If the not-for-profit arts value being relevant to society at large, then it follows that this audience must reflect society. Generally, the not-for-profit arts is presently comfortable with an elite audience. As I have previously mentioned, with most (80 percent) of its audience drawn from the top 15 percent of the income scale, the assembled spectators for the typical not-for-profit professional theater production don’t look like any community in the U.S., except, perhaps, a gated one. From such a narrow social base, great democratic art will never rise.
How can we defend subsidizing the top 15% of society? But, you say, we aren't -- we're subsidizing artists. Really? With the elimination of individual grants, only arts institutions are being subsidized. So what the funding does is keep ticket prices "affordable" -- i.e., make sure that the wealthy don't have to pay the real price for what the creation of art costs. If they did, regional theatre ticket prices would, no doubt, look more like Broadway.
But we want to keep ticket prices low so that theatregoers on the lower end of the ticket scale can come, right? Except we only want them to come on our terms. We want to "educate" our audience to appreciate the upper-middle class, college educated aesthetic values that we, as artists, value and that our upper-middle class, college educated patrons appreciate. The result, as John McGrath writes in A Good Night Out, is "to enshrine certain specific values and qualities of a play above others." He goes on:
For example, mystery - or mysteriousness as it so often becomes. How often has this 'all-pervading air of 'mystery' been praised by critic and academic alike, from Yeat's Purgatory down through Beckett to our own cut-price product, Harold Pinter? Mystery, the ingredient that leavens the loaf - or should I say makes the dough rise? But many audiences don't like mystery, in that sense of playing games with knowledge, and words, and facts. They become impatient, they want to know what the story is meant to be about, what is supposed to have happened. They wish a different order of mystery. But because we have universalized the critical response to 'mystery' that proclaims it as a truly wonderful thing, we now have to dismiss those audiences as philistine, as outside true theatre culture, as - and this is the Arnold Wesker refinement - in need of education. My belief, and the basis of my practice as a writer in the theatre for the last ten years, has been that there are indeed different kinds of audiences, with different theatrical values and expectations, and that we have to be very careful before consigning one audience and its values to the critical dustbin.
And not only the critical dustbin, but those audiences are banished from our theatres -- at least until they are "educated" enough to "appreciate" the art that is "good for them." As artists, we believe that what matters most is what matters most to us. To think otherwise would be to "compromise," a artistic fate worse than death, apparently. One dare not suggest that the purpose of art is to actually communicate something, and that communication is different in different communities. Let's just keep those upper-middle-class white folks happy -- they're nice and polite, and if they get bored they know enough to pretend not to be.
No, theatre is definitely an upper class art, and that orientation is reflected not only in ticket prices, but in form and content. Given that, how can I support arts funding while also being against massive tax cuts for the rich? No, until I see some evidence that theatre people give a damn about people in the lower 85% of the populace, I will cock an eyebrow at the NEA champions.