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)