Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Art v. Commerce, Round Eleventy-One

So I've found a bit of time and I want to come back to this. Since I posted that, a couple of other folks have chimed in. And Ian David Moss at Createquity posted an extremely comprehensive look at this study (as well as a helpful summary - Thanks!), which touches on some of the things Chris Ashworth brought up in the comments here. Our old friend, Scott, has some cogent thoughts in the comments at Don's place. Good stuff all the way around. Obviously, I have thoughts about it.

First, though, definitely go and check out Ian David Moss' work summing up the salient points of this study. It overlaps with Richard Florida's work that Chris Ashworth mentioned. All good points. To give the super short version, for those who don't like to click links, it's all work that makes a good, strong, well-supported and rational case for the arts as economic engine and therefore something good and right and worthy of governmental and business support. It's largely deemed a necessary argument because, as Chris, Scott and many others have pointed out, the argument that the arts are a necessary good has failed, the argument that artists are worthy public servants has failed and another tact is needed. Since in our capitalist world, cash is king, why not make the argument that the arts make underperforming areas economically viable. (If I'm making a hash of the argument, please, please correct me. It's a lot of stuff to digest, even with a couple of weeks' layoff.)

First off, a warning: this will be a long post. Sorry. (Well, not really.) And it might just be rambling, discursive and quite possibly insane.'ve been warned.

To begin with, whenever we have this conversation in theatre circles, the terms get messy. We use words like "art" and "artists" somehow interchangeably with "theatre" and "theatre artists." When we say that "art is necessary," are we talking about making art, enjoying art? Is a play the same kind of art as graffitti or a movie or a well-designed cereal box? Is it all one big pool of art? Will an economically depressed area be equally revived by an art gallery or a dance space or a theatre? What the hell are we nattering on about? I'm a theatre artist, so I can really only speak to that. In the spirit of that, I want to start off with three numbers.

$ 943.3 million.

$188 million.

$1.1 billion.

Those three number tell me that no matter how well-supported your argument that the arts are an economic engine is, no matter how much information you have at your fingertips, there are larger forces at work here. And some of these forces are in the hands of artists. But a lot of them aren't.

Again for those who don't like to click links, those three numbers are:

- the 2008 total revenues for the 43 shows on Broadway.

- the 2008 revenue for the New York Yankees.

- the amount of money New York City contributed to the building of the new Yankee Stadium.

If you want to argue that art is unnecessary, then you better be ready to argue that sports are even less necessary. And, yes, many, many people argued that it was a poor use of public funds to build a stadium. But that didn't stop it.

Now, let's do a thought experiment: imagine Mike Bloomberg announces tomorrow that he and the League of Broadway Producers have come together to honor the single, largest revenue generator for the city and will now build five new Broadway houses at $50 million a piece. Let's even say that they planned to build them in depressed neighborhoods as economic generators. Now...really. Stop laughing. And try to imagine the outcry, the reactions in the press.

Are you seeing it? John Lahr once said that the theatre's natural competition is sports. And I think there are a ton of very good parallels and differences to notice between the two, both in terms of internal structures and its place in the cultural landscape. The idea of spending billions of dollars of the public's money on a sports stadium is not a ludcrious, career-ending proposition. And, fundamentally, the two experiences are analogous: large groups of people gathered together to witness a live event. The city and state make money from taxes, local business gain patrons, all of the attendant income. Even roughly the same number of people on any given day: 43 theatres x 1,000 people in the audience (actually, that's probably low, but I don't want to do any more research) ~= 50,000 at a ball game. But that leaves out matinees, and the 8 show-a-week schedule. Not to mention: no away games.

I don't think this is all news to the city. Really? They haven't noticed a billion dollars flowing in and out of the city? Yeah, they don't need a study to show them that theatre can generate some bucks.'s still not a priority, is it?

The economic argument falls short. It just does. Because it's not really about the money. It's also about the culture.

Sports win out because, despite the number of people who don't like it, who can't afford to go to the stadium, despite the overpaid players and despicable owners, it's still perceived as a thing of joy and beauty for the whole city. Theatre can't shake its rep of being just for the moneyed elites. A sports team is part of the fabric of a city, the spirit of a town. Theatre is a luxury. It's controversial, a political hot potato, and nothing anyone wants to get caught dead supporting, unless it's something that's going to turn a quick profit, or get them in bed with a comely chorine.

This is the bedrock truth of the thing. This country is, especially at present, incredibly hostile to the arts as a whole, in principle. My argument about making theatre necessary is about trying to change that. That's where we start. The economic argument will always be unpersuasive. We have to dig deeper than that.

This is at the root of all of our problems in the theatre. We don't rate enough for real government support. We're a public good incredibly underfunded by the government. We don't have the resources to provide our artists with a living wage or to make ticket prices low enough to reach a wider audience. Now we're caught in a death sprial of dependence on a consistently shrinking portion of the community. That dependence leads to more separation and less support from the majority of the audience. And here we are.

That's why I support less non-profit and more for-profit ventures. More theatres eating what they kill, so to speak. More independence from donors and less need for government money, actually. Theatre can be expensive and needs full funding to provide the artists with a living wage. Because our society de-values what we do, we wind up de-valuing it. (I'll have some more on that shortly.)

Value isn't actually measured in money. If it was, Broadway would have more value than the Yankees. But it doesn't. We have to build our value to the city, to the country.

In my mind, I have two visions for an ideal world of theatre. In one, it's a world of maybe less actual artists, but more companies, more local work, more connection between the artists and the communities, more companies supporting themselves financially and needing less and less from foundations and government organizations (at least on the state or federal level). In another, it's a world more like ours, but with more theatres, more government and state funding, lots of large institutions doing a wide variety of work for incredibly cheap and for the enjoyment of all. The hope is that one of these is on the way to the other. I think the former is more where we're heading. I think that's a good thing.

I just think we have to be clear-eyed about the world we're in.


Tony Adams said...

Right now sports capture far more peoples imaginations. And the imagination trumps any budgetary analysis.

I think it says more about theatre than sports.

Liza said...

This post made me think about how available sports are on television vs. how available theatre is on television. Even if you can't afford to attend a sporting event, most people can participate in some way, which leads to a greater feeling of overall engagement.

hyperjetlag said...

Hello 99,

Some of us have put together a li'l statement and conversation around addressing some of the problems you correctly identify.

I don't think its an either / or - nor a competitive thing - funding arts does not require cutting sports - both should exist (most bizarrely here -

Anyway here is the site for the discussion from the thinking we've done:

99 said...

Hey, hyper-

Glad to get to know ya. I'm eager to read through your thoughts and statements at length.

But I want to be clear about one thing: I don't think of it as an either/or situation, or a precisely competitive thing. I do think that we can learn things from the way both the businesses operate and the way the landscape is shaped by sports. Absolutely both should exist, but a bit more parity would be nice. How we achieve that parity is the question.

Christopher Ashworth said...

> If you want to argue that art is unnecessary,
> then you better be ready to argue that sports
> are even less necessary.

As someone who has zero interest in sports, I'm quite happy to argue that. :-)

Michael Malone said...

Very thought provoking. I'm just getting to this, a bit late I suppose, through setting up a local community theater blog/podcast. While what you point to is way outside our economics, I can see the very same thing happening in our community. Government funding for smaller impacts, and the arts gets cut and cut and cut.

Thanks for putting it into a framework that we can use to start talking about it.

Anonymous said...

Major league sports are a giant waste of money and time.

Having worked at a community theatre company, I can appreciate what it takes to have theatre.

Stanley said...

While I would love to agree with you 100% on this I can't overlook your oversimplification of the numbers.

Ticket sales is only one slice of the pie for the Yankees. You're forgetting about: Jerseys, Hats, Giant Fingers, TV rights, Parking, Hot Dogs, Coca Cola, etc., etc. etc. Some concrete figures appear below in a 2004 breakdown of estimated Yankees earnings and spendings from a chart called the "High Cost of Winning":

"The Yankees are likely operating at a close to break even for the 2004 regular season, according to estimates by sports investment bankers. That could all change if they win their 27th World Series championship

Ticket sales $100 million
Local broadcast rights $68.5 million
Parking, concessions, suites, sponsorship $60 million
MLB pooled revenue $22 million
Other $40 million
Total $290.5M

Payroll $187 million
Minor leagues, lease, front office, travel $35 million
Luxury tax $20 million
Revenue sharing $48 million
Total $290M"

Lets assume their 2009 total income now regularly exceeds $300M- probably about $310-330M (not including a world series bid). The city is looking at the jobs that the stadium and convincing itself that the 1 billion investment is good for job growth and for tax revenue in the long term. I think if we are going to convince the government to invest in the arts financial viablility is a strong argument to make. Arts are no less an opportunity to spur job creation and increase tax revenue then any other sector, if not a better one. Just make sure you fairly evaluate each economic climate. For while sports and theatre share some commonalities, there are some key differences. For example, stadiums are important to communities (and tax revenues) for more than just sports- they often host concerts, etc. To offset the main difference between the two, TV, we could get into the effect on small businesses surrounding theatres. Also, what revenues do theatres make off of drinks, CD's, t-shirts, etc.?

I'm sure there is a comprehensive and pursuasive argument to be made, but I'm not convinced by your three magic numbers alone.

99 said...

My three magic numbers aren't meant to say "the economic argument is bunk," but to say that without the necessity/importance argument and some serious adjustments to the overall culture of the theatre, we're not going to win that fight. Because, economically, I don't think it's much of a contest.

Look at the numbers you provided and your estimate: at best, including all sorts of ancillary monies, the Yankees revenue is still one-third less than just ticket sales for Broadway alone. I'll see if I can find the similar ancillary numbers for the theatre district, but remember the theatre district also includes a number of Off-Broadway houses as well. Broadway just scratches the surface of the amount of revenue theatre brings into this city. Yet getting the city to invest to the tune of a billion dollars in theatre seems absurd. That's the point. We win if you're talking about the numbers, so what else is part of the picture?

The point about a stadium being multi-use is right on, and honestly, would be a good place to start. Why can't more theatres be multi-use? Or why aren't the multi-use abilities more trumpeted? Broadway has hosted a number of different kinds of events, including one-off concerts and speeches and other special events. Sure, you don't match the grandeur of 50,000 people showing up to see the Pope, but it's still nothing to sneeze at.

This isn't meant to be an argument in favor of sports spending, or that sports is "better" than theatre, but that there is something that's happening in sports which isn't happening in theatre, despite a number of underlying similarities. I think the economic argument is part of it, but, like I said, I don't think the NYC comptroller is not seeing the more than a billion dollars that roll into the city from theatre. This has to be attacked from all sides.

Anonymous said...

Your arguments (art v. sports) are based largely on the success of Broadway in New York (a city of 20+millions of people)--where there is an existing consumer base with a history of consuming Broadway Entertainment (slight difference between "entertainment" and "art."

I drank the Kool Aid long ago, so I'm doing "Devil's Advocate" here as you requested. You couldn't make this example stick in a single other American city (save PERHAPS) Minneapolis, and maybe San Francisco -- all of which are the exception to the rule. Los Angeles, as large as it is, cannot duplicate Broadway grosses in New York.

The argument is further flawed when you equate Broadway Plays as "Art." They are more regarded by policy-makers as entertainment. ART happens up the street at 59th and those rarified parts of the midtown area. They believe that people go down to 44th for ENTERTAINMENT, rather than "Art."

You can't broadly apply the word "ART" with policy makers the way we casually do inside the industry--applying "Artist" with equal due to Weird Al Yankovic and to Beethoven, or Segovia with Jonny Lang.

If you want a policymaker to take the argument seriously, you have to pay attention to how you use your terms.

99 said...

Good points, Anon. I do agree that the issue is and would be framed differently in other places (though I think Chicago would also be an interesting place to try this particular thought experiment).

Although it's in my title and it is part of the larger picture, I'm talking primarily about theatre and that definitely includes Broadway, whether other theatre artists want to look down their nose at it, especially in the minds of "civilians" and politicians. I actually think hair-splitting between "art" and "Broadway" does our field a disservice and keeps us away from utilizing the lobbying and political clout-wielding possibilities available to us. What's good for Broadway is not necessarily good for 59E59, but what's bad for Broadway, policy-wise, is probably bad for 59E59.

Over at Createquity, Ian has a terrific follow-up (that I plan to follow up on at some point) and makes the very excellent point that Broadway is largely considered entertainment for out-of-towners, while the Yankees (and other sports teams) are more likely to be perceived as for the locals. Check out his points here: That may help account for part of the bias, and, I think, is helped along by the attitude that what happens on Broadway is "only" entertainment.