Monday, April 14, 2008

On the Economy and the Arts

Laura Axelrod at Gasp! contacted me regarding the NYTW situation, seeing this as just the tip of a much larger, and more frightening, iceberg. She writes:
I don't know why it hasn't occurred to anyone yet but our country is in deep trouble
financially. And I'm astonished at the lack of perception among many of artists/writers who insist that things are going to be normal for our country. They aren't. Many are still insisting that government will support the arts, when we are, in effect, broke. I don't think our credit-based economy can hold up against the mad printing of money by the Fed.

I'm not the only one who is starting to see the elephant in the room. Standard issue economists - the ones who aren't whack jobs are seeing it as well. It's not being addressed in the arts/culture community and I'm concerned about it.

You might think that this is just business as usual for theater Scott, and maybe it is. But I'm willing to bet that there's going to be more of it down the line. Artists and writers - myself included - usually steer clear of business affairs. Most of them are like me - going into heavy debt to pay for schooling for a career where I'll be lucky to make a living wage. Money has always been a blind spot for most of us, and judging from the reaction to NYTW's firings, it will
continue to be.

I hope it serves as a wake-up call for all writers (not just in theater) who are still living by the old
financial paradigm. After all, it isn't just theater that's having a hard time. Newspapers are feeling it as well. But like you, I don't have much hope for people receiving the message. It seems to be human nature to only learn lessons when there's pain involved in the equation.

Anyway, not meaning to be an alarmist. What we're seeing is related and ultimately will lead to the same thing: Artists and writers suffering needlessly.
I agree with Laura. Part of my motivation for working on this new paradigm is to get out from under the old one before it starts to collapse. The regional theatre's reliance on government and foundation grants to fill in half of the annual budget each year seems non-sustainable to me. We all know that when times are hard, the arts are the first thing to get cut. So while the editors at Backstage are skipping about having the NEA budget restored to 1995 levels, we should all be watching how the markets deal with this mortgage situation, and how our society starts to change as gas prices soar over $4 this summer.

What do you all think? Chicken Little? Or are we playing ostrich?


Anonymous said...

I think you are both correct.

I don't understand the lack of understanding when it comes to finances and artists. I don't want to generalize either, because there are plenty of people who are great at running a tight budget when it comes to productions.
Unfortunately, I think it needs to happen. It will either shake out a saturated theater/entertainment market, or unite and reignite a more savvy group of artists.
It will also shakeout a saturated purchasing market. After all more than 3/4's of the American economy is about BUYING. Well maybe it's time for reality and reflection ?

Time to rethink cable tv and that cell phone and that gas and that going out to eat...and that...(insert)

Feeling it here.


Anonymous said...

I think there are a couple of issues at hand in the situation at NYTW. I wouldn't say any of us (especially those of us who earn a living on the tech side of theater) are as clueless about money as Laura has indicated. None of us are getting rich, and I think we knew that was the ride when we bought the ticket; however, what has been maddening for Michael Casselli and his staff is the not the need for NYTW to deal with financial realities, but rather how they were dealt with.

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to cast everyone in theater as clueless. I think those on the tech side need to be adept at budgets, etc. While I was writing that comment, I was thinking of people I went through NYU with and some that I've known during my own work on productions.

Does it surprise you that NYTW dealt with it in that manner, or do you think that's just one more indication of being irresponsible about money and its effects?

Anonymous said...

It is inconceivable to me that THE PRODUCTION DEPARTMENT, top to bottom, would be dismantled while the company itself continues to maintain a building, full salary for those that made the decision, and continuing a nearly full season. That seems like throwing the crew of the Titanic overboard in the hopes that will lighten the load enough for the ship to keep floating--never mind that no-one would be able to operate the ship, or the lifeboats.

While we are definitely going to see more theatres suffering from the current economy, I also feel that some of the actions at many theatres are the result of their board members. Specifically, the growing trend to run theatres like corporations, down to employee codes-of-conduct manuals. The fiscal concepts that are the point of having a diverse board made up of individuals in the business community have devolved into being personnel management as budget boosting. It is difficult to work in a theatre where the management treats you as simply an employee, instead of a vital member of the theatre that is there to bring the work to life. How many theatres are left where there are "lifers" on the staff?

Sarah McL said...

Patrick - you seriously don't think employee code-of-conduct manuals are a good idea?

Anonymous said...

The point I was trying to make was that boards were intended to simply help raise money, and act somewhat as an outside observer to give suggestions to maintain financial well being. Recently, many stereotypical "corporate" ways of doing things have begun entering the theatre world.

Cutting back on health insurance, removal of full-time personnel in favor of part-time(to claim savings in health insurance, vacation, holiday pay, sick-days, etc), cutting back on the production labor budget while failing to hold the line on design deadlines for set or costume plans, thereby forcing shops into overtime to be done in time, cutting production positions or "nickel and dime-ing" each production while boosting AD, MD, ED, and other top positions' pay, and adding positions in the upper offices. Essentially protecting the office/management positions while cutting back on the very thing that they are supposed to be supporting: the production of theatre.

As for the code-of-conduct manuals, if they were simply used to give the now standard sexual harrassment statements, as well as drug and alcohol policy, that would be fine. The problem comes when these manuals grow to include statements (which can then legally be used against an employee) about any possible thing that you might do in the normal work day. For instance, I read one such manual where it stated that no-one was allowed to download photos (not adult oriented photos, photos) online. Using that language, you would not be able to visit a single website, as all images on a site are downloaded to the viewing computer. Such manuals rarely reflect the type of work or working conditions found in a theatre, and frequently are more concerned with protecting the company than helping the employee.

Sarah McL said...

Patrick, I might be misinterpreting, but I don't think boards are actually intended to just raise money and offer occasional financial suggestions. Technically, trustees are representatives of the community entrusted with maintaining the ethical, programmatic, and fiscal well-being of the nonprofit organization. I know this ideal is often corrupted, but start thinking of the board as vestigal an you've got a big problem.

Personally, I think this is less a matter of the big regional theatres collapsing, and more a case of a newer, leaner, emerging alternative.

What in the world is more resilient than the arts? I'm not trying to be facile here, I know how hard creating a new paradigm is. But the money is out there, and people want to give it away. Rich people exist, recession or not. We just need to get them to give us their money. Better yet, make it ourselves! Simple :)

Anonymous said...

This seems pretty clear-cut to me, and I worry that some are overthinking. The US is in Recession. We've been there before and know that arts is one of the first to be cut-back. We bought that ticket when we got into this, and we'll live through it... again.

When times are good, and there's a gravy train, good arts groups ride it for all they can. But just like the turmoil The Public went through when A Chorus Line closed (the first time), NYTW has now come to the end of the line with Rent. The ramped up budget must go by September 7.

NYTW actually deserves praise for keeping staff on salary for as long as they did. They put on some adventurous shows that we rarely get a chance to see anywhere in this country. They even took chances with politically divisive shows that failed to reach the boards - that's risk-taking.

But going forward they just can not afford to do as many shows; and going back to the years when their entire season was a New Directors' Series is not a realistic option. If you're theater is going to be dark more than not, where to cut back seems obvious. Rentals to stay afloat will bring their own crew, and there just isn't that much busy-work to keep a full-time staff engaged.

NYTW is doing what will keep them from going under, and I'll bet that even their board doesn't like it, but what are their options? If we don't like what they're doing, maybe we should be blaming the folks who wrote and/or signed unaffordable mortgages or all those car drivers out in the regions who are hooked on oil. I doubt NYTW deserves anymore abuse than anyone of us, and I'll bet most of them, like me, ride the subway.

Jobs come and jobs go. No new theater paradigm will get us out of what lies ahead. We buck-up and get the work done that we can do. And even when we're not getting paid, we have some of the best jobs in the country.

Soon enough, another young theater will move a show to Broadway for a decade, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of today's NYTW crew will be working there when it happens. Another gravy train pulls out of the station.

Scott Walters said...

Aha! THERE'S the shrug I was waiting for! It masquerades as "realism," but is actually fatalism, a sense of powerlessness, and a belief that nothing changes. We're used to it, it is what we "signed up for" (really? I don't remember signing anything), and nothing can be done.

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