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Dinosaurs falling from the sky in theater-land?

1 Robert Levine

The head of the NEA seems to think so:

Count on Rocco Landesman to stir the pot. Speaking at a conference about new play development at Arena Stage in Washington on Thursday, Mr. Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, addressed the problem of struggling theaters. “You can either increase demand or decrease supply,” he said. “Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.” His comment reverberated through the blogosphere. “What does he mean there’s too much supply?!?” wrote Trisha Mead, the public relations and publications manager at Portland Center Stage in Oregon. “What does he mean we can’t increase demand?!? Who determines which theater companies are wheat and which are chaff?!?” In another post, Durango Miller, a playwright and director, said: “Why not just increase funding? Maybe the N.E.A. is outdated and should be replaced by another system for funding the arts in the United States. Or maybe the people who are running the N.E.A. should be replaced.”

In a telephone interview on Friday Mr. Landesman defended his comments. “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 said. “That’s a discussion nobody wants to have.” Foundations and agencies like the endowment should perhaps reconsider re-allocating their resources, he said, perhaps giving larger grants to fewer institutions. “There might be too many resident theaters — it is possible,” he said. “At least we have to talk about it.” This month a group of Republican lawmakers called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mr. Landesman said he was reserving judgment about that. “I think we have to see what comes out in the away of actual legislation,” he said. “I’m optimistic that the N.E.A. and the N.E.H. are going to be O.K.”

That’s a relief. The arts may be dying, but at least the arts bureaucracies will be OK.

This is interesting on several levels. First, of course, is the fact that Landesman is from the for-profit theater world, and probably has difficulty separating the concept of demand for theater from the concept of demand for expensive theater tickets. It’s something we have trouble with as well; we forget that people give money to orchestras in order to have orchestras provide music, and not necessarily just big orchestral concerts in fancy venues with hefty admission fees.

More interesting to me, though, is the fact that the theater business seems to have done much of what some experts think we ought to do. They work on what we would call a “per-service” basis, for one thing - there are very, very few theaters with rosters of full-time actors. And they tend to do a lot more contemporary works than does the orchestra business. Because they’re smaller, they have more flexibility in many ways.

And yet the head of the NEA says that the theater business needs to shrink. Either we’re all screwed, or none of the experts really have a handle on what it’s going to take to make things better for the performing arts.

Or perhaps the beginning of a weak recovery from the worst economic downturn in decades is a lousy time to be making predictions about the future of an industry very dependent on the state of the secular economy.


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  1. Comment by Nicole Stacy
    February 11, 2019 at 2:52 PM

    This doesn’t surprise me in the least.