Monday, April 27, 2009

Priorities, Part 1

I was actually thinking that I didn't have much to say today. But then I saw this. And it made me think about one of the bits in this. Olson talks about the cuts he and his hard-working staff have taken and how the theatre doesn't provide healthcare. (And let me make sure I'm clear: I have no doubts that the staff of ASTC all work very, very hard and are looking for ways to operate as efficiently as possible.) Then he boasts that they've raised $4 million for their capital campaign and their new building. There doesn't seem to be much of a disconnect there. And that is pretty much par for the course in the arts.

And then I see that the Public Theater is making a big announcement about, seriously, renovating their lobby. They're going to raise $13 million dollar (and have already gotten 35% of that) to renovate their lobby. Compare that to this.

The real question is where are our priorities? I'm not question The Public's commitment to new works and new voices, not precisely. It's a bigger question than that and not one that we ask, at least not a lot: why is it easier to raise that kind of money for buildings and not for people? I'm not even just talking about giving it directly to the artists (not yet). I have yet to see the "capital" campaign that goes: "We need to build up our artistic staff, so we need $1 million to pay a living wage and cover healthcare." In my experience, staff expenses always come from general operating costs and these are the hardest funds to raise. A lot of theatres and organizations assign part of dedicated funds for gen op, but getting someone to give you money for staffing needs seems impossible.

So we raise money for things from people who prioritize things. They want their name on something, want something they can point at and say "I built that." Hiring a staff member, that won't do. The big question is why do we want that money? Could we find people who want to support purely artistic work and get the money from them? Or even can we negotiate? "Sure, fine, you get naming rights on this column and on this developemental program." That would at least be something.

But the corruption runs deep. Look here (I swear I'm not picking on them, but...). Look at the distribution of staff. 2 literary staff members. 9 development staff members. What are the actual priorities here?

This is so standard, we seem to just accept it. The art stuff is undercapitalized and understaffed, the development staff is full-time. At some point, it becomes more about the raising of money than the spending of money, and our imaginations have atrophied (well, some folks' imaginations) that Olson at ASTC can't even really conceive of how you can just add artists to your staff or ways that you can spend $4 million to support artists. It's not even a consideration.

I think some of this comes from the origins of the standard model, coming from the foundation world, not the business world. The whole point is that the artists "can't" manage the money or organizations. We've invested in theatres as the middlemen, armies of managers who make it all possible. But is that the only way?

We need to be asking our theatres what their priorities are. And the theatres need to be asking themselves what their donors priorities are. If your big donors really only want to open their wallets for walls and lobbies, do you really need their money? Or can you split the donations, balance the scales. And this can happen from the other end, too. What if TCG said, "No support to any organization unless the development staff is half the size of the literary department." This system is not static or unavoidable. It could be shifted, changed, abandoned altogether.

And that priority includes the lives and wellbeing of staffs. It's not just about the art and the artists. Here's a story: I knew some folks working at a theatre a while back. The theatre had hit a rough patch, financially, and had to lay off most of the staff, even though they were still owed money. There was a show going at the time and it was in danger of closing. In order to keep it open, the theatre needed to raise a large sum of money, in roughly an afternoon. The artistic director got on the phone, worked some friends and got a check in about two hours, hand-delivered and the show went on. Much merriment and celebration all around. But one of the laid-off staff members, one still owed money, was rightfully pretty pissed. "You can raise that money for the show, but not for the staff? That's fucked up." And it is. It is fucked up. It's fucked up that the hierarchy seems to go buildings, then art, then people. And we wonder why no one wants to work here.

What are our priorities?


John said...

To start, I have your same vision of giving artists better security, creating residencies, lowering ticket prices, etc. etc. But all these cost money. Right now, even if the Public is working on a small surplus (remember they haven't always been so lucky), there are still no stockholders pocketing the cash not given to artists. They are reinvesting and utilizing all their resources. I'd say (and I don't know, just an assumption) that the Public's (and most non-profits!) budget is pretty tight. And to keep the revenue stream (50-60% donations mind you), a well-staffed development office is essential. So to hire more artists will require more money. Now, I agree it would be nice to have that lobby money in the hands of artists. But, like you say in your post, it's the foundations, individuals, corporations, etc. who will only fund these physical capital projects rather than human capital projects. So if the Public can't raise the money for extra human capital, then the Public will have to cut somewhere else. What should they cut? Set budgets? Director salaries? Marketing? Where's the fat? Honestly, I don't think it's the Public or any non-profit's fault that hiring full time artists can't happen. Until some major increases in private or government funding happen, we are stuck working in business where a sold out show means half your expenses are covered.

Again, I'm not against your goals. I just think that we need to move beyond hire more full-time artists, lower ticket prices, etc. and figure out real ways to do this in the theater's current funding situation.

Oh and forgive the scattered nature of this post.

99 said...

But, see, that's exactly the way this conversation gets derailed. I'm not saying that these things don't cost money; of course, they do. And it shouldn't be a matter of "Well, what would you cut?" (Though, in this case, I'm arguing that the two staff lines dedicated to the capital campaign could probably be used to either hire artists in staff positions or more artistic staff.) That's exactly the tack that Olson takes with Mike Daisey. It's all an either/or proposition. But what I'm saying is that it's a question of priorities and having your entire organization reflect your priorities. If you're a main priority is the development of new work, that should be the main thrust of your staff. If you need to raise more money to support those artists, that's where the money goes. When was the last time the Public announced a $13 million investment in artists?

This isn't some wacky, hippy-dippy idea. I'm not accusing anyone of waste or skimming or anything. I'm saying that the priorities are out of whack. And if your donors don't share your priorities, why are you soliciting their donations? It leads to mission creep.

And I'm not even talking solely about hiring artists, or even more development programs. Hire more literary staff! Make sure they have livable salaries! That's just as important.

Why aren't we asking the question of why we can't raise more money for people and for art? It would seem that, unless we're in the business of building and maintaining theatres, we're in the wrong business if we can't raise money for our prime resources.

John said...

The point about the Captial Development staff member is a good point. The Public could hire someone to be a human capital fundraiser.

What scares me is that there might not be much money out there for staff funding. Operations, like you said, are the hardest funds to raise, and a literary staff, acting company, or resident playwright would most certainly go under this. And when an indiv,corp,foundation does step in to fund the Coca-Cola acting company for a year, what about the year after? That's the tricky thing about human resources. A lobby lasts for years if not decades. A person needs constant funding. All of this is not to say that better funding for staff isn't possible. But these are tough to solve.

And to give the Public credit, it has a great (if not the best) track record for breaking down barriers between art and audience. Rush tickets available to anyone for every show; consistent consideration for disabled audience members; free shakespeare in the park. And as expensive as this lobby is, it will help to further establish the Public as a community center.

So again, excuse me for my stream of consciousness. I think our question now should be how can we better convince individuals, foundations, corporations the value of a labor contribution. 'Cause they obviously don't get it.

99 said...

Or the Public could hire an artist to be on the literary staff. Or another full-time literary manager. Or an artist consultant.

And that's exactly the question: why can't/aren't we, as an industry, raising money for our staffs? Why is it so hard to find? And, yes, a lobby lasts for years, but we're also talking about $13 million. Imagine this: the Public Theatre announces a new play development initiative, and will commission 16 new writers for $50K each, and they'll also repaint the lobby. Again, it's either/or. It's a question of proportions.

And that's very nice to say that the new lobby will make the Public more of a community center. But in either article I read, there wasn't much about any community outreach programs. Just how much nicer it will be for the patrons of the theatre.

Rush tickets, audience development, all of that is great. But shouldn't the work be the number one form of audience development? Are audiences staying away in droves from the Public because the bathrooms are nasty?

I really don't mean to pick on them, because I like the Public and respect what they're doing. This is just indicative of how we got in this whole mess.

RLewis said...

This is an important topic that I imagine will never be solved, but always targeted. Keep up the good work.

I think that getting a bit deeper into the spec's of the issue might be helpful. A sad one is that most theater folks are only in this biz 3-5 years on average, so throwing a lot of money at them will probably never be cost effective.

Another is to look at where the money is coming from. This post speaks a lot of individual donors and foundations, but $22 million of this project is coming from City government. And I'll bet that a lot of the rest of the money will come from State and Federal sources, and then before it's all over more City money. And being able to say that 2/3s of the project is already funded makes it a lot easier to get the rest of the money anyway.

And if you look at it from the government's side, Capital Campaigns are the safest way to fund the arts. Funding artists is short-term for little return on investment, but here, even if The Public goes out of business, there will still be a City building with a fab', accessible lobby. They still get something for their money. Also, The Public just rents the building, so essentially, the City is spending $22 million, not on The Public, but on a space they already own.

Lastly, The Public's facility services to the handicapped are awful. That lil' lift just inside the doors is not a good way to encourage the disabled to attend theater. So, both The Public and the City get good cred' for increasing diverse audiences (and someplace pre-show for them to wait), and I think that's something we all want.

I agree that we must fight for more and better artist funding, but knocking Capital Campaigns is not a new model, and I can't see where it's ever worked. I hope that we can find some smart, new thinking on this issue.

99 said...

RLewis, yes, the bulk of the money is coming from the government and I don't fault the Public for picking it up. And making the building more accessible is a great goal and keeps in line with the law and all. But what I'm saying is do we have to import the priorities of the people with the money? Is there a way to at least share the priorities? For the city, yes, an investment in a building makes sense and the building could have many purposes down the line, but for the theater is that the best investment? And what are they getting in return, other than a nicer building, in terms of their mission?

I'm not knocking the method, or existence of capital campaigns. I'm questioning the logic and the underlying principles. And wondering why we don't see those kinds of investment in the theatre's staff and artistic development. And why aren't we seeking out donor who want to give to that. If you're getting $22 million from the government, why does the renovation need to cost $35 million? Could it cost $30 million and you raise $5 million for artistic programming in the new space? $5 million to commission, develop and produce new plays featuring disabled actors and about disability issues, let's say. I think you're right that there isn't enough creative thinking about capital campaigns. They become solely about the buildings and about attracting people who are attracted to buildings and not at all about the mission of the theatre. Since we're talking about so much money, can't we set aside some for the art?

RLewis said...

"Since we're talking about so much money, can't we set aside some for the art?"

Well, then it's not a Capital Campaign. That money is only there to build something. If you're not building something then the City is going to give that money to City Harvest, Lighthouse or some other org' for them to build something. No one has to import the City’s priorities; I’ll bet they’re just as happy to give the money to a non-arts group.

If the renovation didn’t cost $35 mm then I’ll bet that the City wouldn’t give them $22 mm. Say if the renovation were more like $15 mm, then the City would only kick in $10 mm. This is all worked out by the City folks (probably not in the Dept. of Cultural Affairs), not The Public, so they can’t just shift money around to areas other than the CC.

I can give you reasons why I think this money supports The Public’s mission, again, and how they do seek out other funding, I'm sure you know they do, but first it seems you might want to do a little more research on exactly what is a Capital Campaign. They ARE solely about buildings.

I think we'd be a lot more effective focusing on another part of the funding equation.

99 said...

But that's exactly it. If the gov't's priorities is to build buildings and then you take money from them to only build buildings and not to use to create art, which is your mission, you're importing their priorities. I honestly couldn't have stated it any clearer. And you're getting it exactly. I think we need to re-think what a capital campaign is. If the various gov't entities are kicking in $22 million, or whatever percentage, and that can only be used for building stuff, why can't the theatre set aside a portion of the money it raises (in this, the other $13 million) for purely art purposes? Or to fund an extra lit person, at least for a couple of years as they try to find permanent funding? I understand perfectly well how capital campaigns currently work. What I'm saying is, since they take a lot of time, energy and resources and, in the end, the results are not art-based at all, is there a way to re-focus them so that there is an arts component. I just don't understand the mindset of "we can't fund our arts programming sufficiently, but we can build a new theatre."

Adam said...

I weigh in here:

Chris Casquilho said...

I was reading an article about Saddam Hussein this morning. I don't have it in front of me, so I'm going to hack up the paraphrase and not give the poor author credit...

He said that a poor man has a lot options - make friends, leave them, travel, take a job, leave it, and so on. His choices are not constrained. But as soon as whatever he gets into starts to be successful, he starts to lose options - the more successful he becomes, the more stuff he accumulates - relationships, progeny, land - the fewer choices he has if he wants to maintain the status quo.

This is true of large businesses of every stripe. The project turns from pursuit of mission to maintenance of the status quo. Once you get into a building, you want to keep it nice.

What theatre has ever renovated an old warehouse after renting storefronts for a decade, done three plays in the new space, and said "you know, this blows - let's go back to the storefront..."?

Mission creep is the watchword (phrase?): does your capital structure help you pursue your mission, or does your mission prop up your capital structure?

99 said...

Chris- Mission creep and just the general theory of entropy are very real things for theatre companies. Priorities, relationships, issues change over time and I think it would be helpful for companies to stop and re-evaluate their missions and their practices from time to time. One of the problems is that we don't think about what we're doing and why nearly enough.

As a DFH* Liberal, I'm going to shock the world by saying this: I completely disagree with Saddam Hussein. (I know, stunner.) It's a common trope that the young and poor somehow have it easier. In my experience, it's just plain not true and certainly not in our current society. In terms of theatre companies, young, upstart theatre companies have a much more tenuous position, fewer assets and resources and less reputation to help them get by. The Public could say, "We're going to take a year off from producing in order to focus our resources on developing new works" and not lose an inch of their status. An young, upstart company doesn't have that luxury. A large institution can take risks, can use leverage to get actors, directors, writers (not in a manipulative way, but in a prestige way). To quote my favorite band, it burns being broke, it hurts to be heartbroken and always being both must be a drag. And most young theatre companies I know are broke and/or heartbroken.

*Dirty Fucking Hippie, a la Atrios

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