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April 11, 2012

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Hope

Great post, Isaac. I have to say when I first read Dare's first blog, it did not make me angry, but that's probably because I am really enchanted with the Brooklyn Phil this season. I am super curious as to where Dare is going to take this series, and if he is going to talk in detail about what the Phil has gone through in the past couple of years.

David Marcus

Nice post, though I must say I disagree with you. The following is a blog post of mine from January outlining why I think the NFP system cannot work. My own theater company, Blue Box World, which produces the show Sticky, has managed to run the show for a decade unsubsidized, it bothers me that we compete against companies receiving free government money. http://www.spotlightright.blogspot.com/2012/01/rearranging-deck-chairs.html thought you might find it interesting.

Scott Walters

I like the explosive Isaac! As a theatre historian, I would just quibble a bit with the "the arts have been patronized forever" rationale that we in the arts have used to defend ourselves. The amount of money that the Elizabethans received from the crown was minimal at best -- often clothing castoffs. What they received was government protection -- certainly valuable, but nothing at all like our system. The Greeks split the costs of the Dionysus festival between a private citizen (choregus) who paid for the Chorus in lieu of paying taxes, and the city who paid the other costs. However, note that the festival was a city event and all the artists were answerable to people -- again, given contemporary artistic cussedness, not quite our situation. Same with the medieval mystery plays: sponsored and produced by a variety of guilds. Moliere: artistocratic patronage who provided a place to play, but the rest of expenses came through the box office and writing masques for King Louis' celebrations. My point is that our NFP system isn't quite the same thing, and I'm not certain that it is something to which we should aspire. To David Marcus, I would ask whether the goal is to run the same damn show for a decade -- I think I'd rather work at Foxxconn, and I certainly don't think such a model advances the art in the least. I agree that the NFP system needs to be examined, but I also don't think the for-profit system is the fallback -- all we need do is look at Broadway to see what crap that leads to. And Isaac, by the way, yes, your characterization of Dare as representing the ruling class expectations of adoration from artists -- exactly.

David Marcus

Scott, perhaps I wasn't clear, our show Sticky, is unique each night, comprised of 5 new 10 minute plays, of which we have produced over 200. We have been very lucky to be able to premiere works by some of the best playwrights in the city, and to enjoy steadily growing audiences. Part of the reason we are able to produce such a wide variety of work, is that our show is very cheap to produce, and very flexible. You say the NFP system needs to be examined, but isn't it the case that the whole point of an NFP system is to allow wealthy people with "better taste" to protect culture from the ignorant working classes who don't know what is good for them? Fred Siegel wrote a fascinating piece in this month's Commentary about the much maligned popular culture of the 1950s. Traditionally seen as conformist, banal and even fascistic, Siegel argues that the 50s were in fact a high water mark for American culture, and that the counter culture which followed it (including the NFP system), though intended to elevate culture, has instead alienated the middle class from fine arts. (I would link but there is a pay wall) All of this is to say that little tweaks to the present system can not move the form forward, it can only keep us frozen in a holding pattern, where shows look very much like they did half a century ago. Also Broadway is not the only form of commercial theater, the urban theater and dinner theater circuits actually make money, I understand that kind of work is beneath us all, but can't we learn from their economic success?

99

David, I don't think anyone working the arts, especially in theatre, would think about the '50s as a time of banal arts; honestly, it was a high water mark in the American theatre, for sure, with Miller and Williams and the like regularly seen, the early days of TV which drew much from theatre and brought it to wider masses. The 50s are in some ways a much maligned era of, yes, a certain kind of conformity, but also a real flowering of creation and ideas, due, in part to robust government support, as well as more favorable economics. I'll have to look up that article and see how Siegel reconciles the alienation by the middle class when the counterculture of the '60s was so famously populated by the children of the middle class. But that's another conversation.

I've come around to the idea that small tweaks may not make much of a difference, but I'm still flummoxed, to a certain extent, as to what would. One of the things I've found is that the current NFP mindset is seriously entrenched and efforts to work around or outside of it wind up fairly limited and local in scope. How do we actually overthrow the damn thing?

Isaac

David,

I certainly think it's one way-- a kind of right wing populist way-- to look at the nonprofit system. The separation of the Brows that you are articulating in your comment actually happened in the 19th century, tho, not the mid 20th, although that's, perhaps, a discussion for another day. The left wing conspiracyish way to read this history, btw, was that it was an attempt to essentially compromise between those who wanted larger state sponsorship for the arts and those who waned less, via creating what is essentially a tax expenditure instead of direct giving by the government. This also, of course, helps decentralize support for the arts away from the government.

I'd rather ditch both of these conspiracy theories and pay attention instead to what the people who created and support the system say they were trying to do. And in that case the idea-- and this is one I personally support-- is that the market shouldn't decide everything when it comes to art. And that there are some things that are valuable even if they aren't "successful" or "sustainable" simply via pure market forces. Given the long history of subsidies (Whether private or public) of the arts, this makes a lot of sense to me.

I also note that in your comment you portray yourself as somehow a victim of the nonprofit system's existence because other companies are receiving "free government money." (I assume you mean in the form of tax deductible donations, as most of the people I'd imagine as Sticky's direct competitors are probably not receiving much in the way of direct government grants.)

But you have made a choice not to incorporate as a nonprofit. You have presumably looked at the choices and decided what you think is best for your company. Yet you seem bothered by the idea that other people have made other choices. But they're pursuing-- I would guess-- what they think will work best for their companies. I don't see a problem with that.

David Marcus

Resent was probably too strong a word. I certainly don't resent any of the other downtown micro companies, I don't even think of them as competition, more like co habitants in an ecosystem we all have an interest in keeping healthy and sustainable. We cast each other's actors, we do each other's plays, we use each other's directors. And when one of us has a successful show, it helps all of us. If I resent or am frustrated by any NFPs it is the large institutions that suck the air out of theater, and which too many small companies feel they have to become to have a real voice in theater. But honestly, I am starting to think it doesn't really matter, the big NFPs are playing a zero sum game, competing for the same tiny audience base, while the downtown scene fights to create new audience. The movement towards unsubsidized theater is, I believe, well underway in small theaters all over the city, and maybe we don't need to tilt at the big NFP windmills. One note on the 50s, I think you will find that most of the government money in the arts in that period came in the form of infrastructure spending, building public theaters, creating entertainment districts, etc. That is very different from public funds going to content creators. So I am not saying government has no role. Its like bailing out the auto companies, it may be a good idea, but it doesn't mean you want the government or the NFP sector to tell GM what cars to build.

Ian Thal

"That system is predicated on artists not making a considerable salary and benefits. This is true even if the artists you personally hire are well compensated"

Really Isaac? After that piece you wrote for HowlRound where you appeared to be suggesting that playwrights should not enjoy the copyright protections (like the right to collect royalties on the use of their work) that generative artists in other media take for granted?

And note, I do say "appeared" because you were very unresponsive to criticism or requests that you clarify your position.

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