Saturday, February 19, 2011

In Search of (a Definition of) Excellence

The NEA regularly asserts that its primary criterion for awarding grants is "excellence," and the citizens of the arts world nod in agreement. The peer review panels are instructed to search for excellence in each and every grant proposal, and they do so with confidence that they will recognize that particular quality in each and every variety and permutation, and award pots of money accordingly.


But what does "excellence" mean, really -- what does it look like, what are its characteristics, and as importantly, how is it recognized in advance, since grants are awarded in anticipation of the creation of the piece to be created and delivered. Surely if there is money and support involved, we should be able to agree on a definition without resorting to the old "I know it when I see it" that worked so poorly for identifying pornography.


In practice, it is pretty clear that "excellence" means two things, at least when it comes to giving money to theatres: previous accomplishments and money. And maybe that's as good a definition as any, but I suspect you can see the inherent problem: if you follow that definition, the tendency is to reward the past rather than the future, the old rather than the young, the rich rather than the poor, thems that have rather than thems that hasn't. From my perspective, in an era that is seeing the collapse of interest in the theatre and an increasingly homogeneous audience, perhaps this might be a formula for disaster. This might be a point of agreement between me and the 20UNDER40 folks -- at least, if their ideas are sufficiently disconnected from those of their predecessors (and I confess I haven't seen much evidence of that, but I remain open to surprise).


We also tend to think that "excellence" resides in the work of art -- the production, the painting, the novel, the dance, the performance. It is the work of art itself that is excellent. 


I would propose an alternative definition that changes this. It may not be any better than the current definition, but would lead to the rewarding and funding of a different set of works and people, and perhaps in different places, and that alone might be valuable given the current dilemma. The new definition would be particularly relevant for the performing arts, because of their temporary and transitory nature.


 Excellence exists not in the work of art itself, but rather in the interaction between the work of art and its audience. 


To be regarded as excellent, then, the interaction must be lively and vigorous -- either an energetic enthusiasm or an equally energetic rejection. This definition would not reward the interaction most prevalent in our current theatrical scene: bland, passive acceptance. An institution wouldn't seek to simply grow its audience willy-nilly, but actively seek to build an audience with the kind of people who would respond to its work actively and energetically; artists would be expected to create works of art not that simply demonstrated virtuosity, but rather created the circumstances necessary for combustion to occur. 


To do this, artists would have to come to know their audiences well -- you would no longer simply program whatever was successfully energetic somewhere else, since your audience might be completely different from that audience. In addition, since institutions would be rewarded for the connection between their work and the audience, small theatres could be rewarded as often (or more often) as large, experimental theatres as often (or more often) as mainstream, rural as often (or more often) than urban, young as often (or more often) as established. Suddenly the playing field is level, because interaction is about immediacy.


But, you may ask, how can we measure the interaction, and how could we do so in advance (since grant funding comes in advance of a project). Well, we could do it the same way we do now: guess -- does it sound like it would lead to a vigorous interaction? Would that really be any more difficult, or any less accurate, than guessing in advance whether the work of art will have excellence in it? Probably not, but I don't think it is an effective way of approaching the issue.


Instead, perhaps we need to change the focus of grantmaking from the future to the past. Maybe we need to reward grants retroactively for successful projects that provoked a vigorous interaction that could be measured in many ways -- how many spectators stayed afterwards to discuss the play, for instance? How many were able and willing to write a short paragraph about the ideas in the play, or fill out a survey? How many letters to the editors were written? How many people came more than once to the production, and brought friends? How loud were the laughs? How quiet was the house? How much did the audience interact with the stage? 


As a result of awarding grants retroactively, the leaders of arts organizations would be forced to take risks, and choose productions not that would keep their audience happy, but rather keep them stimulated. It would require a delicate balance between creating work that will attract an audience and making sure that it is the right audience


I believe that the result of this new definition would be an increase in audience size, because the likelihood that theatre would be boring would decrease. It wouldn't be enough to put, say, a decent production of Hamlet onstage -- you'd have to figure out a way to make Hamlet stimulate an active audience response. And if you couldn't figure out how to do that, then you wouldn't be rewarded with funding, simple as that. 


I'm sure there are dozens of reasons why this "won't work," but maybe giving it a shot would shake the theatre out of its somnolent state. Might be worth a try.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Grant Wood (Part 2)

"This [utilization of of materials of our own American scene] is no mere chauvinism. If it is patriotic, it is so because a feeling for one's own milieu and for th validity of one's own life and its surroundings is patriotic. Certainly I prefer to think of it, not in terms of sentiment at all, but rather as a commonsense utilization for art of native materials -- an honest reliance by artist upoon subject matter which he can best interpret because he knows it best.
Because of this new emphasis on native materials, the artist no longer finds it necessary to migrate even to New york, or to seek any great metropolis. No longer is it necessary for him to suffer the confusing cosmopolitanism, the noise, the too intimate gregariousness of the large city. True, he may travel, he may observe, he may study in various environments, in order to develop his personality and achieve backgrounds and a perspective; but this need be little more than incidental to an educative process that centers in his home region.
The great central areas of America are coming to be evaluated more and more justly as the years pass. They are not Hinterland for New York; they are not barbaric."

Grant Wood

"For years our stage has been controlled by grasping New York producers. The young playwright or actor could not succeed unless he went to New York. For commercial reasons, it was impossible to give the drama any regional feeling; it had little that was basic to go on and was consequently dominated by translations or reworkings of French plays and by productions of English drawing-room comedies, often played by imported actors. The advent of movies changed this condition only by creating another highly urbanized center at Hollywood. But we have now a revolt against this whole system -- a revolt in which we have enlisted the community theatres, local playwrights, and certain important university theatres."
With a few minor tweaks, this paragraph could have been written today about both our commercial and nonprofit theatre scenes. However, it was written by painter Grant Wood in his book Revolt Against the City in 1935. Seventy-five years later, little has changed, despite the advent of the regional theatre that was supposed to alter the face of American theatre. So much for artists as innovators.

To those who are impatient with the discussion of supply and demand, and who are wanting to get back to talking about artistic matters, I would argue that you've had the floor for at least 75 years -- it isn't too much to ask for a couple more weeks.

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.