Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy Lincoln Center (part 3)

On October 26th, one of the great pioneers of the regional theatre movement, Zelda Fichlander, addressed the assembled Stage Directors and Choreographers Society in celebration of the 3rd annual award named in her honor. The invaluable on-line journal HowlRound posted the text of her speech, in which Fichlander spoke passionately about the early history of the regional theatre movement and the values that formed its foundation. I take a back seat to no one in my admiration for Fichlander, who has provided strong leadership and a vital moral voice in the regional theatre and theatre education for decades. That said, there is a portion of the speech that is, frankly, inaccurate and one that propagates a myth about the development of the regional theatre movement that supports the lack of diversity that is revealed in the Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change report that has been discussed in the first two parts of this series.

About a third of the way through her speech, Fichlander talks about a meeting she had with the true founder of the regional theatre movement, Margo Jones, when Fichlander was founding the Arena Stage. She asked Jones whether she was doing the right thing, and Jones offered her insights, "and then came the prophecy that appeared later in her book, Theatre-in-the-Round," Fichlander says: “I dream of 40 of these theatres all around America, that’s what we need to have.” She didn’t live long enough to see what happened, but it happened as she said it would. It did grow to forty, and now it’s over 1,000."

Now, it may be that Fichlander is accurately reporting what Jones said to her in that meeting, but it is certainly not what Jones said when, sixty years ago, she published her vision for the regional theatre. On the second page of the book, she writes the following:
"What our country needs today, theatrically speaking, is a resident professional theatre in every city with a population over one hundred thousand. According to the 1940 census figures, there are over one hundred such cities in the United States. For reasons which will become evident in this book, I believe it would be easier to start in the larger centers, although I am certain that once all these cities acquired resident professional theatres, smaller communities would want them, too; and possibly within some ten years the one hundred and seven cities whose population runs from fifty to one hundred thousand would also have their own theatres...I believe that the best way to assure quality is to give birth to a movement which will establish permanent resident theatres throughout the country."
That's the prophecy, that's the vision. First, resident theatres -- theatres with a permanent company at its core. That certainly has not happened with most regional theatres, who job in actors from New York on a per-show or per-season contract. That has reinforced the centralization of the artistic workforce, and undermined the greatness that can result from artistic continuity.

More important to this discussion is Jones' vision of geographic diversity. Not forty theatres, as Fichlander would have us believe, but a theatre in every city of 100,000 and ten years later one in every community with a population of 50,000. How has that vision worked out in actuality?

According to the League of Resident Theatres member list, there are 76 such theatres in the United States. While almost twice as many as the forty remembered by Ms. Fichlander, it is well short of the one hundred envisions by Jones even using the census of 1940 when there were far fewer cities over 100,000.

Of those 76 theatres, sixteen (21%) had populations under 250,000 and 12 (15.7%) had populations between 50,000 and 100,000.

Of those twelve with populations between 50,000 and 100,000, only three were in counties under 250,000. Why does this matter? Because it is an indication that most of these cities are suburbs of larger cities. We're talking Skokie IL, Cambridge and Lowell MA, Jupiter FL, Pasadena and Costa Mesa CA.

Oh, and nationwide, the percentage of counties with populations under 200,000? 91%.

Further, an examination of the demographics for these smaller LORT cities reveals that the average median household incomes for the group of $66,720. Compared to $45,018 for the US as a whole, this is almost 1.5 times the national figure.

So once again, we find that the vast majority of theatres are urban; of those in smaller cities, they tend to be wealthy suburbs of metropolises.

Margo Jones would not be thrilled. Nor would the Occupy Wall Streeters.

My research has also shown that funding from the National Endowment for the Arts is also centralized in certain states of the union, with New York and California getting the lion's share. The latest round of Our Town funding is no exception: New York and California received 44% of the total grants awarded, and the same percentage of the money awarded. When Illinois is included, it ends up with 50% going to just three states. Once again, these reflect the centralization of funding in certain areas.

Another Goal
Meanwhile, according to the Rapid City Journal, Rocco Landesman, "on his way out of South Dakota after visiting Red Cloud Indian School’s Heritage Center...stopped Thursday in Rapid City with a message: Art is the product of its place.“This is probably the best example of that that I’ve seen anywhere in the country,” said Rocco Landesman, who is finishing a three-state tour to visit organizations with grant money from the endowment. “You visit the Heritage Center and see Native American art produced by the people in those tribes, the Lakota people right there. It’s so obvious that it’s tied to that place; that this couldn’t happen in Malibu or New York City.”

South Dakota is one of three states that received no grant money from the NEA in this round of the Our Town Art Works grant program. Nor did they receive any in the last round of the Our Town grants. The other two states: North Dakota and Nevada. Nevada didn't get any Our Town grants in the last round, either.

Further, and examination of the percentage of submitted grants that were actually funded in the last round of the Our Town program reveals that proposals from cities with populations over a million had a 100% acceptance rate, whereas those from cities under 100,000 had an acceptance rate of less than 40%.

As the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report indicates, and as this data reinforces, rural communities are severely neglected. "The economics of cultural philanthropy are extremely skewed and this restricts the ability of thousands of artists and smaller cultural organizations to advance their practice and contribute substantively to their communities." Sidford writes in the NCRP report.
"Culture and the arts are essential means by which all people explain their experience, shape their identity and imagine the future...People need the arts to make sense of their lives, to know who they are. But our democracy needs the arts, too. The arts animate civil society. They stretch our imagination. They increase our compassion for others by providing creative ways for us to understand and deal with differences. The arts protect and enrich the dignity and the public discourse that are at the heart of a healthy democracy."
Meanwhile, back in South Dakota, Landesman echoes the  same sentiment. "Studies show that introducing art in communities like Hill City, which has seven art galleries although the population is under 1,000, changes the economics and people who live there, Landesman said.“This is the real work, I think of the NEA, to get out there, to get around and to engage art where it’s happening and to promote that,” Landesman said. “When you bring art and artists into a place it changes that place. It changes that community.”

Perhaps the peer review panels who award grants didn't get that memo. Or perhaps this is just public relations while the NEA and the philanthropic foundations go on reinforcing the status quo. But I ask Mr Landesman, and people who head large philanthropic organizations like, say Ben Cameron at the Doris Duke Foundation:  why should the transformative, community-building benefits of the arts be confined to metropolitan areas and rich suburbs?

If this is truly the National Endowment for the Arts, perhaps there ought to be a bit more focus put on the nation as a whole. Perhaps that "real work" Landesman spoke of ought to include actively seeking and rewarding a more diverse pool of arts organizations. If we want to promote the arts throughout the nation, then we have to promote arts funding throughout the nation. Giving 55% of the arts funding to 2% of the arts organizations that reside primarily in a few metropolitan areas serving a rich group of patrons is simply wrong. There is no defense for it other than stubbornly ingrained elitism.


thecontrarian said...

Hi Scott,

I am still trying to sort out that Twitter conversation you had going all Wednesday. I am really digging the research you are doing. Very powerful stuff. Take the holiday off, please!

Kyle said...

Another great post and things to think about.

the capt said...

I think it is worth clarifying that when you were writing of NEA funding, the grants referred to, are of course, only part of the total NEA money pie. There is a chunk of money the NEA passes on to state arts agencies, which are more connected the differing sort of communities in their state (theoretically, at least)

Scott Walters said...

The study shows that the state agencies follow the same pattern as the national and the foundations.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...