A few days ago, I wrote in response to Rocco Landesman's address to the New Play Development Program convening that began on Wednesday. In it, as has been widely reported, even by the New York Times, Rocco suggested that perhaps the nonprofit theatre system was "overbuilt," that demand is falling at the same time as supply is rising, and that we may want to consider "thinning the herd," as I put it on my blog post Wednesday night.
People didn't take too kindly to Rocco's statements. You could hear a collective bristle in the auditorium, one that increased in volume once the blogging world got involved. Trisha Mead called them "fighting words," which was then followed by posts saying that Rocco was calling for, in essence, Death Panels. J Holtam over at Parabasis, who like me was actually there, gets it about right when he writes, "But, I think, when you add up what Rocco was saying, it seems less like he's aiming at taking the little guys out of the equation and more like he's re-evaluating his funding priorities on the basis of what kind of work a theatre is doing." (italics mine)
Some people felt betrayed, writing "With friends like this..." There was a certain nervousness to hear the head of the NEA saying such things when the Republicans are once again suggesting that the NEA be zeroed out. Shouldn't he be the Number One Cheerleader for the Arts? But the Chair of the NEA is more than that -- or at least, he ought to be. He ought to using the money that he has to make an impact in the field and to influence its development. To put it bluntly, I don't want the NEA to just spread money around, but to do so in a way that leads us beyond the status quo.
That said, while Rocco didn't say anything directly about funding only the Major Theatres, it doesn't take a genius to recognize that that's where his interest lies. While many have noted his background as a Broadway impresario, I think it is more relevant to note that he is a former student and protege of Robert Brustein, the former head of the American Repertory Theatre at Yale and Harvard and critic for the New Republic, who has long believed that the NEA ought to stop funding all these rinky-dink arts organizations and give the dough to somebody who knows how to use it (i.e., to Brustein). He's published these articles in many of his books. I remember when I was writing my dissertation about Brustein that he got particularly exercised about giving money to Folk Arts, which were just to darned lower-class for words.
The NEA is a grantmaker, and people like Landesman who lead such organizations are responsible for setting priorities. If we don't like the priorities, we need to argue about that issue, not throw a hissy fit about "how dare he." At least Landesman is out front with his opinions, so we can actually engage the issues directly, rather than having to tease out his opinions.
The slogan of Landesman's NEA is "Art Works," so if we want to engage this debate, we need to doing so on that basis. It's about economics and jobs and communities. Arguinf aesthetics is a waste of time; objecting to the use of the terms "supply and demand" is a waste of time. That's the vocabulary.
My argument is that, in fact, the nonprofit theatre isn't overbuilt in general, but it is overbuilt in certain places. We don't need more theatres in NYC, or Chicago, or Minneapolis, for instance -- that audience is largely tapped out, at least if you accept the idea that only a small percentage of people are interested in attending the theatre (I don't accept that, either, but I do think that developing a new audience means developing a new approach). One way to increase demand is to open new, untapped markets. If there are too many restaurants competing for diners in your city, then look elsewhere. My particular interest is the arts in small and rural communities, but it isn't only those places that are underserved. There are many medium-sized cities, suburbs, and other such places that are also being ignored by the lemming-like flow of artists to NYC in search of fame. There is a large swath of entire states in the midwest that have no TCG theatres at all.
This approach does a couple of things to make Landesman's job easier. First, it connects to his theme of Art Works. Second, it brings arts funding into a larger variety of districts, so that it is harder for politicians to score points against the NEA because their constituents in their district are benefiting. I know these ideas aren't sexy -- we want to talk about the wonderful things the arts does for the richness of humanity and so forth -- but we're talking about funding, politics, and economics and we need to talk that language.
So What Rocco did was send a warning shot over our bow. How are we going to respond? With hysteria, or focused resistance?