Salon NOTEBOOK: Difficult Conversations: Supply and Demand
by Zachary Whittenburg
At the beginning of this year at a conference in Washington, D.C., the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts said, with regard to theater companies in the United States, "You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply."
Rocco Landesman hit a nerve.
A week later, in reply to the flood of responses his statement generated--many of them ending in multiple interrobangs--Landesman offered another observation. "There are 5.7 million arts workers in this country and two million artists," he said. "Do we need three administrators for every artist?"
These salvos would not have triggered such debate if there was no discussion to be had. On November 3 at the Chicago Cultural Center, in tandem with the Creatives at Work Forum series held there, a panel gathered by the Chicago Dancemakers Forum kept the conversation alive. Are there too many arts organizations? asked its abstract, plainly. And then the D-word appeared: Would the Chicago dance community be stronger if there were fewer companies seeking the same dollars? Dollars from funders or dollars from the public? Both? The conversation was growing even before it began. And then the announcement concluded: Should we take a Darwinist approach, or adopt a new paradigm?
Within this last are nested, like Matryoshka dolls, so many more questions. Each represents the various characters in a vast, diverse, quickly changing city (in a vast, diverse, quickly changing nation).
Early into the two-hour discussion, a crucial follow-up query: Is an artist a person who "arts" all day to earn a living? We were reminded by Kelly Kleiman, a cultural reporter and theater critic for Chicago Public Media program Eight Forty-Eight, that Anton Chekhov was a doctor.
A swift volley to Landesman's contentious assertion might be, Why even bother to position art as a commodity, a thing that lies between suppliers and demanders? Nearly 20 percent of "dance buyers" are "people who ‘regularly' take dance lessons, perform in front of live audiences or choreograph," according to Dance/USA and WolfBrown's Engaging Dance Audiences survey, published last year with data from more than 7,400 respondents nationwide. To these "Active or Serious Dancers," add audience members who also are casual or social dancers, and you have a 57 percent overlap between viewers and doers.
Ian David Moss, research director for NYC-based service organization Fractured Atlas, said in effect that this overlap is fertile soil for growth on both "sides" of the arts market. "Awakening the creative spirit that is in every person is key," he proposed, "to making the arts more meaningful to people, and to increasing the likelihood that they will become arts consumers."
Now, just because there are people, dancers or otherwise, who will pay 15 to 50 dollars to see a dance company perform, doesn't mean that they'd spend the same amount to watch your Uncle Norm cut a rug. Questions of quality--and what that even means, and who decides what it means--wrap around and through this subject like hardened, thorny vines.
Joan Gray outlined her inclusive definition of what constitutes quality. "We don't get the right to denigrate other people" in the course of artmaking, she said but, beyond that, art is what "helps people feel good about themselves and step outside what is affecting them in their lives." Gray is president of Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, a dance and music troupe whose performances are uplifting the way that strapping two rockets to your back is uplifting. Muntu's work is about "finding ways to put one foot in front of the other, to keep moving forward," she said.
Added Gray, "I made the decision to be an artist before I got paid for it."
Moss said that Fractured Atlas doesn't make qualitative distinctions, either. "That's not our job." It is Kleiman's job. But when panel moderator Meida McNeal asked at the start of the discussion, "What do the arts contribute, and what is their state in our 21st-century economy?" the critic didn't answer with bouquets and daggers.
Artists "are always going to lose if we continue to talk about it in those terms," responded Kleiman. "It's a question that [they] shouldn't have to answer in the first place." Many performers don't make much money from their creative work, and thus collectively make a smaller impact on the economy than those who, for example, are in the business of building weapons. "That doesn't mean that we should give up the arts for weapons production, which is the analysis that we encourage," by asking artists to justify their ventures by proving return on investment, she said.
Peter Handler, program director at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, replied, "I'm going to take issue with my good friend Kelly."
"I'm shocked," responded Kleiman, smiling.
"If you don't engage the argument" of what the arts contribute tangibly to society as a whole, Handler argued, "then you've already lost. Some people only understand dollars and multiplier effects and, if we can't talk to [those people], I think we've lost a certain segment before the conversation has even begun." Calling highways an "indirect subsidy to the makers of vehicles," Handler asked, "Why not subsidize the arts? Get in line and make your case. That's what everybody else is doing. We shouldn't diminish the value of the arts by saying, ‘Okay, we'll go get our money somewhere else.'"
Echoing Moss's observation that artists such as van Gogh and Robert Johnson were destitute within their lifetimes, Kleiman was quick to clarify that whether or how much an artist gets paid does not relate "in any way" to the quality of his or her work. And to her point about artists who, like Chekhov did, rely on other income for their livelihoods, "One could argue that those broader experiences feed their art," she observed. "I feel that an artist's participation in other aspects of life is really, really important."
The Small Theater and Dance program at the Driehaus Foundation that Handler directs grants to companies with annual budgets of less than $150,000. "We never said anything about helping people make a living," he clarified. "It was always about supporting the artmaking."
"I'm bullish on the health of the arts in this country," he said, during an audience response following the panel discussion. "I know people who work one or two extra jobs, but they're also making great art."
Gray concurred. "Artists aren't entitled to resources beyond any other industry or field. We don't have an innate right to make money, to make a living."
Supply and demand in the context of culture is inextricably linked to representation. The ideological and political aspects of arts funding didn't come up explicitly until the audience response, but there was a lot of talk during the panel about racial and socio-economic diversity--and rightly so. Moss reminded us that the United States is approaching being majority non-white; four states, in fact, are already there.
Gray noted a growing push for arts organizations' boards to more closely resemble their communities than their donor bases, but added, "you can't mandate attitude" when it comes to diversity. "You can't mandate acceptance of difference.... Foundations have to be laid, relationships have to be cultivated," if communicating across cultural divides is deemed important.
A significant point, considering, as Kleiman put it, that "if your arts organization has always spoken to upper-class white people, then the likelihood that that audience is going to demand more diversity in programming is very low." If such an organization, for whatever reason, values a diverse audience anyway, "supply has to precede demand," she stated.
And so the discussion, which had gone slightly past its scheduled ending time, and yet also is only just beginning, found its way back to its original queries. How do we ensure that people demand art from their communities well into the future, and that meaningful art exists to satisfy that demand? (Handler made the poignant observation that, while there is no shortage of people in their twenties and thirties making art, there are people in their forties, fifties and sixties "who I would like to hear more from" as creative beings.) Supply and demand is a basic principle in a market economy and, in many ways, performance--art experienced in public--functions along the same lines.
But artists aren't like entrepreneurs, said Moss. Businesspeople who can't find ways to be profitable in an industry tend to exit that industry. If artists can't make money doing what they do, oftentimes, they keep doing it anyway, to quell a hunger to which no other activity will bring relief. Possible explanations for that behavior, said Moss, "range from the very inspiring to the very cynical."
The Chicago Dancemakers Forum's 2011-12 Salon series continues in with a discussion on categorization and identity, Difficult Conversations: Do Labels Matter? at performance-art gallery DEFIBRILLATOR. Exact Date is TBD and will be announced soon!
Read Rocco Landesman's original article on the NEA Blog HERE