Sunday, January 30, 2011

You're Mad -- What Are You Going to Do About It? (Reflections on Landesman's Speech)

Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions in the post below are solely my own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of any institution I am employed by.

I count myself lucky to have been among the two hundred people that NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman addressed at the national new play development convening at Arena Stage on Wednesday, January 26, 2011. If you are interested in viewing the entire speech, it can be viewed here.

His speech caused a swift and emotional response from bloggers and media alike. Some of the more interesting responses are below:
Dear Rocco Landesman, We Don't Want Your Theater Death Panels, Arts Dispatch
Landesman Comments on Theater, The New York Times
Fighting Words from Rocco Landesman, Arena Stage Blog
On Rocco Landesman, Theatre Ideas

In his speech, Chairman Landesman said "there is a disconnect that has to be taken seriously — our research shows that attendance has been decreasing while the number of the organizations have been proliferating,” He continued by saying "You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.” I must say that hearing those words spoken by the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts initially struck me pretty hard, but then I decided to reflect upon them. Landesman isn't the first person to suggest that the arts are over populated. His partner on the stage that day, Diane Ragsdale, previously of the Mellon Foundation, had a few days earlier written a blog entitled "Overstocked arts pond: fish too big & fish too many" with a very similar argument. In fact, yours truly wrote a blog on the same subject matter on November 17, 2008.

A couple of hours after his speech, outrage over his comments took over social media platforms. The tone was frighteningly homogeneous--how dare the NEA Chairman say that we have too many theaters! However, I would challenge everyone to momentarily set aside your emotional reactions to a statement that rocks who we are as artists just long enough to look at the data and ask if his conclusion, although painful, might be rooted in logic. Study after study shows an environment where supply exceeds demand, from the National Capitalization Project to the Americans for the Arts National Art Index to local reports like this one from DC's Helen Hayes Awards.

The data shows that at this moment in time, there is too little demand and too much supply. That is fact, not opinion. Where I believe Chairman Landesman drew sharp criticism was at his suggestion that we have to decreased supply, because we can't increase demand. Many marketers, such as HowardW, immediately went on the defensive, stating that of course we could increase demand (it is the job of marketers to create demand for art, right?). I respond by saying if you could increase demand to meet the current supply, then why aren't you? This isn't an acute symptom we are discussing, but a chronic trend. Marketers are not super humans. We cannot on our own create an infinite amount of demand to meet the skyrocketing numbers of non-profit arts organizations. The data shows that we are out of balance, and whether we want to admit it or not, we can only live out of balance for so long before outside pressures will return the system to stasis. Don't get me wrong. There is nothing I want more than to prove Chairman Landesman wrong, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

From a motivational sense, what Chairman Landesman has done is remarkable. There is nothing that unites artists like telling them they can't do something. By nature, we are counter culture. We like to swim against the current. We need a challenge. Well, Landesman has thrown down the gauntlet. He has said that in his opinion supply will have to be reduced to meet demand. So, if you so passionately believe he is wrong, my question to you quite simply is--what are you going to do about it?


Pete Miller said...

I choose to believe that Rocco was trying to provoke us. He doesn't have the job of nor has he lived the life of a man who wants to close theatre companies. I am provoked.

If we could increase demand, why aren't we? I would argue that to a large extent many theatre companies keep doing the same old things at increasing volumes. We send direct mail, whether physical or electronic, we advertise in print and bit media.

I don't see enough companies making bold, extensive use of social networks (electronic and otherwise), but some that do achieve leap and bound levels of increase in attendance.

For Constellation here in DC, the artists involved in projects promote their shows like mad on their own facebook pages and encourage their friends to do likewise. Implementing that took them from 60% attendance in their second season to over 90% in their third.

Woolly has recruited a group of wide-social-circle people we involve in each production, giving them the inside scoop on the art and using them as a focus group for the messaging. We ask them to help recruit people in their circles to attend. We give them box office codes to track their performance. One of them caused 102 people to attend Clybourne Park last spring.

Artistic leadership at Taffety Punk tell me they now recruit much of their audience with personal phone calls to friends, acquaintances, and repeat offender past audience members. Five or six hours of volunteer phone calls out-produced thousands of dollars in print ads on prior productions.

I'm not saying these exact tactics will work for everyone or that many of them would scale up to an Arena or larger company, but what will scale up is the idea of doing wild things you haven't tried before. The companies who are innovating and branching out into personalized marketing and stunt marketing are growing attendance against the falling trend.

By the way, Chad, I seem to see plenty of evidence that you are doing innovative things at Arena and pulling in strong houses. I know you've got the shiny new venue benefit right now, but aren't you beating the trend as well? If we have growing attendance examples at tiny, mid-sized, and big companies, I assert we can all achieve growth.

Scott Walters said...

I am developing the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education (CRADLE -- to expand the arts beyond the big cities. Demand isn't only in NY, LA, and CHI.

Barry Johnson said...

Thanks for linking to my take on Landesman's comments. What I objected to more than anything was the Orwellian "over-supply." And no, I don't think we can call that a "fact," at all. Killing off the bottom half of American theater companies (those with the least resources) wouldn't make life easier for the remaining companies, in a substantial way (they already get most of the resources). It would kill off the new play development and actor training that goes on in smaller companies. And ultimately, it would diminish attendance at theater overall and diminish the importance of theater to the culture.

Of course, the NEA gives so little that it couldn't generate an extinction of this magnitude anyway, even with the help of local arts agencies and foundations. That's because the primary "investment" in those theaters comes from the artists themselves. So Landesman's comments are empty as well as wrong-headed. I wish he spent his time doing something more productive...

David Zoltan said...

I'll point out two things.

First, as Pete mentions, we have too much of the same old same old on stage. If we're going to increase audiences, we need to branch out to areas of the population that are currently underserved.

Second, while there are some amazing folks in marketing for the industry like you, Chad, I think most of the arts sector is light-years behind on best-practices. Part of that comes from the number of folks that are burnt-out/second-job artists that make arts management their backup profession without the passion for the vocation. Part of that is a lack of investment in professional development, a trend that seems to be slowly reversing but not fast enough, clearly.

Paul Botts said...

The facts around us appear actually to suggest that regarding demand for the arts in America, Rocco is correct in detail and incorrect overall.

Demand for the specific experience of sitting in the seats watching professional artists do what they do onstage is indeed flat or declining. That appears simply to be less of what Americans want to do with their time and that decline appears to be long-term.

Demand for the personal experience of being artistic, however, has been steadily rising for at least a generation now and there is no flattening in sight. There are two basic ways that demand is expressed: attempting to become a working professional artist, or making creative activity part of one's daily life.

The former just keeps rising without regard to facts on the ground such as competition for arts jobs. The National Arts Index reported some really startling data on this: the number of young people seeking college arts degrees, the number of American high school students choosing to take four years of art or music, etc. Music and theater conservatories are just booming, literally cannot build capacity fast enough to meet the demand for enrollment. And of course the steady ongoing boom in young artists starting new arts organizations, recession be hanged, is the entry-level-professional expression of this same demand.

The latter form of arts demand -- adding creative pursuits to daily life outside of seeking to be a professional artist -- is also booming. We've all seen the various statistics about the "rise of creative participation" that's going on in this society and the obvious signs of it are all around us. The steady rise in the numbers of Americans signing up to take dance or music or art lessons, the proliferation of reality-TV shows about singing or dancing, and so forth. The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago literally cannot build new classrooms fast enough to meet the demand and that story is being told in every city now. Etc.

So if we want to discuss demand for the arts and what potentially to do about it, we need to be clear about _which_ demand for the arts we're talking about. Or do we mean some sort of overall sum total? It's not clear that either Rocco or any of those responding to him have yet reckoned with this critical distinction.

Scott Walters said...

Paul -- I couldn't agree more. The days of the artist-specialist as the only recognized arts creators maybe numbered. That's what I am banking on at CRADLE, anyway.