The Digest: Jan. 27, 2011 [Special Arts Economy Doom Edition]

Better Numbers Say Things Are Worse: Yesterday, I linked to a Culture Monster post that made some difficult to substantiate comments about the benefits of arts spending; last night I found Americans for the Arts recently released arts “vitality” report, which puts some hard numbers in place that present a sobering picture of the state of the arts in America, the “vitality” of which is at its lowest in the twelve years it’s been measured in the report.

It’s an interesting report to dig into, and I encourage anyone involved in the arts to do so. The bad news: the public’s consumption of the arts remains flat, while arts orgs are seeing their share of philanthropic giving fall. For all the talk of NEA cuts, the fall from 4.9 to 4 percent of philanthropic giving took $2.5 billion out of the arts sector in 2009. The good news though is that the arts remain surprisingly vibrant despite a lack of support; during the Great Recession, more than 3,000 new arts ventures were launched around the country. And ethnically and culturally oriented organizations have doubled nationally in the last decade.

More on the Numbers: Interestingly, the NEA’s #NewPlay Festival is currently underway at D.C.’s Arena Theatre, and I came across this fascinating blog post from just yesterday, recapping a talk-back with Rocco Landesman, the head of the NEA. The discussion, featuring a variety of theater producers from all over the US, was apparently a barnstorming affair by Landesman who declared: “Look. You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.”

What’s definitely cool about it, though, was how much Landesman focused on how he wants theater around the country to be more locally focused. Plenty of criticism is thrown at the regionals (a lost cause if I’ve ever seen one) for violating the public spirit of their founding. “[H]e is very interested in seeing regional theaters invest in more work that is designed specifically for their own community,” Arena Stage’s blogger summarizes, “rather than passing around the latest Broadway hit. He wants to see regional companies generating work that speaks directly to their own communities…work that shares and reflects the unique values of its particular audience.”

All fair and good, but the really interesting parts don’t get quite as much attention. I think I’ve already made my dubiousness at the possibility that the regional theaters could really step up into this role patently clear, and if Landesman thinks there are too many arts organizations competing for limited dollars, I know exactly where there’s fat to trim. The issue was only obliquely addressed:

As Kirk Lynn from the Rude Mechanicals pointed out in the question period, a $3k grant to an organization of his size has real impact on the work they can generate and how many audience members they can reach with it. The $25k grant to a $4 mil organization has less relative impact. He wonders: Is this weeding out of the overabundance of the theater community going to concentrate more resources into the hands of already large institutions? And what will that mean for the companies whose work isn’t compatible with the structures of large institutions?

Obviously, my sympathies lie with smaller organizations. Yes, I know a lot of people were pleased that Landesman also expressed outrage that professional theater artists in the US don’t make enough to support themselves. But that said, Landesman seems to view the problem through a business lens: concentrating resources in a few larger institutions at the expense of diversity is a recipe for success in the same way Wal-Mart is. The proper place for granting and development institutions in the current moment is to help sustain diversity and risk-taking. The reality is that regional theaters don’t get enough money from public funds that people like Landesman should care. The heavy-lifting is being done by smaller organizations, and that’s why Lynn’s comment is dead-on: the benefit of a small grant to an org like the Rude Mechs is almost always a better investment, in my book, than throwing spare change at legacy institutions that live off the largesse of wealthy patrons.

Republican Realpolitik: And just on a side-note, yesterday I also argued that the Republican opposition to arts funding was purely a matter of bias, not economics. That’s why Sarah Smarsh’s editorial snark today, reporting in the Huffington Post on now-Governor Sam Brownback’s (oh how the senate will miss you, sir!) proposal to make Kansas the first state in the nation without an arts commission, was dead on:

“Happy New Year, Art Fags!”

Personally, I think he’s shooting himself in the foot. Without arts, who’s going to help educate his Snowflake Babies to make those “spontaneous” and suspiciously large-scale art projects for his idiotic presentations?

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