While a significant portion of the theatre community was distracted over the past several weeks by the fallout from Rocco Landesman’s statements about there perhaps being too many theatres, a more imminent problem began a journey through the halls of government. I’m speaking of proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, which overnight between Thursday and Friday nearly doubled, even before most people were aware that any cuts were on the table.
Now if you’ve been working in not-for-profit theatre as long as I have, cuts –- and proposed cuts — to the NEA are hardly new. Frankly, it seems an almost annual event, not unlike the buzzards returning to Hinckley Marsh, and at a certain point for many, it has perhaps become just so much white noise. Given the state of technology, we can now vent our spleen by filling in some blanks on the website of Americans for the Arts or their Arts Action Fund (http://ArtsActionFund.org/) or we can try to rally the troops via Twitter, Facebook and blogs, but every time this rises to the surface, the horse is already out of the barn, and those who would minimize or eliminate the NEA have the upper hand and momentum. Indeed, I sense exhaustion among those who choose to voice their thoughts on this issue, since what was once a rallying cry to save the NEA seems to be giving way to questions about whether the NEA is worth saving at all. I suppose having its chairman question the necessity of your existence can do that.
But because this is, as the title states, not a political blog, I won’t attempt to dissect the history and reasons behind the ongoing use of the NEA as a symbolic whipping boy for proper values or economic responsibility. I will, however, take a moment to cast blame. But that blame is turned inward.
The reason the NEA (and the NEH and NPR and PBS) make for such easy targets is that their audiences and their artists fail to make a case for their intrinsic value. Yes, we’re asked that if we like “Masterpiece” (recently shorn of “Theatre”) on PBS, won’t we make a donation and receive a tote bag, but we never really hear why such programming is important and why it must be sustained. Frankly, I rarely watch PBS and wonder why its pledge specials often feature doo-wop groups from the 50s or aging troubadors from the 60s, so perhaps even I need to be shown why there’s value in government supported not-for-profit TV, and since I don’t watch, I need to get that case delivered through some other vehicle.
A big part of the problem is that those of us who are profoundly dedicated to the arts hold them as a sacred belief; we are called to them as surely as religious leaders are called to the cloth. Yet to pursue the comparison, religious leaders spend one day every week making the case for the relevancy and value of their religion (these are called sermons), while we spend our time selling tickets to individual productions or exhibits.
The reason the arts and humanities are targeted is that for a major portion of the country, we are either a complete blank or the spawn of the upper-class elites. We fail to make the argument for the value of our field, because we’re too busy getting butts in seats or bodies through turnstiles. We rally to a certain degree in times of crisis, but the moment the crisis passes, we return to our individual pursuits, proud of whatever we may have achieved to protect support for the arts, or even just for having tried. This simply isn’t enough; if all we do is react, we’re always playing defense.
Every so often, there’s a minor ripple of interest in creating a “Got Milk?” campaign for the arts, designed to bring awareness and instill messages about the value of the arts in our lives. It hasn’t ever gotten off the ground in a big way, and I can’t say whether it’s because of a lack of creative spark, a lack of cohesion among the disparate arts field, or perhaps because lack of funds. I happen to think that, specifics of a campaign aside, this is our greatest failing and the reason the arts remain a perpetual punching bag. We just don’t know how to tell people why we’re worthwhile. After all, our friends and peers are committed to the arts, and so are our audiences. ‘See,’ we think, ‘there’s evidence of the value.’ If cotton and cheese need to remind us of there worth, surely culture does as well.
But we have to figure out how to make that case for those who don’t work with us and who don’t often – or ever – participate with us. We have to take those genuine statistics about economic impact, those many studies about how we help young people to think and learn, and turn them into an ongoing platform that is reiterated year in and year out, not just in times of hardship, conflict or elections.
I have written and spoken on many occasions on how essential it is that we stop “talking to ourselves,” getting outside our rarified circles and our assorted conferences in order to speak to the majority of the public, not just those who have self-selected themselves or who we have inveigled into our theatres, our concert halls and our museums. We cannot speak with the gentility and subtlety that often characterizes the best work of our fields and instead create bold, motivational messaging that befits an important industry (and yes, I know how much that word “industry” is reviled by those inside of it, but since money is the core of our need to survive, adopting the language of the marketplace doesn’t sully our reputations).
Is the country oversupplied with arts at this moment? Is the NEA the best vehicle for distributing public monies to the arts? At a time when federal, state and local governments cannot balance their budgets, should the arts remain as expense items? Those are political questions and, per my title, this is not a political blog.
All I know is that if the arts are to operate on any model other than a commercial one, we have to raise funds, from all sources – individual, corporate, foundation and government – at a time when essential services (which I believe the arts to be, lest you be confused by this diatribe) are all under fire. So let’s gather our painters, our sculptors, our actors, our dancers, our singers, our filmmakers and get behind a singular, cohesive message and get it out in the field of public opinion. And let’s be prepared to never stop the campaign, lest other campaigns stop us. It’s a good fight, but it’s also one we’ll never win. The best we will ever do is live to fight the good fight another day.
P.S. This strikes me as the right moment to mention that the opinions in blog entries written by me are solely mine, and do not represent an institutional position of the American Theatre Wing.
Posted on Monday, February 14th, 2011 at 11:22 am
by Howard Sherman
Filed under: Uncategorized
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