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[Review] Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America

May 28, 2015

The arts — as we know it — are doomed. The broad cultural and economic consensus of the last century that placed paramount value on the arts, arts education, and art institutions has been lost like the voice of Yeats' falconer in the widening gyre. Tomorrow we will have less art, and we will be the poorer for it.

Cover_Curtains_the_future_of_the_Arts_in_AmericaLike an Old Testament prophet, Michael M. Kaiser, the former president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, warns of a fundamental crisis in the arts: the way they are created, managed, and marketed in America is simply not sustainable. Ironically, as recently as 2013, Kaiser, in The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations, was somewhat optimistic that such a worst-case scenario could be averted, and he outlined a series of steps arts organizations could take to fortify themselves for the tough times ahead.

Not so much in 2015. In his new book, Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2015), Kaiser paints a dark picture of the future, both explaining how things came to pass and what arts organizations, especially mid-sized ones, might do to (maybe) save themselves from oblivion.

His argument goes like this: In economic terms, the arts are playing a losing hand; in almost every other industry, the costs of production are reduced over time, allowing for more goods to be sold at a lower price point. Innovation and commodification contribute to this process, enabling goods to be produced ever-more cheaply and distributed on a vast scale, which in turn allows for the increasing segmentation of consumer markets and real-time adaptation to changing tastes and expectations. Alas, almost none of this is true for the arts.

The performing arts in particular, writes Kaiser, are a labor-intensive endeavor in which every unit (i.e., performance) is numbingly expensive to produce — a cost that is passed on to members of the audience in the form of ever-rising ticket prices. Moreover, when every performance must support a portion of the salaries and pensions of hundreds of performers, managers, and back-office staff, as well as theater maintenance and the marketing of the production and institution itself, it's little wonder that arts professionals look to the future with pessimism and deep anxiety.

It wasn't always this way. A half-century ago, with the U.S. economy booming, government coffers bursting, and the costs of sustaining arts institutions much less daunting, the arts in America entered a sort of golden age. Arts education increasingly was viewed as a social good to be sustained with taxpayer dollars, and children, as they grew older, followed their parents' lead and became arts consumers and patrons in their own right. While twentieth-century forms of entertainment such as movies, television, and pop music all competed with live performances of more traditional art forms for audience dollars and attention, they served, more than anything else, to fuel Americans' interest in and a broader engagement with the arts. In particular, visionary investments like those made by the Ford Foundation in developing networks of regional theaters enabled the performing arts to flourish in cities large and small, while Lucille Lortel made Off-Broadway a household name.

But the good times couldn't last forever, and they didn't, undone by a combination of rising costs, stagnating household incomes, and ferocious competition from cheaper digital alternatives. Kaiser's lens is both economic and cultural, and he has a lot to say about the need for arts organizations to change — in a hurry. But his book isn't political, and readers will find little in the way of policy prescriptions or legislative recommendations. Indeed, Kaiser takes the position that the days of significant and sustained government support are over. Support for the arts as a percentage of federal and state spending, he notes, has been falling since the 1980s, while a perfect economic storm has emboldened two generations of anti-tax budget-cutters, resulting in an increasingly hostile climate with respect to public funding for the arts.

Ditto arts education. Kaiser finds it disturbing, if not unfathomable, that an entire generation has now reached adulthood without the benefit of any meaningful arts education or an appreciation of the arts' role in the life of a well-rounded person and the nation. What's more, the aging of a generation of loyal theatergoers and arts patrons raises for many organizations a deeply troubling question: Who will replace them when they are no longer there to support us? Efforts to cultivate a new generation of arts consumers and donors are not working, writes Kaiser. Twenty- and thirty-something millennials have a seemingly endless array of entertainment choices to choose from, and the cost of those choices is falling as rapidly as their number is exploding. At the bottom of the list for most millennials are expensive live performances of traditional art forms with which they have never seriously engaged. Why, as Kaiser puts it, spend $600 on a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera when you can hop over to YouTube and watch, at no charge, a video of the same performance — or anything else, for that matter — any time you feel like it? Exacerbating the situation is the fact that most arts organizations simply don't have the resources to cultivate relationships with semi-engaged (at best) millennials who may (or may not) be there for them two or three decades down the road.

Nor does Kaiser let foundations — in the past, a critical source of support — off the hook. His too-brief look at how they are responding to the shifting sands he describes elsewhere in the book is less than complimentary. According to Kaiser, too many foundations, thinking they are being innovative and far-sighted, are shifting their support for the arts to endowments (which, he notes, have the attraction of a supposedly guaranteed income stream), while at the same time making things more difficult for arts organizations by scaling back on or refusing to provide general operating support. Similarly, he isn't impressed by what he sees as a growing trend among arts organizations to pursue big donors and gifts, even as they neglect to cultivate more modest donations; yes, a $100 million gift is better than a stick in the eye, but what do institutions lose when they neglect hard-won relationships with the tens of thousands of regular patrons who have supported them over the decades? The absence of real and sustained engagement with those audiences, combined with a general unwillingness to embrace new technologies, casts further doubt on the long-term sustainability of many, if not most arts organizations.

In short, it's all a mess, and while Kaiser thinks he can be of some help, he doubts whether he, or anyone else, can actually fix the problems of the arts in America. As he argued in his earlier work, he strongly believes that for any arts organization to survive into the middle of this century, it will have to get real about creating great art, marketing it relentlessly (Hollywood-style, if need be), building a strong and committed board, and being much more sophisticated about fundraising and merchandising. Of course, all that requires talent and an enormous amount of money, and where those resources are going to come from is anything but clear.

What is clear is that larger arts organizations, in most cases, have the resources and capacity to follow his advice and are positioned to attract, by virtue of their reputations and brands, talented managers, loyal audiences, and deep-pocketed donors. What's more, some, like the Metropolitan Opera, which, with tickets priced at $25 a pop, has been packing movie theaters across the country with people eager to see extremely well-crafted live broadcasts of its performances, will show themselves to be truly innovative. Indeed, according to Kaiser, the Met and other institutions need to do more of that kind of thing, perhaps taking a page from professional sports; why not make a live performance of La Bohème as cool as Monday Night Football? That might not be good for the mid-sized opera company in a place like, say, Nashville, but then again the competition might be just what the doctor ordered if it helps to elevate the profile of the art form and creates more demand for live performances of opera, or any other form, at the regional level. We all should hope so, Kaiser writes, because if it doesn't, expect to see a dramatic withering of the arts ecosystem in the future.

Kaiser aptly illustrates his prediction with an allusion to Huxley's Brave New World. Are we going to find a formula that will fortify and cultivate the arts in America, securing its place as a cornerstone of our culture and civilization, or will we all end up in a Soma-infused stupor consuming ersatz content designed to make us want to consume more of the same bland gruel? Or maybe we've already reached that point? Kaiser doesn't say. But consider yourself warned.

Daniel X Matz is Foundation Web Manager at Foundation Center. For more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

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Posted by Richard Kooyman  |   June 06, 2015 at 10:50 AM

As a visual artist I’ve followed arts policy ever since pop-urbanist Richard Florida seemingly sold evey arts organization on his theories of the creative class. From there arts organizers and writers such as Michael Kaiser and others championed neoliberal policies of engagement and marketing as the new model for the arts.

Well good for Kaiser for admitting that they may have been wrong but I contend this wrong direction will never be corrected until we understand that this false austerity for the arts didn’t just happen. It was made to happen. It was the cultural wars which began in the late 80’s which killed the idea that a healthy arts culture requires public funding and it was Florida and others who erased the belief that a Arts economy functions differently than other economies. The fact that the arts are not just another product was a driving force in President Kennedy's thinking when he planted the seed for what would become the NEA.

Posted by Mitch Weiss  |   June 06, 2015 at 01:00 PM

Warning noted. But there is more to this. When non-profit theaters are not in the business of advancing our culture and spend all their resources producing revivals of popular hits (claiming that their audiences want that), then we are sabotaging our own interests in audience development. In "The Business of Broadway" (Allworth Press), we are perhaps instructed in the many ways that investors in for-profit theater gamble a la Vegas, and yet, when they succeed, we all succeed. Non-profits are supposed to gamble and develop and encourage new plays and ideas and forms - and perhaps that's when the younger audiences will find a reason to visit and pay for live theater.

Posted by Drea  |   June 06, 2015 at 09:40 PM

The economic argument is not Kaiser's, but was made two Williams, Baumol and Bowen, in 1966; see their widely-cited book, "Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma."

Posted by Tamara Vishnevskaya  |   June 07, 2015 at 07:23 PM

I can't believe the author would resort to using the tired old economics argument first published by Baumol & Bowen that the arts will die because of ever-increasing costs relative to stagnant productivity. It demonstrates a clear lack of understanding of both economics and technology.

Classical music, in particular, saw a booming increase in productivity between the 1880's, wax phonograph cylinder created the recorded sound market until the early 2000's, when ripped CD recordings could be downloaded for free. The income of musicians and soloists grew with the increasing quality of sound recording, while performances of orchestras and soloists could suddenly be heard by hundreds of thousands - if not millions - instead of the 4-5,000 that could be packed into concert halls per program cycle before the 1880's. Therefore, Baumol & Bowen's classical music productivity theorem was antiquated even as it was being postulated.

Yes, live classical music boomed in the US in the 1960's. Mostly because of the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1965, which drew more money to the sector from foundations and individual philanthropists. As a result, the number of symphony orchestras which paid its musicians (i.e., "professional") in the US boomed: From a few hundred before WW II to a high of 1,200 in 1998.

Whereas professional symphony orchestras had mainly existed in large cities previously, it seemed that smaller towns and suburbs of big cities could found and finance their "own" symphony orchestras. Many formerly civic orchestras became professional symphony orchestras as well.

While this was a nice luxury in the post-war economic boom, nobody could realistically have expected the boom go on forever. However, it seems to be rooted in the human psyche that we forget lean times when the going's good. The first "crisis" that shook the US classical music world happened in 1990's, when the "NEA Four" performing artists and two explicit museum exhibition unleashed a storm of conservative protests on the NEA, which ultimately resulted in its funding being cut by 50%. This was in conjunction with the Savings & Loan crisis and followed by the 1992 recession. Most orchestras survived this blow and after a few years they had shaken off their red bottom lines. However, it was around this time, that US wages started to stagnate. Then came the Early 2000s recession and the 2001 bursting of dot-com bubble, 9-11 and the 2007–08 global financial crisis. This is correctly pointed out by Mr. Kaiser.

However, does Mr. Kaiser believe that the lack of productivity growth in the performing arts caused this litany of financial downturns? If not, how do these recessions spell "curtains" for the performing arts in terms productivity? We merely experienced an economic expansion, resulting in protracted growth in performing arts spending, which resulted in an increase of performing arts groups. This was followed by a protracted economic downturn, resulting in decreasing funding for the performing arts, which is resulting in a culling of the many professional performing arts organizations which sprang up during the post-WW II boom.

This hardly demonstrates that the performing arts are suffering from a productivity problem. It does show that professional performing arts follow the business cycles just like any for-profit company which does experience productivity growth. How is this possible. What Baumol & Bowen failed to incorporate into their theories is that the performing arts are a luxury good with high elasticity. When the going's good, performing arts organizations can offset stagnant productivity levels not only through increased income - whether it be from grants and donations or ticket sales - but also through increased supply. When the times get tough, the stagnant productivity and increase in performing arts organizations suffer the elastic band snapping back faster than they can adapt. This results in performing arts organizations going bust. Furthermore, being a luxury good, the arts are not perceived as being equally as important as the 3 R's in education, resulting in their being cut from the curriculum as the federal and state governments have to cut back on school funding.

Therefore, it is not "disturbing, if not unfathomable, that an entire generation has now reached adulthood without the benefit of any meaningful arts education or an appreciation of the arts' role in the life of a well-rounded person and the nation." It is just a natural part of the economic life-cycles in a capitalist economy like the US (from every other point of view other than economics, it may very well be "disturbing" and "unfathomable", but that is the democratic choice Americans have made).

Next, we have to ask the question if the "stagnant productivity" that ostensibly governs the performing arts isn't merely an illusion seen by people with antiquated views of what constitutes productivity.

"At the bottom of the list for most millennials are expensive live performances of traditional art forms with which they have never seriously engaged. Why, as Kaiser puts it, spend $600 on a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera when you can hop over to YouTube and watch, at no charge, a video of the same performance — or anything else, for that matter — any time you feel like it?"

This is all true. Nevertheless, why should we only measure a professional performing arts organization's productivity in terms of the proverbial "bums in seats" that are willing to pay ever-increasing ticket prices? As a luxury good, stagnant productivity in the performing arts is offset by increasing productivity - and thus wages - in society at large. So even if a ticket costs $600, we're not talking about these $600 in terms of their having the same value equivalency that they had in 1970. Back then, a ticket priced at that level would have been unaffordable for most people. Today, it is merely "not inexpensive" for most people.

Why should we not measure the productivity of performing arts organizations in terms of technological advances and the use that performing arts organizations make of them? The Met's broadcasting of its opera performances is a perfect example of a huge increase in productivity. YouTube has also increased the productivity of not just performing arts organizations, but of individual musicians exponentially.

"Ah, but YouTube is free, so what does a productivity increase like that mean to the musicians who have been uploaded there? And that aside, you can't substitute a "canned" performance with the real thing."

Well, to take the second objection first, my answer would be "yes you can - look at the Met." I have sat in many a concert hall and opera house all across the world. I would not hesitate to say (albeit anonymously for fear of being professionally crucified) that in most cases, seeing a Met opera performance in a cinema is actually a superior experience to sitting inside the Met and listening to a live performance. Before anyone chokes with indignation, let me explain: Seeing a live opera performance on a large screen in HD will actually give you far better sightlines than those you'll experience in 80%-90% of the seats at the Met. If you can't afford $600 tickets, seeing an opera performance on a large screen in HD will actually give you far better sightlines than in 100% of the seats you can afford. As for the sound... Well, let me say this: in a 5,000 seat opera hall, you'll only experience the raw physical impact of a live performance in maybe 500 of the best seats. In the others, your experience of the live music will actually be equal to - or inferior - to the sound you can experience from a Dolby surround sound stereo system in a cinema.

The same goes for most concert halls in the US. While I have not sat in all of them, those I have sat in were mostly pretty bad. I can only think of Carnegie Hall, Boston's Symphony Hall and Cleveland's Severance Hall that actually provide a superior experience of live music. The rest are too big and/or have bad acoustics, so if you have a good quality surround sound stereo system at home, you'll get a better experience from listening to a CD. In a 2,500 seat concert hall, maybe 250-500 seats will give you a better experience than you will get at home. That is, if you can afford $200-$300 tickets and if they're not all sold out to subscribers (which is usually the case). The experience is somewhat different in Europe, but I won't get into that or I'll digress.

As 200 inch paper-thin ultra HD TV's become commonly affordable within the next decade or so, you'll be able to watch the same concert live from the comfort of your home with sightlines and sound that - with the caveats outlined above - will be as good or better than in a concert hall. Sorry if anyone's gagging - that's called "productivity increase."

The financial remuneration question is a bit trickier to answer. What benefit is there to musicians from streaming your performances on YouTube or other websites when they pirate their content? First of all, not all content is pirated. YouTube does pay professional artists a fee when their video is played - albeit currently a negligible one. Other streaming websites pay better. Not too long ago, I read an article about a professional cellist who posted her videos on 5-6 streaming websites. She's very good, but hardly very famous like, say, YoYo Ma. She made a little over $60,000 in a recent year from streaming sources. That's not bad at all, when you consider that your average orchestra musician who doesn't play in the top 15 orchestras in the US earns between $35,000 and $45,000 a year.

Obviously, the problem here is one of copyright and fair payment for a product. Currently, the law is way behind the times when it comes to internet distribution. Music streaming on the internet is about where music publishing was around the year 1800. But it moved ahead from there until fair laws were instituted. I don't doubt that international internet copyright duration and fees will be agreed upon by governments fairly quickly and that artists' unions and managers will increase musicians' fees derived from internet distribution and crack down on pirating. There will always be some holes in the system - like China or Russia - but most of the money's in North America and the EU anyway, where stricter controls of content can be created for the benefit of musicians.

If legal restrictions and government regulation doesn't work, it's always possible to limit access to internet content - or not. The Met already charges ticket fees for its broadcasts. If you wish to see performances with the Berlin Philharmonic on your WiFi enabled HDTV you have to pay a viewing fee; either per concert or buy a season subscription. The "not" alternative is to pay musicians enough for their services on a full year basis, in which case HD streaming of their performances can be free. Do you want to see and hear a concert with Dudamel but can't make it to Los Angeles? Look up the Gothenburg Philharmonic (in Sweden), where he is also the music director and watch his concerts for free there. How about Wagner's Gotterdammerung from the Vienna Staatsoper? Easy - go to theoperaplatform.eu and stream it on your HDTV. However, I think that free streaming from Europe will only exist as long as the EU member governments continue to finance their national orchestras with taxpayer money. I don't predict that such free performances will be available for too many years into the future.

Ultimately things will fall into place and we'll all have access to the kind of performing arts experience we like and can afford, whether streamed or live. It'll give everyone better access to the performing arts and provide new sources of income for musicians. But it will be a world which is different from what we've been used to since the 1800's, when truly public concerts started to appear. The "excess" performing arts organizations which grew in the years of plenty after WW II that aren't unique, innovative, qualitatively superb and able to adapt to the changes in presenting performing arts will disappear. Orchestras will close, and operas fold, but it won't be the end of the performing artists or people who learn to appreciate their efforts. Audiences will just learn and appreciate the performing arts in ways different from what they are today. But it won't be because of stagnant productivity.

Posted by Caroline  |   June 17, 2015 at 10:56 AM

I would think with changes in economy events and functionalities also change.

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