Monday, February 14, 2011

Supply, Demand, and Geography

Howard Sherman, in a post on the American Theatre Wing blog entitled "This Is Not a Political Blog," discusses the recent legislative threats of deep cuts to the NEA (not to mention NPR and CPB), and asks whether we are being distracted from this more important issue by Rocco Landesman's "supply and demand" conversation. Instead of talking to each other, he insists, we should launch some sophisticated public advocacy along the lines of the "Got Milk?" or cotton campaigns that draw America's attention the the reason these things are important to them. "We fail to make the argument for the value of our field, because we’re too busy getting butts in seats or bodies through turnstiles."

In the midst of his post, as almost a throwaway, he writes, "The reason the arts and humanities are targeted is that for a major portion of the country, we are either a complete blank or the spawn of the upper-class elites." Let's pause there for a second, and examine this before we go blowing a bunch of money on an ad campaign.Because if that is, in fact, the reason arts and humanities are targeted...well, it's hard to argue with it. And maybe we ought to be thinking about that a little bit before buying TV time.

According to a recent NEA study, 88% of the arts organizations in America are located in places with populations of over 50,000 people. Frankly, I think this statistic actually masks a starker picture: the majority of arts organizations are in large metropolitan areas. This is certainly the case when it comes to the non-profit theatre. About two years ago, I did an analysis of TCG-member theatres, and what I found is that

  • 58% of TCG-member theatres are in counties with over 500,000 people. To put this into relief, the less than 4% of the counties in the US have populations over 500,000. 
  • Of the 63 places that have LORT theatres, none have a county population under 50,000. 
So yes, for a huge portion of America, the non-profit theatre is a "complete blank." Is it too much of a stretch to connect this fact to the NEA budget travails that happen each and every year? Isn't it true that the elected representatives from those places who are not being served can score budgetary points with their constituents at home without having a negative effect on the communities they represent? Can we realistically expect those people who, for almost half a century since the creation of the NEA, have been virtually ignored by artists and nonprofit arts organizations to rally behind arts funding because we came up with a clever slogan like "Got Milk?" The fact is that milk is available in every town in America -- what about the arts?

When I analyzed the NEA grant data for one round of grants in 2006, I found that almost 40% of the money went to New York City, Chicago, and the state of California. They represent less than 17% of the US population. On the other end of the spectrum, 17 entire states didn't see a single dime.

If we want to talk about supply and demand, we need to start there. If there is over-supply, it is highly centralized and and localized. If Landesman wants to make an impact with NEA grants, he needs to spread that money to places that haven't seen it before.


isaac butler said...


I totally agree with the thrust of what you're saying here, that diversifying the kinds of places this money goes to (And thinking long and hard about whatkind of supply and what kind of demand we're talking about here) are needed.

At the same time, the statistics you use above a little bit misleading. While it is true that less than 4% of the counties int he US have populations over 500K, 68% of Americans (according to the 2000 census) live in areas with over 50K in population. This in no way invalidates your point. We should make art for that other 32% as well, but I think by focusing on landinstead of population you actually weaken your point a little, even though the number (4%) is so much more stark.

(Here's the link to that census data, if you're curious: )

Scott Walters said...

Hey, Issac! Actually, there is a bit of apples and oranges in my post. The NEA stat about 88% of arts orgs in places under 50K is one thing. My stats are about counties. My reasoning is that there are many small places that are simply bedroom communities for metropolitan areas. So using counties is more indicative of the actual type of community it is.