The convening was opened by an address and Q & A session with Rocco Landesman. As anyone who has read this blog knows, his Peoria comment early in his tenure rubbed me the wrong way, as did a few other things. However, I must admit that I like his style -- you don't have to wonder what he really thinks about an issue, and he isn't afraid to provoke. Today was no different.
If you follow the Twitter discussion at #newplay, you'll see that several people took umbrage at his suggestion that if theatres were deer we'd have to shoot much of the herd. Indeed, Trisha Mead called them "fighting words." Landesman's conclusion follows directly and logically from a thought process that goes something like this: 1) it is appalling that theatre artists can't make a livable wage in the theatre (true); 2) there has been an explosion of arts organizations, and so supply exceeds demand (partially true); 3) the NEA has limited funds (true); conclusion: the NEA needs to give bigger grants to fewer theatres and let the other theatres go away. Call the cops!
Most people in the room wondered why we can't increase demand. Others objected to the likelihood that Rocco would give those larger grants to the larger, established theatres.
I found myself reminded of Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus, whose practice of micro-lending has helped so many people in Bangladesh. He realized that the desperately poor were struggling for want of a few dollars startup cash, and he devised a way to get that money into their hands in such a way that it led to a sustainable business. As Yunus realized, a very small amount of money can have enormous positive effects. (Sidenote: I highly recommend Yunus' latest book Building Social Business, which can make you start thinking about a new business model for the arts.)
In order to help, say, the Guthrie or Steppenwolf and have a serious impact, the NEA would have to give an enormous amount of money, and so would have to reduce the number of grants it made. To have the same impact on, say, the Rude Mechanicals, the investment would be much less, leaving money left over to have another major impact on, say, Stage North in Washburn WI. Furthermore, such grants would actually lead to increasing demand, because while it may be that the audiences in the theatre capitals of the US are tapped out due to the sheer number of theatres making their home there, that is not the case in Washburn or other small communities. As a businessman, Landesman ought to know that one needs to look for underserved markets rather than try to expand mature ones.
But doing so would require the development of a democratic approach to the arts, rather than a careerist approach based on prestige. Like Republicans who seem to worry most about those who already possess the most, such a concern for helping the richest established theatres seems misplaced.
I encourage a national experiment in theatrical micro-credit.