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Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America

September 28, 2015

 PhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in May 2015. Enjoy.

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
Foundation Web Manager
Foundation Center

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