Tag Archives: National Endowment for the Arts

Is Landesman Right? Is 2011 the Crossroads for the Arts Economy?

What if NEA head Roco Landesman is right? What if we have reached the zenith of demand for theater (you can insert live performing arts in general), meaning that supply should tighten? Landesman has been extensively blogged and re-blogged around the country since the New York Times quoted his comments Thursday. According to the Times’ Robin Pegrebin, Landesman spoke at a symposium on new play development at Arena Stage in Washington. He responded to a question about the financially struggling world of theater saying “you can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.”

Needless to say, he’s gotten most of the arts field good and hot under the collar: How can he even suggest less product? You’ll read that Landesman’s incendiary remarks have already led to loud calls for the NEA to start building audience demand. “Isn’t it the NEA’s job to build demand?” they cry. You’ll also read that indignant artists and arts administrators are jumping onto this with calls that every other funder – in addition to the NEA – should be back at the task of building demand – a task most funders have largely left.

So what is wrong?

Call it the upside down economic pyramid. The not-so-good outcome of too much supply.

1. We live in a market economy that shapes every thought and every purchase we make. We know full well that when there is plenty of supply, we can be last minute buyers and can get cheap tix. We can expect bargains. We can act toward the live performing arts like we act toward buying clothes: there’s plenty (too much?) to choose from and we don’t need to be motivated to lock in advance tickets.

2. As consumers in a recession economy, we live in the real world of diminished disposable income, adding the factor I refer to as “it better be really, really special or forget it.” I’m not even talking about the terrible impacts of unemployment and layoffs on people all around us, either, just plain old every day less disposable income. Looking at the impact of the strife in Egypt on the cost of fuel, I calculated out a hypothetical $1 more per gallon of gas at 30 gallons a week, and that comes in at $1,560 per year in less spending money. I don’t even want to think about what the additional cost of home heating will be. So at an average of $120 tickets per household for live events, that is 13 lost nights at the theater in the coming year.

3. But at the same time as we have less money to spend, there is more product available. Face it: the arts have been on supply overload for years. Today there is ton of supply – more to choose from, longer seasons, hundreds of events every year. There are thousands of arts companies presenting their work. And over the years performing arts halls have evolved to offer more seats than ever before, offering more performances per week.

4. Then, there is the cost of labor. One of the greatest successes in the arts field as a profession over the past few decades is that most of the artists in the field are compensated, largely, at a professional wage. At the same time, those fixed costs have led to an attempt to recover the expenses through more performances, to sell more units, if you will, to cover the costs, and that has led to … a need to sell more and seats. Rather than three performances of the ballet, you now can choose from six or seven, simply because the ballet company needs to sell that many tickets to cover the “earned” portion of ticket costs.

5. All these events and related audience development savvy have indeed led to greater audiences. But the audience growth is no more monolithic than the audiences for network television in the face of the couple hundred on-demand channels that exist. As audiences grow, they splinter. As we diversify culturally, we are much less likely to go to a few main stream events and more likely to pick out that which reflects our own unique interests and culture. As audiences splinter, the largest of the entities – those that built for ever larger crowds and sadly that have the largest fixed costs and very little elasticity – suffer more.

This upside-down pyramid means that things don’t look good for the most fixed-expense, least elastic performing arts organizations out there, unless they find ways to self-subsidize to meet the expenses by inventing new product lines (think of the long term prognosis for simulcasts) or by raising ever more in endowment. The likely outcome of this is that there will be fewer fixed expense performing arts organizations. The most vulnerable, those without endowments or new revenue prospects will either face mergers or folding unless there is a major adjustment in the overall amount of product and demand.

Those most likely to succeed – as always – will be the flexible, the adventurous, the small, and the experimental who are making art more to make art than to build audiences. They always have been the soul of the field, the reason that great artistic breakthroughs happen in any lifetime. They don’t live in the constraints of a market economy, never have and hopefully never will.

In between will be the paid-per-session orchestra in most smaller and mid-sized cities, or the community theater company that has become less and less volunteer, moving closer to that fixed cost model. It will be the ballet school that reaches beyond its annual Nutcracker to put on a Coppelia so that it has a “season,” but that can no longer afford to balance the cost of a union tech crew with the fact that the Coppelia audience is one twentieth the size of the Nutcracker crowd. In between will be necklace of performing art presenters in every suburb, each a fifteen minute drive from the others, all competing for a share of the splintered market between them.

It begs the question of what is to be done.

One side would dramatically scale up subsidies from the government so that things can at least be status quo; the other side would let the market run its course. Some would see mergers as the only path for the decade ahead: others would fight to the end against any loss of arts-related jobs. One side would seek to protect consumers from the costs of real art; the other side would let consumers confront the real costs of art. One side would look to limit fixed expenses: the other side would look to protect existing models. One side would put all funding into deficit subsidy: the other side would invest everything in new product and distribution.

There is no single, correct answer to any of these, no single side that is right. We are unmistakably at a crossroads in the economy of the arts of a scale and ripple magnitude we haven’t seen before. I for one am thrilled that Landesman put the reality of market, demand and supply out there. I doubt there has been a NEA chair that has done us a greater service. He’s made us look deeply at the economic realities and is challenging us toward what may be a new future for the consumption-based industry that is the majority of the arts field today. It is time to ask the questions of supply and demand, and time to – hopefully – shape a new economy for the arts.

Work for Free?

I was pretty soundly criticized earlier this week for questioning the NEA call for artists to develop a logo on spec. I’ve circled back to the issue in reflection, and I still have a rough time with this.

True, the winner receives $25,000, but aren’t thousands of artists are being encouraged to design for free at the request of the Federal government? To my way of thinking, this sends all the wrong signals to the arts field and the rest of the country – where the opinion that artists should work for free is still far, far too widely held. Will the government next ask composers to compose symphonies in honor of ArtWorks for free? Will playwrights be asked to submit one act plays written to the ArtWork theme on spec? Will architects be asked to respond to the ArtWorks theme with concept designs on spec?

Let’s be honest. There is plenty of spec work done throughout the arts field, and almost every artist sees it as a necessary evil.

Yet, the NEA is supposed to set quality standards for policy, which is then typically widely followed by state and local level policy. The private sector then listens, and many again mirror their policies accordingly.

These issues have concerned me in reading all the ArtWorks hype, so I appreciated seeing the very measured and thoughtful response to the NEA published today by the AIGA, the professional association for design. Please read it and think this issue through. As AIGA states, this happened before, the policy blunder was corrected, and the prior spec competition was pulled. There is time to pull this, again, before thousands of artists commit themselves to spec work for the Federal government, and the very concept becomes policy. At the very least, this is worthy of good dialogue concerning professional standards.


Back to Business

Okay friends, I did take a hiatus as a blog writer. Thinking time is important and I needed it. And, truth be told the combination of such giant changes around us combined with the winter months where as a Mom I spend every Saturday and Sunday (at least) getting our sons to some ski hill somewhere in the western US for USSA races….well, blog time got back burnered. You can see why…matt00012


But today is the first day of Spring! Let’s get at it.

First off, rumors of the demise of the arts are, to paraphrase the line, very premature. Yes, layoffs and cut backs are real and horrible. My heart goes out to every organization and every individual impacted.

But the arts are not impacted more than the rest of society. Is there an untouched industry out there – particularly one where consumer spending is involved? No. Have we gone through serious recessions before and come out strong? Yes, if you remember 1992, 1982, or 2001.

But let’s use this as a chance to do some real rethinking about our field. I still have my copy of William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen’s classic Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma. (Cambridge: MIT Press) 1966. It is tattered, and it still rings true. In 1966, they laid out the reality of the structural deficit that defines the performing arts. (Add the visual arts, too.) Since 1966, our field has sought ways to pretend that structural deficit doesn’t exist. Public and private sector funders have sought to support the field around programs and projects, but still haven’t been able to fill the gap that is operations and overhead.

I was so excited when the NEA announced its stimulus funding of staff positions – finally a response to the realities Baumol and Boman mapped out 43 years ago. The unfortunate downside is the temporary nature of the funding – it doesn’t address the long term need that funding has to fill. From my little corner of the blogosphere, I’d champion this as a time for more funders to once and for all address the structural gap. It hasn’t gone away, and it won’t. No amount of project funding or new commissions or special initiatives will cover up the issue.

Other musings…

At the same time as being grateful for the stimulus funding from the NEA, I am terrified – as I hope you are – of Congress’ anti-museums, parks, zoos, botanical gardens stance on stimulus funding. Where did all that vitriol come from and why didn’t we anticipate it? When folks are really strapped for money the way most are today, seniors, families, and young adults flock to free days at museums and free concerts in parks, among other things!

Could it be that we have tried to over-sell the economic benefit argument and have forgotten to mention that cultural gathering places are what hold us together as civil society, bring us together in shared experience, and bring us a combination of civic pride and social engagement?

Or could it be that the arts have a stronger advocacy base to carve out their share of the funds? Despite all the work that scholars have done in the field of cultural policy, and all the applied work I do and so many others do in “cultural development” we still don’t have a cultural sector that works together to advocate for all that is culture. In this time of societal change, what would it take to create that sector, to build our strength, and to finally look at our field as a whole rather than competing interests?

And finally…

If you think that the arts aren’t getting some of the stimulus funding, check out Stimulus Watch and the other on-line listings of projects put forward for the funds. There are a number of mayors around the US that have inserted very significant capital development projects in the arts. I’m seeing hundreds of millions in arts capital projects, and the roll is growing by the day. So, at the local level, the belief in major civic arts projects as important to our future remains strong.

Thoughts on Developing a Cultural Plan

I am starting a new cultural planning process for Mercer County, NJ, and thought it would be interesting to use this as an opportunity to go back and pull out a copy of the Community Cultural Planning Work Kit, which I wrote on commission from the NEA back in 1990.   I thought I’d return to it and see if it still holds true as a guidebook to the process.  (Good news, it does.) 

Here are some thoughts from it that ring true:

1) A community cultural plan should become the blueprint for building livability into an area. 

2) It should mesh with all other community masterplans, and in its pages detail how culture plays an integral role in shaping the community’s look, feel, spirit, and design.  Other civic plans, in turn, should reference the cultural plan’s role and responsibilities.

3) The planning process iteself should allow each community to define those aspects of cultural development that are most appropriate and essential to its own way of life and future growth. 

4) A classic planning error is to develop a good solution to the wrong problem.  Before a plan is developed, problems, opportunities, and needs must be identified, and perferred solutions or scenarios identified.

5) Don’t confuse planning with a needs assessment process.  The assessment is the process of investigating the community’s cultural needsd, priorities, strengths, weaknesses, and potential within the context of the community’s general economic and social conditions.  The assessment is conducted to provide a frame of reference for decision making – planning. 

6) A plan is more than recommendations.  It is the outcome of a public process that develops vision, goals, and workable strategies, and that identifies how those strategies will be accomplished.  Open meetings that allow the community to hear proposed goals and respond with their own views are important. 

7) The key to turning a plan into reality is the buy-in of all those involved in implementingt goals, objectives, and strategies.  If there are goals or strategies that require the support of groups or decision makers not represented in the planning process, it will be necessary to take the rough draft of ideas to them and to seek their involvement.  Before you begin a plan, meet with all the community agencies, civic leaders, and government agencies likely to be touched by a cultural plan.  Let them know how important their input is to the development of a realistic and workabple plan.  Incorporate them into the planning process.

8) You will need to provide your community with a framework of expectations as to the outcome and value of the plan.  

9) You will need to determine the resources required to implement a cultural plan.  But, a cultural plan isn’t just a plan or a new strategy for funding the arts.  A real cultural plan specifically addresses how your community can and will be transformed and improved through vital arts and culture.   

10) Cultural planning isn’t a one time deal.  Every five years is a good rule of thumb. 

11) The agency plans of implementing organizations – local arts councils, community foundations, civic arts commissions as well as school districts and municipal offices – should continuously respond to cultural plans, taking their cue on priorities and timelines from the overall plan.

A New Hope for Arts Education

While in Monterey County, CA, last week working with the wonderful Arts Council there, we focused on the fervor missing over the past eight years for quality arts education among educators, school districts and senior education administrators.  Even administrators who today say they “want a great band program”  too often seem to stop at that.  They have given up striving for the quality of learning that is gained by school wide opportunites to both learn in and through the arts.   This comes at the same time as they espouse the creative economy and what it can mean for their students.  Why the disconnect, and why is it once again so severe? 

We’ve lost a generation of trained arts-oriented educators, and educators have lost the freedom to teach creatively.  All that public dialogue about the value of learning in and through the arts, all that advocacy that was done in the 80s and the 90s – it needs to start all over again.  

Perhaps now, with a new administration coming to Washington, No Child Left Behind will become history, to be replaced by more positive proactive measures that allow teachers to educate to multiple intelligences.  And hopefully, before it is too late, there will be room once again for sutstantive arts learning in our schools.  

During the past ten years, an entire generation of teachers and arts education specialists has changed.  So many outstanding arts education advocates and advocacy groups have retired.   Dozens of educator institutes and professional development programs in the arts have vanished.  And we are, in many ways, starting back where we were.  In 1991, when the National Endowment for the Arts commissioned me to evaluate their Arts is Basic in Education Grants program (AISBEG), I wrote of the work that had to be done then to transform schools:

“Change at the school level is a complex issue.  Today (1991) even after significant strides made through collaboration, often furthered by AISBEG, the actual transformation in schools is far more superficial and limited than any in the field would like.    The nagging concern is how to go beyond a few model schools to make the arts basic in all schools, to keep the momentum going, even as economic downturn whittles away the resources that communities put towards the arts.” 

That was 17 years ago.

How indeeed do we renew a zeal for arts learning?  We do have more assets to work with than in the past.  Today we know that a whole host of careers, jobs, and industries require arts learning and the skill sets gained through what the arts bring to education in every subject.   We need to use this in renewed advocacy for learning in and through the arts.   Go, for a moment, to O*NET online – there is a link in the blogroll to the right of this post. (ONET is a service of the US Department of Labor, and is the nation’s primary source of occupational information.)  There, you can quiz your capacity on a matrix of knowledge, skills, tasks, work context, and technology and learn the type of job right for you.  I went through it and entered everything that a student could expect to gain by learning in and through the arts – abilities such as deductive and inductive reasoning, problem solving and sensitivity, fluency of ideas, critical thinking, social perceptiveness, communication, and more.  The job that popped up as right for my hypothetical student who had learned in and through the arts was a nuclear engineer(!)  I slightly altered the mix of capacities, and jobs such as human resource managers, software developers and applications engineers, teachers, account executives and police detectives popped up.  All the skills and knowledges gained from the arts are what ONET recognizes as high level, preparing individuals for wide ranging high income careers.  

Scholars outside the arts education field have also paved the way for a new level of advocacy and dialogue.  If you haven’t read Innovation – The Missing Dimension  by Richard K. Lester and Michael J. Piore – both MIT professors – get it.  As their title suggests, they find that analytic capacity isn’t enough to move the economy forward.  As they write, “an important component of innovation involves a different process, one that is not (just) directed toward the solution of well-defined problems.  The activity out of which something innovated emerges – new insights…new ideas…new approaches…is intepretation.  Above all, the intepretive perspective points to the importance of cultivating a tolerance for ambiguity – the critical resource from which true innovation derives, while preserving the skills required for efficient analytical decision-making.” 

This is what education in and through the arts imparts.  We have a lot of rebuilding to do, to get there once again.  A lot of advocacy.  But this is the time for a new hope for arts education.