Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Rocco Landesman and Muhammad Yunus

After the first day at the Arena Stage's New Play Development Program convening "From Scarcity to Abundance," I have come to the conclusion that I have stayed away too long from writing on Theatre Ideas (and also on Rocking the Cradle as well). After a few comments, it became very clear to me that if I am known at all it is for writing here, and as busy as I have become, it is something I need to make time for.

And so....

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.


lucia said...

This is a brilliant idea.

Jacob said...

Love this: "But doing so would require the development of a democratic approach to the arts, rather than a careerist approach based on prestige."

That's such a great summation of what's going on in the theatre world right now -- I don't know that you've ever put it as succinctly, Scott.

And it's brilliant b/c it IS based on prestige. NO ONE in non-profit theatre is getting rich. Not even the people in charge. Sure, they're not doing BADLY -- but they ain't getting rich. (They may already be rich, which enables them to stick around in a low-paying career with no worries, but that's a different story...)

So what do we have? Prestige. The prestige of choosing the hot plays. Of getting a transfer to Broadway. Of going to the right schools.

Thanks, Scott, and welcome back. Was nice to see you at the table yesterday.

sanctuary said...

Interesting metaphor; that the smaller arts orgs such as Rude Mechs or Stage North or what-not function in sort of a "developing country" subculture - and thus their corresponding funding picture = micro-credit, whereas the larger NFP arts orgs such as Steppenwolf, Playwrights Horizons, etc. are more like main cultures in "industrialized nations," which means the funding model is "taxation."

It's very true; smaller grants to smaller orgs is really more in line with what arts funding should be doing - encouraging lots of creativity and experimentation at the fringes rather than supporting large buildings (face it - most of these large orgs are using the money to fund monumentalism). The larger orgs would then have to wean themselves off government funding. As some more cynical among us have been known to say the big ones "drain the swamp" for all the smaller ones.

Barry Johnson said...

If we're going to talk in inappropriate business language, then I totally approve of the idea of "micro-finance." Brilliant. But doesn't the Orwellian "over-supply" make your skin crawl? Does anyone really believe that killing off some large number of theater companies (presumably the smaller ones with small budgets) would make the rest any more secure, financially? Has anyone calculated the effect on local theater ecologies of the loss of these theaters, which typically serve as training grounds for younger actors or as platforms for new theater voices? I tried to tackle this topic in this post: , you're interested.

Scott Walters said...

Barry -- I think we need to remember that the NEA can't kill off theatres, they can just not fund them, which is not the same in any way. If a theatre is that reliant on any individual funder, they have a serious problem. As much as I likely disagree with Rocco's priorities, at the same time I think he is smart to be asking serious questions about how the NEA uses its limited funds. Our job is to make sure that an alternative viewpoint is heard.

Barry Johnson said...

Scott, But what if the NEA convenes panels of major foundations and local/state arts agencies to funnel money into far fewer hands, as Landesman suggests. Is that smart, too? In my post, I note how fortunate we are that the NEA has so little money itself that it can't enforce a death sentence on anyone. But as this interesting post suggests, the little micro-financing grants that the local agencies provide (because they can't give more) can be very useful.