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.