like to point to ways to increase demand, revitalize arts education, court younger audiences, launch massive outreach programs—as the answer to this problem. But the supply and demand conundrum that many communities face can also be solved by eliminating the excess supply. This crisis will create a de facto “survival of the fittest” culture for arts organizations. Those organizations that are financially sound and create consistently good product might feel a pinch but should weather the storm. Those organizations who were limping along prior to the crisis will probably cease to exist, thereby eliminating the surplus in supply in competitive markets and returning the community to a sustainable stasis.
In the end, although painful in its process, this crisis might create stronger artistic communities throughout the nation.


Anonymous said...

I really disagree with your premise that "supply and demand" applies to the arts in the first place. I think that patrons who learn to love theatre at one venue are more likely to attend theatre at others, and people who learn that they like exploring new art forms generally are more likely to attend something for the first time. In my opinion, the arts are unique in that supply creates demand.

Chad M. Bauman said...

Thanks for reading and replying, although I disagree with your argument. Over saturation can occur with anything. Even though absurd, imagine a world where there were 20 opera performances a day in a major metropolitan city--would that amount of supply (roughly 40,000 opera tickets per day in 2,000 seat houses) cause the demand to increase? Other cultural products such as silent movies and vaudeville cease to exist. Is that because there is no supply to cause a demand? I do agree in general that attending one theater makes you more likely to attend another, but at the end of the day, a city can have too many theaters for its population. I will relate it to my other passion in life--golf. I love to golf. But if Washington, DC had 250 local golf courses, I wouldn't have enough time to play them all, so I would have to pick and choose. There isn't a product on earth that isn't affected by supply and demand.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chad. I commented earlier in the day on this post. Did you delete it? It wasn't exactly incendiary! ;-)

Scott Walters said...

There isn't too much art -- there is too much art concentrated in a few places. There are 9 states that have no TCG theatres at all, for instance. If artists could get over the sense that they have to huddle together in artistic enclaves we might see a boom in employment and a huge increase in interest in the arts.

Depot Theatre said...

Supply does not create demand, per se. Refer to this excellent study by the Rand Corp.

Nonprofit cultural institutions use the same funding streams to create demand as they do to create supply, but the mechanisms are very different and require different support structures and activities. For the last several decades, institutions and policy makers have focused on creating supply while starving the mechanisms (namely K-12 arts ed) that create demand.

The founders of our institutions lived in a world where arts appreciation and understanding was both a given, and naturally balanced with the supply. That is no longer the case, and we as arts marketers, managers and educators need to undertake activities to enact policy changes to bolster the demand for our product.

Anonymous said...

There can never be "too much" art. You analogy to golf courses is totally incorrect. It is far more than just "supply and demand" - if it all comes down to that, than there should be no art whatsoever - because no art is "necessary".

Art exists in a grey zone between commerce and creativity. It always has. It always will. Most artistic industries - from music to visual arts - have experienced the same fragmentation of the market. In a way, this is a good thing - never before have people had more choices for their entertainment/enlightenment/etc.

The real question you fail to ask - as someone who works at an institution - is what is the role of the "institution" in all of this? Can institutions, smug and filled with overpaid middle managers and directors of all sorts, still exist when people are able to see theater closer to home for 1/10 of the cost? And can pick and choose their shows, rather than subscribing to an institution's artistic whims?

Perhaps, ultimately, the solution is not "less art" but "less middle managers in art".

an actual artist

Chad M. Bauman said...

Dear Actual Artist,

You seem to be quite critical of "institutions" of art. So my follow up question to you--what do you think the role of institutions should be in the art world? seems like you connect with theater, so maybe the question should be what should be the role of the regional theater in the 21st century?

Overall, if you have more art than you have people wanting to experience art, there is a problem of scale.

In December the National Endowment for the Arts released a study showing that while the number of nonprofit theaters had doubled between 1990 and 2005, the audience for nonmusical theater had actually shrunk.

Check out this interesting article in the New York Times: