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Financial Shakeout: Do We Need Fewer Arts Organizations?

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Rocco Landesman, chairman, National Endowment for the Arts

Rocco Landesman has mouthed off again, and the news may not be good for Peoria.

But this time, I think that Rock-the-Boat Rocco has expressed some hard truths that have relevance not only to the world of theater, which he knows the most about, but also, perhaps, to the world of art museums.

In his post yesterday on the blog of the National Endowment for the Arts, which he chairs, Landesman expanded upon comments he made at a recent conference on the future of American theater at the Arena Stage, Washington.

On Friday, Peter Marks of the Washington Post reported:

In a session Wednesday, Landesman suggested that the field may be too crowded for its own good. “We’re overbuilt,” he declared, to an audience in Arena’s newest space, the Kogod Cradle. “There are too many theaters.”

Needless to say, this provoked a storm of controversy.

But in a recessionary era that has, perhaps, disproportionately challenged the arts (which are regarded by many funders as a “frill” in tight times), there’s bound to be a shakeout. The weakest institutions—those that haven’t built a strong audience and a solid financial base—may not survive.

This goes for museums as well as theaters. I’ve had the same thoughts as Landesman recently, particularly prompted by the plight of an institution close to my own home—the endangered Jersey City Museum. I’ve kept quiet out of reluctance to express any disrespect towards a small, struggling local art institution, with worthy goals and exhibitions, that’s been floundering for a long time. Its home page now lists no current or future exhibitions or events.

The situation for art museums is more complicated than that for theaters, because many small, embattled art venues, like the Jersey City Museum, own collections that should, according to professional guidelines, not be sold out of the public domain to defray debts. If the worst occurs, such institutions should make every effort to find a home for their holdings in other public institutions, preferably in the same geographic area.

I wish the Jersey City Museum well. I’ve visited there several times, but rarely. With the proximity of the cultural riches of Manhattan, not to mention the Newark Museum, it’s been fighting an uphill battle for visitors and supporters for a long time.

In my most recent Huffington Post entry, which amplified slightly my recent CultureGrrl posts about federal arts funding and the President’s “State of the Union” address, I ended by observing:

Arts funding is certainly not sacrosanct and is apt to be adjusted as
part of a government-wide effort to reduce the deficit. In the likely
event that cultural support is trimmed but not eliminated, the
President’s smoked-salmon punchline may acquire new resonance for arts mavens. As all bagels-and-lox lovers
know, the most skilled practitioners behind the deli counter slice it
extra thin, making a little nova go a long way.

No matter how you slice it, though, a little can’t go as far as a lot. A scarcity of resources may have dire consequences for certain arts institutions.

And now, like Landesman, I should probably duck.

Speaking of scarce resources, my warm thanks go out to CultureGrrl Repeat Donor 155 from New York City.

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