Artistic health, institutional stability and the role of the federal government were the subjects of a Nov. 29 forum hosted by TCG at New York University, convened to enable theatre artists and managers to share their concerns about the current state of the field with newly appointed NEA chairman Jane Alexander.
TCG executive director Peter Zeisler welcomed Alexander and stated his belief that the appointment of an artist to head the NEA is an unprecedented opportunity for her office to become a “bully pulpit” for the arts.
“I’m new at this job, and I’m here to learn,” Alexander told the group. “I’m in a grace period right now, but this particular time of trouble is not over. I’m dedicated to helping the theatre in any way we at the Endowment possibly can, but with dwindling funds we will have to be as creative as possible.”
TCG president Zelda Fichandler, who is artistic director of the Acting Company and director of the graduate acting program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, noted that “the nature we’re holding the mirror up to has a side so dark there is fear attached to it”–and the pervading atmosphere in our society is sometimes “hard to look at” when it is reflected in our art.
Among the concerns voiced by participants were the increasing demands on theatres to take responsibility for expanded programs that divert them from their missions; the lack of reserves to see theatres through hard times; the loss of general operating support; the need to improve artist compensation; and the necessity to develop new audiences.
“The arts have lost so much value in this society, and I don’t know how we’re going to regain it,” commented Tom Hall, managing director of Old Globe Theatre of San Diego, cautioning that “if we redefine ourselves too often, we’ll no longer have the ability to lead society.”
TCG vice president Ricardo Khan, artistic director of New Brunswick, N.J.’s Crossroads Theatre Company, emphasized his belief in a brighter future for the theatre. “When we are with colleagues, we rejuvenate each other,” he said, “but we are sometimes divided aesthetically, generationally, racially–and I am anxious to see us all pull it back together again.”
Director Lloyd Richards echoed Khan’s optimism: “You may be depressed the second time around but by the third time you get optimistic–just by virtue of being around. Our institutions change but the art form remains the same. We’re dealing with something that can never be replaced–live communication. We cannot expect the NEA to be what it was 30 years ago; the theatres, too, have to reexamine. But the art is there.”
“We’re artists before everything, and that’s what really matters,” said Rene Buch, artistic director of New York’s Repertorio Espanol, “but I dread that we will become extremely good at selling doughnuts.”
Playwright Tony Kushner pressed for “buckets more money” for the arts. “It is important for people in positions of stewardship not to accept less money without making a lot of noise about it,” he contended. “Our art is pure but our weaponry has to be as sophisticated and vulgar as the opposition,” agreed George C. Wolfe, artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, arguing for continued arts advocacy. Theatre is one of the few places we go and listen to another point of view.”
Considerable discussion centered on concerns about private funding. Some participants noted an increasing tendency for foundations and corporations to “act as artistic directors”–asking to read scripts, pick plays and develop programs. “You can experience death by guidelines, formulating programs for funding, while there is no support for the body of your work,” said Fichandler, “It’s no longer about ‘six plays for the price of four,’ it’s about ‘what will you underwrite that we can do?'”
“General operating support is absolutely vital,” stressed Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of the Tisch School.”We get trapped by funding agencies and what they consider to be in vogue, forgetting about what it’s really all about,” agreed Richards. “The NEA can be the place that keeps the standards there.”
“We have to make sure artists are on the NEA agenda,” urged Hall, noting that theatres are being asked to fill so many needs at once that the money is coming out of the pockets of artists and going into community programs. “We’re growing horizontally,” he said, “and the priority previously placed upon compensation of artists by the Endowment seems to be gone.” Participants offered suggestions of ways the NEA panel and application processes might be improved, and called for clarification of NEA policies.
“I hope that the NEA will demand high standards and a reevaluation of what art stands for” said director Anne Bogart. “We will be seen in the future by what we have created, and if there’s any good argument for government support that is it.”
Alexander expressed her gratitude to the participants and stated that she is committed to turning the image of the agency around. She outlined some of her priorities, including embarking on a tour of all 50 states; recruiting members of the National Council on the Arts to serve as spokesmen; providing information about NEA grants to congressional offices; reaching out to the media; and developing opportunities for President Clinton to speak about the arts.