by James Haro
NEA abolishment is not a very new topic. You can read all about past efforts at the NEA Wikipedia page! Most recently it was revealed, not surprisingly, that the brand new House majority in Congress will once again try to get rid of the agency in an attempt to cut federal spending. And its any wonder why, what with all those hoity-toity elitists propagating a mostly liberal god-hating agenda. You know, the one that lies behind all artistic expression. Yeah, that one.
But what would it mean if the NEA really was kaput. According to NEA.gov, the agency has awarded more than $4 Billion “to support artistic excellence, creativity, and innovation for the benefit of individuals and communities” since its establishment in 1965. That’s a big chunk of change to dish out over 45 years. It would be a much more interesting figure, however, to see how many organizations and projects the NEA has to turn away every year.
That number might not be such a big one, which I’m sure it is (without looking at any data to back up my claim), if theatre artists and organizations took Rocco Landesman’s recent comments to heart. On Thursday, Mr. Landesman, the chairman of the NEA, addressed the issue of struggling theaters. “You can either increase demand or decrease supply,” he said. “Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.” Yes. Because economics is that simple. Well, it just so happens that I’m an economics student this quarter. Even I know things aren’t that cut and dry. For example, decreasing price would increase demand… hypothetically. Alright, I can’t really speak as an authority on arts economics, but I can speak to how these comments come off to me.
These comments come from an accomplished Broadway producer. His livelihood, or at least a portion of it, has been made from an industry he doesn’t seem to have much faith in. As someone who is gambling his college tuition (and all that interest) on the possibility of getting a job in the theatre industry, the prospect of decreasing supply is scary as hell, and this is the reality of many more theatre artists who actually do rely on theatre organizations as a source of income. Not just in New York, or the other big markets, but ALL regional theaters, who have the same right to exist as any other organization. Its a point worth repeating over and over and over again, the arts create jobs. Less theaters mean less jobs. Less productions mean less jobs. His solution would be to make bigger grants to fewer institutions. But what sense does that make? Who would make the cut? Larger more established (stuffy) organizations most likely. What about the little guy? Is the artistic vision of a smaller theatre company less valid? Comments like these might just dissuade a group of young, active, spirited theatre artists from forming their own organization, potentially stifling the next wave of important voices, all in the name of Darwinian economics.
I’m less concerned with theatre being demanded as I am with theatre being relevant. Perhaps people are turned off from theatre because they believe it to be reserved for those in higher places, so to speak. People aren’t going to go where they don’t feel welcome. What better way to tell an average American “this isn’t for you” by slapping a $100 price tag on a ticket. So instead of believing Rocco’s claim that demand won’t increase, how about challenging that notion by putting more emphasis on increasing demand. Boldness must be practiced. If a niche market like comic books can stay alive and relevant, why can’t theatre? And I don’t imagine the Belarus Free Theater troupe who I wrote on last week would feel that theatre is a dying art, as Rocco’s comments imply. Rather, an art worth dying for.
Mr. Landesman might just need to start worrying about the survival of his own agency before putting a thriving industry with buckets full of potential in the grave.
*I realize this is a complicated issue. Comments are definitely welcome.*