Thursday, March 12, 2009

From Off-Stage Right

Jodi Schoenbrun Carter, who is (formerly?) the managing director of the Westport Country Playhouse and has previously had stints as general manager of Signature Theatre Company, the Vineyard and MCC Theater, has a blog that is -- my bad! -- new to me. It's called From Off-Stage Right, and it caught my eye this morning because -- well, thanks to a Google alert! Yes, I know that's narcissistic. Anyway, vanity isn't the point of this post.

Instead, it's to point to Jodi's recent summation of the "new models" discussion that has been rising and falling in the theatrosphere more than the lifts in Ryan Secrest's shoes. Everyone should read her post (and not because she says nice things about the CF Report). For example, here is a selection of passages from her post. It is not the whole thing.

In nonprofit theatre the debates seem to be centering for the most part around two arguments:

1) The funding model for theatre has to be changed, but how - more earned revenue, more contributed revenue, or more government support?

2) Do all the theatres in trouble really deserved to be saved: two overriding arguments are emerging - (a) there is just too many theatres or (b) is the fact that a particular theatre's "art" really wasn't that relevant, engaging or well-executed why it is in trouble in the first place, and if should it be saved?

My thoughts on funding models: First, most theatres will tell you they have an income problem and not an expense problem. I will take each and everyone one of them at their word. I have been crunching numbers for theaters since I was 16 years old - and have never been in or seen a theatre that is over-funded or that isn't cost cutting 24/7, 365 days a year....

All one has to do is look at the current $50M in the Federal Stimulus package which will barely dent covering other cuts organizations will be enduring from state and local agencies and requires that organizations be funded by the NEA in prior years. Why isn't the $50M going directly 100% to retaining jobs in the arts - wasn't that the point of the Stimulus bill. I imagine every organization funded by the NEA could use some support in maintaining staff.

And unfortunately the process of apply for any kind of government funding is inherently biased towards older and larger organizations. I worked for an arts council for 3 years; I sat in the panels; and it is simply the truth that there is a bias. (Although as a side note, I will commend the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs under Kate Levin's leadership - as the most forward thinking reformer trying to create equity).

What is the right funding model?

This isn't any new discussion, unfortunately too many organizations (and more importantly their boards) are still striving toward the 60:40 earned to contributed rule that became a health barometer for performing arts long ago and simply is not an accurate measure of success or sustainability and hasn't been for years. (history lesson via wikipedia: Baumol and Cultural Economics and Baumol's Cost Disease )....

I guess what I am saying is that we are going to have to rely on our wits, vision, and missions to solve funding problems and not rely on the government. Of course we won't let them off the hook, especially when it comes to Arts Education, capital initiatives, legislative issues regarding non-profit status, and special projects. I will be the first person in line to argue for increases, I just have more faith in the creativity of the field than any politician - even the most arts friendly….

What we have is the same problem facing many industries:
too many institutions
too many that are off-mission or doing a mediocre job of fulfilling their mission
too many that are not serving their communities because they are serving the ego of staff or board members
too many clinging to the past and therefore can't move forward
too many living beyond their means
too many trying to meet expectations they shouldn't be or don't need to be

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: