NEA chairman provokes heated debate: How much art is too much?

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 6:11 PM

It's a hot-button debate that the nation's leading advocate for dance and theater, sculpture and opera has been spoiling to ignite for months: Does the country have more outlets for the arts than it can handle?

The question might seem a peculiar one to be posed by the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. After all, the grant-giving agency, with $168 million in annual appropriations, is both the government's chief financial pipeline to artistic endeavors and one of the few national soapboxes for a collection of creative disciplines that feels increasingly marginalized in American life.

But Rocco Landesman, the Broadway theater owner and producer, is a peculiar sort of NEA chairman, in the sense of how much he relishes a good dust-up. Because that's what he has incited, with his blunt remarks on the topic at a conference at Arena Stage late last month. Asked about the significance of the declining attendance figures for the arts in this country, Landesman gave a characteristically unequivocal response: "There are too many theaters," he said.

"Look," he explained. "You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase. So it is time to think about decreasing supply."

The observation has provoked the mix of ire, consternation and support that might be expected of such a statement. But most of all, it has generated powerful buzz in a field that rarely gets to chew publicly over a big, meaty issue.

"I disagree completely with the assessment," said Ari Roth, artistic director of Washington's highly regarded Theater J.

"When someone within the government structure is frank and clear, that's a reason to celebrate," countered Molly Smith, head of the venerable Arena Stage.

"My biggest problem with thinning out the field is that what people typically mean is: Thin out the smallest, weakest, least developed," said Michael M. Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center and an expert on helping troubled arts groups marshal their resources.

Was Landesman really advocating the shutdown of temples of art, suggesting that subscription theaters be subject to the same economic laws as restaurants and shoe stores? Did he seriously mean to single out the art form in which he has made his name? Or was he playing devil's advocate, knowingly lighting a fuse so that people would be compelled to respond?

'An elephant in the room'

Diane Ragsdale, a scholar studying the economics of nonprofit regional theaters - and Landesman's interviewer at Arena - says she doesn't think there was any ulterior motive. "From the day he's been in office, his M.O. has been, 'I'm not going to be scared to say what needs to be said.' I don't think he's a crazy man to say it. I think there's an elephant in the room, and it's healthy for the sector to talk about it."

That obvious problem, in the minds of Ragsdale and others, is the conflicting trends: an expansion of nonprofit arts groups at a time when resources and audiences are in retreat. Basing his position on statistics by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts and the NEA, Landesman notes that in the recession years of 2007 to 2009, the nationwide ranks of nonprofit arts organizations had grown by 3,000. At the same time, he says, a 2008 NEA survey of public participation in the arts showed a 5 percent drop from 2002 in the number of adults who had visited an art museum or attended a live performance.

Perhaps the most inflammatory of Landesman's remarks has been his suggestion that the decline's impact is exacerbated by a bloated arts bureaucracy across all the disciplines. In a follow-up posting on his NEA blog, the chairman observed, "There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and 2 million artists. Do we need three administrators for every artist?"

The declaration is regarded as hyperbole by some theater leaders, who say the front offices of nonprofit theaters are not what you could fairly call dens of featherbedding. "The 5.7 million jobs includes all the ancillary jobs, like parking lot attendants," said Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, an organization that provides services and promotes the interests of 500 member regional theaters in 47 states and the District. "In the theater, you don't just have artists - you also have stagehands and costume makers and security guards."

Theater J's Roth thinks that Landesman may be choosing polarizing words to brace theaters for an even tougher funding environment to come, a world in which nonprofit boards "know axes are going to fall at budget hearings. This may be girding the arts community for a difficult conversation. It's: 'How do we go from grow?' to 'How do we get ahead of the curve, and slim down?' "

Whatever Landesman's sincere motive, he says he's thrilled that the theater world is talking more about concrete concerns, such as how to help to ensure that effective institutions of all sizes move forward. "This is exactly the kind of thing the NEA can do. We can start a conversation," he said, in a telephone interview. "Obviously, this is a conversation that's been waiting to be had. Now, suddenly, it's taking off."

At its heart, the issue Landesman seems to want addressed has to do with why floundering organizations are allowed to linger and don't simply go away. In 2008, according to Americans for the Arts, 41 percent of nonprofit arts groups in this country ended the year in the red.

"You often hear, 'Let 1,000 flowers bloom,' " Ragsdale says. "But as a matter of fact, there is a consequence to firms continually entering the market and the failing firms failing to leave it. It's actually bad for the sector because they are taking resources away from the good organizations."

The question of who makes worthwhile art and under what kind of financial conditions is certainly not black and white: A great play can be born in a seedy storefront. And yet, the performing arts world is increasingly cognizant of the need for effective management. Consolidation is already taking place, as evidenced by the Kennedy Center's decision last month to absorb the operations of the financially ailing Washington National Opera. Still, statistics go only so far when trying to ascertain the impact of "supply and demand" in a particular community.

Audiences will come?

In a vibrant theater town like Washington, for example, the growth of theater companies, virtually all nonprofit, has been explosive: from 20 in 1984 to 71 in 2009, according Linda Levy Grossman, president of the Helen Hayes Awards, which tracks theater attendance in the capital region. Although some smaller troupes have come and gone in recent years, others have quickly assumed their spots, and annual theater attendance over the past five years has hovered around 2 million patrons. What Grossman takes away from this is that factors beyond economic forces must be considered when evaluating how many theaters can survive and thrive.

"Theater is a priority for Washington audiences. It's a part of their lives," Grossman averred. "There was a six-month period right in the middle of the recession where productions were extending their runs and playing to sold-out houses."

Despite the vigorous signs, though, Landesman's admonitions are to some degree resonating. Michael Dove, artistic director of Forum Theatre, one of the best companies to start up in Washington over the past decade, says he watched the NEA chairman as his Arena appearance was streamed live online. At first Dove reacted angrily to the judgment that some theaters needed to go. "I got really, really upset and thought, 'How dare you say that!' " he recalled.

Now, however, he's wrestling with less emotion about the question, and thinks it's at least worth talking about. "I think we have an amazing audience in D.C., but I worry whether it's a similar audience we're all playing to," Dove said. "The thing that keeps coming back to me is: Have we tapped our potential, as a theater community, nationally, internationally? I believe [Landesman] said that it's impossible to increase demand. I have to believe that that's not true."

That Landesman is engendering such reactions suits him just fine. "What I'm seeing is more and more organizations struggling to pay their bills," the chairman said. "There's a survival crisis, certainly in the theater and probably across the board. I don't think the answer is to put your head in the sand."


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