Last week, it was announced in the Miami Herald that Florida Stage would be filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and closing its doors for good. I am haunted by the thought that the American Theater has just lost an organization without fully grasping the critical role that it played. It appears that the move to a new space was a key factor in financial troubles that eventually left the company with a $1.5 million debt (significant for a theater of its size). This closing has left me feeling sad and disappointed in the trajectory of the American Theater.
Do funders and others understand what is at risk if we cannot sustain the midsized theaters in the US that often take great risks and do great work (think Woolly Mammoth) and often at a fraction of the overhead expense incurred by much larger theaters? As has been noted in the press, Florida Stage was one of the midsized gems in the regional theater in the US. It had a national reputation for producing new work and was a founding and leading member of the National New Play Network (a consortium of midsized theaters that work together to co-commission and produce new plays). However, it seems that this award-winning theater was not sufficiently valued by national and regional funders, donors, and audiences to sustain a $4.1 (or even $3 million) budget. Are we headed for a future in which no theater in the US can commit to a ‘season of new works’ as Florida Stage did for years?
As regards the challenges faced as a result of the move to the new space–well, I wish I could say that this was a surprising result. Unfortunately, over the past few decades we have seen way too many examples of successful theaters (and other arts organizations) seeking, or being encouraged, to trade-up to niftier digs and then falling into financial turmoil as a result. We all know this story: the first couple years generally go OK as there is often great enthusiasm for the new space and people like to put their names on buildings; 3-5 years later organizations are often panicked when they realize that that ticket sales are coming in lower than projected, the electric bill is higher than projected, and the donors that were so enthused to put their names on a brick or a wall are not quite as enthused to provide additional operating funds to support the mission and pay the running costs. Behind the eight ball, these organizations do not generally close; instead, they often ‘evolve’ their missions to suit their new buildings (i.e., begin taking fewer artistic risks).
The case of Florida Stage appears to be somewhat extreme: it seems that audiences in its new venue were significantly lower than they had been in the year prior to the move. Because they closed so quickly, we’ll never know if they might have been able to sustain a larger budget and still maintain a longstanding commitment to new works.
Last week, I penned a post for Arts Queensland’s blog: Are arts groups creating too much of a good thing, or not enough? Can we answer the question? (It’s essentially on the supply demand issue and evaluation.) In it, I wrote:
Rather than using evaluations to help funders assess and rank organizations based on one public value criterion (e.g. excellence) rather than another (e.g. innovation), perhaps they should be used to help organizations and funders alike better comprehend the arts ecosystem (how it works, where it’s healthy, and where it’s ill) and their role in it; to understand where they are playing an important role; to understand where they may be duplicating efforts or missions with other organizations; and to understand where gaps in the system exist that need to be addressed.
Not all, but certainly many small and midsized theaters are highly valued by playwrights, actors, designers, directors, and others because they will work with artists before they have established themselves (or ‘emerged’ as we sometimes say) and, thereby, help to advace their careers (at which point the larger regional theaters will often pick them up). In other words, many small and midsized theaters appear to be doing critical ‘artist and repertoire development’.
It’s a sad reality that, generally speaking, it’s difficult for even the best midsized theaters to compete against the regional behemoths (with their much larger development departments) to secure high profile board members, high net worth donors, and significant grants (the exception, perhaps, being capital funds to build new buildings). Like salt to the wound, not only are midsized theaters often overlooked by donors and funders, but they often end up reading about much larger theaters being awarded grants that will enable them to commission, develop, or produce one or two new works, or put on a festival of new plays, amidst a season of otherwise safe, if not downright commercial, fare.
I’m not sure why Florida Stage could not attract larger audiences in its new space and there is, no doubt, more to the story than I could glean from the papers. Candidly, I wish the board might have been willing to form a strategic alliance with another organization, or move out of the Kravis Center and relocate back to Manalapan, before closing the doors of the theater ‘for good’. Or, at the very least, I wish that the financial troubles had been made public long before the theater reached the point of no return–allowing for the possibility of a consortium of funders and donors to come together and help the organization dig out of its debt and develop a new business plan.
Perhaps these (and other) options were considered but were not feasible? If so, I’m sorry that Florida Stage was left with no option except to close.
While $1.5 million is a significant amount of money to raise, I hope and trust that in making the decision to close the board members of Florida Stage weighed its debt not simply against the annual operating budget of the theater and the pockets of those board members potentially saddled with the financial burden, but against the critical role and great value provided by Florida Stage in the local, regional, and national artistic landscape. Years from now, I’m betting that artists and funders will be talking with regret about the ‘crucial gap’ that was once filled by Florida Stage and has yet to be replaced by another theater.
Gold cubes image by F. ENOT, licensed at Shutterstock.com.