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. So...you'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.
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. But...it'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.