Supply, Demand, and Rocco Landesman

Robin Pogrebin reported in the Arts Beat column today and online yesterday on NEA chairman Rocco Landesman’s remarks at Arena stage earlier in the week.  He “addressed the problem of struggling theaters. “You can either increase demand or decrease supply,” he said. “Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.””  Ouch!  Pogrebin goes on to report on some typically but understandably defensive responses from theatre professionals.  Public Choice economist Tyler Cowen, whose research is funded by the Koch brothers and their various pro-market foundations, posted an excerpt on his blog, inciting a flurry of sarcastic remarks deriding the very concept of public funding for the arts, my own comment excepted.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the full text of Landesman’s remarks, but arts managers would be foolish not to consider them seriously, and not only because he heads the NEA.  What Landesman doesn’t consider in the excerpted comments is that reducing supply is only one way to think about balancing the supply and demand equation.  Another is not to shrink the supply, but rather to alter it, to transform it in order to maintain or grow demand.  What if, for example, new play development focused on innovative forms that would tap into an audience that doesn’t currently go to new plays?  What if new play development focused on plays that speak to audiences that don’t have a voice in the traditional resident theatre? What if the traditional resident theater organization could be radically adapted to be more fluid in structure to support a more flexible supply of plays, and other live performance forms?

For years, the NEA focused on providing “access to excellence” — to getting a more diverse audience into traditional arts venues.  Instead, maybe the NEA can be part of President Obama’s plan to “win the future” by “encouraging American innovation.”  Unfortunately, the president did not stress – OK he didn’t even mention – the importance of arts and culture to that future, but the focus on innovation can and should extend to the arts and culture sector, and not only because of jobs in the creative industries.  The NEA is now requiring that consortium grants demonstrate that projects will meet the NEA definition of innovation.  What we need, however, is “investment” in innovative artists, as well as in arts organizations.  As the president noted, its not always profitable for a company to invest in R&D, so the government has to intervene by directly “investing” in the development of innovative ideas like, for example, the internet.  Similarly, government investment is needed to seed innovative ideas in arts and culture.  Then, we may have a supply of artworks for which there is more than an adequate share of demand.

(you can follow Linda on twitter @LindaInPhoenix)

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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6 Responses to Supply, Demand, and Rocco Landesman

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  6. As a Member of the National Council on the Arts, the presidentially appointed and senate confirmed oversight body for the National Endowment for the Arts, I respectfully and energetically disagree with Rocco Landesman’s assertion that demand will not grow and his assessment of the field. I think it’s important that readers understand that Rocco Landesman’s opinions are his own and do not represent an official agency opinoin. While he may have the pulpit and position to air his personal views, I do wish he’d be more thoughtful about their consequences – particularly in light of the fact that two weeks ago 165 elected members of Congress called for the defunding of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

    The National Endowment’s Chairman says we have too much art for the dwindling audiences in the United States and then suggests we stop paying arts administrators so we can use the money to create more art.

    Chairman Landesmann is not a trained Supply Side Economist, nor does NEA have an economist on its staff. Despite his self-esteem for his economic theories he really is completely unqualified to propose supply side economic models. By trade, prior to his appointment to the National Endowment, he was a commercial, Broadway theater producer that gambled well. He’s basing his assumptions on research that was not gathered for economics forecasting. Nor is the research for the participation survey statistically sophisticated enough for economic forecasting or modeling.

    My opinion, having read the survey, is that I’m not convinced arts audiences are dwindling despite the reports. I actually believe they may be increasing. I think people are getting their needs met in this market in ways the participation survey he’s reading do not capture. For instance, the survey doesn’t include attendance at the movies. We can go to the movie theater to see the National Theater of Great Britain’s production of King Lear starring Derek Jacobi, or the Metropolitan Opera and that would not be in the survey.

    I believe the research analyst at the Endowment would be hard pressed and unqualified to propose economic models based on the participation survey.

    The National Endowment for the Arts just published a new Strategic Plan that calls for supporting broadest access possible for the most excellent art in the nation. Rocco’s skin diving into economic theories side tracks him from the mission of the agency, while he indulges himself and distresses the nation’s arts community in self-important musings that have little veracity and are not part of his job description.

    The amount of art we have is perfect. The sizes of our audiences are perfect and can evolve. Let’s focus on getting great art into the hearts of as many Americans possible and get the NEA back on its mandated track.

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