Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Weird and Wonderful

In Scott Walters' Theatre Ideas blog, Mr. Walters makes some good points about the geographic and demographic breakdown of nonprofit theatre dispersal in America. Walters also name-checks the amazing Mike Daisey's recent Under The Radar performance of How Theater Failed America (via Isaac Butler's Parabasis blog). I haven't seen Mr. Daisey's show, but I have to admit I'm a little put-off by the title.

Walters takes issue with the high concentration of NEA donations to theatres in the Northeast and on the West Coast (actually he takes issue with the massive concentration of theatres on the coasts, but stay with me). How relevant is NEA funding? According to TCG's 2007 Theatrefacts, out of the 105 theatres surveyed, about $45,000 in contributions came from the NEA. State agencies contributed more like $195,000, corporations $350,000, and foundations $630,000. But what is consistently the most impressive source of unearned income in nonprofit theatre? Individuals, at $850,000! (That's not ticket sales, that's donations. Tickets sales make up a whole other income source... so some people are giving twice.)

I don't have geographic data for these individual contributions, but the numbers clearly imply that single people are by far the most relevant source of funding. These contributions come from the community. The American funding model is not perfect, but if anything, it is diverse. And maybe I'd prefer to live in the Netherlands, where the state funds arts groups indefinitely, but there's something I like about the diversity of our funding options.

Ok, the subscription model is dying. Thank goodness. On the topic of audience relations, the incredible Zannie and Glenn Voss come to some fascinating conclusions in their study "Strategic Orientation and Firm Performance in an Artistic Environment". I won't go into the data sets, but the study essentially suggests that customer-oriented theatres (organizations that make most of their decisions based on what they think their customers want) in fact perform worse than theatres that focus on their competitive environment or their own programming.

These findings pretty much contradict conventional marketing wisdom (find out what your customers want, and do that), and suggest that arts organizations perform better when they make strong, innovative artistic decisions. This study actually suggests that arts customers want to be told what they want! And really, why do people patronize the arts? Is it to get some kind of instant gratification, or is it to be inspired, engaged, and provoked by an innovative aesthetic point of view? My money's on the latter.

Zannie and Glenn Voss see the nonprofit theatre industry as a market "boundary condition", meaning it's an industry that behaves totally differently from most other business models. But instead of apologizing for being so strange, and trying to pretzel the arts into traditional business models, they suggest that the greatest merit of the nonprofit theatre community is our weirdness.

So, has theatre failed America? Well, first of all, it's cool that Mr. Daisey is even bringing this up. But personally, I'd ask different questions - like what resources are available that we're not taking advantage of? How can we encourage and create community? How can we fix the massive wage inequities? Not as catchy as Mr. Daisey's title... but I'm not willing to believe that theatre has failed America. At least I don't think we're going to get very far thinking that way. I obviously don't have the answers, but I do believe we can do better.

I was planning to start this blog as a straightforward resource for young arts professionals, which I still want to be the main thrust, but I found myself so engaged by what's been happening on these blogs that I really wanted to respond. So thanks for that... I appreciate the kick in the pants.

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