Will the NEA Fund its Own Swan Song?

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.*

James Haro is a Los Angeles native currently attending Drexel University in Philadelphia, seeking a BS in Entertainment and Arts Management, Theatre Concentration. He co-operates a blog at www.AngryPatrons.WordPress.com.

4 responses to “Will the NEA Fund its Own Swan Song?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Will the NEA Fund its Own Swan Song? | we PLAY different -- Topsy.com

  2. As a Member of the National Council on the Arts, the presidentially appointed and senate confirmed oversight body for the National Endowment for the Arts, I respectfully and energetically disagree with Rocco Landesman’s assertion that demand will not grow and his assessment of the field. I think it’s important that readers understand that Rocco Landesman’s opinions are his own and do not represent an official agency opinoin. While he may have the pulpit and position to air his personal views, I do wish he’d be more thoughtful about their consequences – particularly in light of the fact that two weeks ago 165 elected members of Congress called for the defunding of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

    The National Endowment’s Chairman says we have too much art for the dwindling audiences in the United States and then suggests we stop paying arts administrators so we can use the money to create more art.

    Chairman Landesmann is not a trained Supply Side Economist, nor does NEA have an economist on its staff. Despite his self-esteem for his economic theories he really is completely unqualified to propose supply side economic models. By trade, prior to his appointment to the National Endowment, he was a commercial, Broadway theater producer that gambled well. He’s basing his assumptions on research that was not gathered for economics forecasting. Nor is the research for the participation survey statistically sophisticated enough for economic forecasting or modeling.

    My opinion, having read the survey, is that I’m not convinced arts audiences are dwindling despite the reports. I actually believe they may be increasing. I think people are getting their needs met in this market in ways the participation survey he’s reading do not capture. For instance, the survey doesn’t include attendance at the movies. We can go to the movie theater to see the National Theater of Great Britain’s production of King Lear starring Derek Jacobi, or the Metropolitan Opera and that would not be in the survey.

    I believe the research analyst at the Endowment would be hard pressed and unqualified to propose economic models based on the participation survey.

    The National Endowment for the Arts just published a new Strategic Plan that calls for supporting broadest access possible for the most excellent art in the nation. Rocco’s skin diving into economic theories side tracks him from the mission of the agency, while he indulges himself and distresses the nation’s arts community in self-important musings that have little veracity and are not part of his job description.

    The amount of art we have is perfect. The sizes of our audiences are perfect and can evolve. Let’s focus on getting great art into the hearts of as many Americans possible and get the NEA back on its mandated track.


    • Hi Ben. Thank you for such a thoughtful response. I think there was merit to much of what Rocco was saying. Most of it has been lost in the supply/demand argument that has evolved since he spoke. I think, ultimately, the greatest result of this entire event is that a broader-than-normal spotlight has been shined on the theatre and arts funding world. Dialogue is being promoted, and that is a good thing. Thank you for serving as a Member of the National Council on the Arts.


    • Angry Patron (James)

      Certainly. This dialogue is much more beneficial to the future of theatre than whether or not Spider Man will ever officially open. My thank you as well, Ben.


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