When TCG published its first annual economic survey in 1974, new theatres were springing up in every corner of the country; playing to expanding subscription audiences; touring their work widely; providing employment for a growing number of artists; attracting support from individuals, foundations, corporations, federal and state arts agencies.
Acknowledging that the arts represented a valuable cultural and economic asset, community leaders vied to attract artists, and built theatre districts and cultural centers to house them. These districts and centers promised to provide stimulating community gathering places, alternatives to the suburban shopping mall, where people of all stripes could come together in a shared cultural experience.
Those were the glory days of the arts, born of the vision of John Kennedy, the action of Lyndon Johnson, and, perhaps ironically, the political support of Richard Nixon (and his superb Arts Endowment appointee, Nancy Hanks).
But it was people at the local level who made it happen. In the otherwise grim picture reflected in Barbara Janowitz’s “Theatre Facts 92” report in this issue, it’s still people in towns and cities across America who provide hope for the future of the theatre. And it is to them that government and philanthropic leaders should look for cues in developing arts policy.
This year’s survey reveals some very disturbing trends–trends that would jeopardize the existence of all our theatre institutions if they become chronic patterns.
* Jobs: Institutional downsizing is seriously diminishing opportunities for full-time employment in our highly labor-intensive field.
* Economic Impact: Theatres scrambled to compensate for the first-ever loss of subscribers by selling more single tickets, but the loss of committed patrons who sign on to see all the plays of the theatre season may have serious ramifications for future attendance levels, fostering market-driven programming, while forcing theatres to spend scarce resources on much more costly show-by-show marketing. Arts institutions serve as magnets for patrons of local businesses, which would be compromised by losses in theatre attendance.
* Outreach: The devastating 40 percent drop in touring performances in just two years reveals that our primarily urban-based theatres are no longer able to serve audiences in regions that may have no other access to professional theatre. And, as theatre economics force ticket prices up, theatre may become inaccessible to younger and less affluent audience members–at the very time many theatres are reaching out to new and more diverse audiences.
* Artistic Growth: Theatres have experienced a more than 60 percent decline in developmental activity–workshops, staged readings and other play development programs–over the past five years. Without the ability to nurture artists and incubate new work, theatres could simply become museums for the work of the past–or worse, centers of mediocrity.
We have never had a more talented pool of American artists. But many theatres have had to decrease cast sizes, turn away unsolicited manuscripts, reduce production budgets–all diminishing the possibility of fulfilling the artist’s vision. No wonder we are witnessing a talent drain to more lucrative fields of film and television.
After three decades, the nonprofit professional theatre movement should have progressed beyond talk of survival. We must now reexamine how nonprofit theatres do business, how artists’ careers develop, how boards function and how the private and public sectors support the arts.
Some important initial steps: Government agencies, foundations and corporations should reexamine their funding policies, recognizing (as a recent Grantmakers in the Arts survey points out) the crucial need for general operating support to keep theatres secure in their primary missions. Recognizing the arts as an important investment in our future, the Clinton Administration and Congress should support the goals of the NEA and increase its small but vital appropriation. They should also reconsider the recent reallocation of NEA program funds to state arts agencies, now that “Theatre Facts 92” clearly illustrates that theatres have experienced severe cuts from both state and federal sources under this new formula.
At the same time, individual artists and artistic directors must join together for an in-depth exploration of ways to advance the art form–to reverse the talent drain, nurture American theatre artists, provide for organizational stability. TCG’s five-year long-range plan includes a blueprint for just such a process. (This National Theatre Think Tank project awaits only the funds to make it a reality, as TCG, too, struggles to balance its budget while launching new initiatives.)
The complex pattern of support that ensures the survival of the nonprofit arts is unique, depending not on major government subsidies, but on a combination of earnings, private contributions and government grants, along with certain privileges accorded to tax-exempt organizations. Soon, as federal officials consider legislative solutions to our current economic crisis, a number of actions could affect the arts–including the possible elimination of nonprofit postal subsidies (a lifeline to theatres’ direct-mail marketing and fund-raising), and at least four separate tax measures that could affect private giving incentives. Should these be resolved in ways unfavorable to nonprofit theatres, the combined impact could prove draconian.
The good news in “Theatre Facts 92” reveals that support of the arts begins with the people at the local level: attendance levels didn’t fall despite a crippling recession and rising ticket prices; contributions from individuals rose more than 10 percent; city and county governments demonstrated local support by increasing funding by more than 7 percent in spite of financial stress. This is evidence that the electorate places importance on the arts; ways must be found to protect the fragile economy of the arts while we go about the business of getting our nation’s economy back on track.