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About American Theatre Wing

This Is Not A Political Blog

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
Filed under: Uncategorized.

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9 Responses to “This Is Not A Political Blog”

  1. Tweets that mention This Is Not A Political Blog -- Topsy.com Says:
    February 14th, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by AmericanTheatre Wing, Gwydion Suilebhan, Fronkensteen, Tyler York, Emerson Stage and others. Emerson Stage said: RT @thewing: Cotton, milk, cheese, arts? That’s the question posed by our exec dir @HESherman in his weekly blog: http://ow.ly/3W6kf [...]

  2. Rachel Fink Says:
    February 14th, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    Howard – Thanks for posting this. Couldn’t agree more. And this is exactly the reason we’re starting an teen arts advocacy group at Berkeley Rep. More info to follow over the next few weeks.
    All the best, Rachel

  3. Harry Says:
    February 14th, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    The Arts are such a fabric of our lives that we forget sometimes that not everyone feels that way. In this year’s climate perhaps the best argument to be made is that NEA grants create JOBS! My wife and I are free-lance musicians and play with several small orchestras in the region. These ensembles depend on local, state and federal grant money to stay afloat and pay their members. Without these grants, they hire fewer musicians and put on fewer concerts. The same argument can be made for theaters that depend on grants; fewer dollars equals fewer (and probably smaller) shows and fewer paychecks to Americans who need the work.

  4. David J. Loehr Says:
    February 14th, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    As someone living and working in a county of less than 25,000, I’ve been grateful for support from the NEA (via our state arts commission) for the last seven years. In that time, we’ve produced shows consistently, including several new plays, and we’ve provided workshops for students and the occasional all-ages play presented free of charge to the community. Our local support has grown in that time, and we’ve been able to tour the region with productions as well. I don’t want to think about how little of that would have happened without the NEA’s support.

    Ours is an underserved area when it comes to the arts. Sadly, our newly elected representative–for whom I did not vote–appears to be one of the representatives leading the push for this new round of cuts.

  5. This Is Not A Political Blog | The Content Beast Says:
    February 14th, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    [...] Origin: American Theatre Wing [...]

  6. Shoshana Fanizza Says:
    February 15th, 2011 at 12:08 am

    I agree with the majority of what is written here. We do need to stop talking amongst ourselves and engage in conversations with people outside of our arts bubble. We also need to make our arguments relevant. What does not make sense to me is the fact that the very people that are calling for cuts are not the people that do not work with artists or partake in the arts. This has been a puzzle for me personally. I see that politicians employ artists to entertain for their functions, design for their campaigns, and write their speeches. I also see them enjoying a performance or two during their time off. I think it is not the case that they do not know the value of the arts, but rather that they take the arts for granted.

    The arts are a relevant and intrinsic part of our lives, but people, while they are going about their daily lives, seem to be oblivious that it is art that is surrounding them. All the creative thinking, the music, the designs, the photographs, the posters, etc., people are forgetting where they come from. They mainly are created by people that have had the arts touch their lives and have chosen to create art for others. Without arts education and the benchmark arts to inspire us, our world would be a blank canvas without any color.

    My viewpoint is, yes, we need to express why the arts are valuable to people, but what may even be more crucial is to help people realize why the arts are valuable to them in their daily lives. It is time to stop taking the arts for granted.

  7. Phil Rickaby » Blog Archive » The Importance of the Arts and Government Funding Says:
    February 15th, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    [...] Howard Sherman, the director of the American Theatre Wing posted a blog entitled This is not a Political Blog.  In this blog post, he opens a discussion about why governments find it so easy to cut arts [...]

  8. Bari Hochwald Says:
    February 16th, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Howard, thank you for posting this. I feel as you do that our language must change. But I also think it is vital that we begin listening to our audience and to those who are not ‘in the club’ as of yet. They are telling us something in a language that possibly we are not able to hear, but which we must find a way to translate in order to have a different type of dialogue.

    It is possible that I reach for these metaphors of language having worked abroad for several years. By choosing to introduce a ‘new form’ of arts engagement and international theatre in Italy I understood the only way to do this was to develop a mission fundamentally rooted in service to and engagement with the community of the city with all its diversity. As well as reflect that community in our professional work. Our organization was focused on 60% outreach and 40% production (each production also included elements of community outreach and engagement). As a result we quickly became ‘vital’ to many members of the community and relevant to many people in government.

    Coming back to the states and forming a new entity, The Global Theatre Project, during this interesting time of discourse I feel enthused because I feel quite the opposite of Rocco Landesman. I do not feel there is not enough demand. I feel we have not taped into the enormous demand that exists because we have not chosen to speak the language of ‘that community.’

  9. Lex Leifheit — The Evolution of Private Label: Is Your Programming Incandescent? Says:
    March 2nd, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    [...] online dialogue about how we communicate the value of the arts, including some excellent essays by Howard Sherman and Arlene [...]

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