A new talk: Our long tug of war in the arts

coconut groveA couple weeks back I gave a talk in Australia at the annual conference of APACA (the Australian Performing Arts Center Association). It’s called Living in the struggle: Our long tug of war in the arts. I would characterize this as a rather existential talk, concerning our necessary missions and the free market society in which we now exist, and the different directions they so often seem to pull us. The first section of the talk is called Mission, Markets, Morals, and Mice. In it, I recount the highlights of a newly published experimental study (from Germany) that recently garnered the headline in one journal, “Markets make us less moral.”

Here’s how this experiment worked:

The researchers put participants into three groups. The first group was simply presented with two options: accept the death of a lab mouse and receive ten euros; or forego the money and the mouse lives. They were shown a picture of the mouse and a video of the process that would be used to euthanize the mouse. In this scenario 46% of people said they would allow the mouse to be killed in exchange for ten euros.

In a second scenario—a bilateral market, with one buyer and one seller—the seller was given the mouse and told, “the life of the mouse is entrusted to your care” but you can sell the mouse to the buyer (for a negotiated amount up to a predetermined maximum) and the mouse will be killed. In this scenario a much higher percentage of sellers–72%–said they would allow their mouse to be killed in exchange for money.

The third scenario was a multilateral market, with multiple buyers and sellers, and the percentage selling their mouse was slightly higher still: 76%.

The researchers then ran the experiment with coupons instead of mice. In this study, in contrast to the study with the mice, the percentages were the same across all three groups. What the researchers make of this finding is that the marketplace effects, in particular, our “moral decisions” rather than our more “neutral decisions.”

So why did I raise this experiment as a topic of discussion?

Because I would assert the following: (1) for a nonprofit arts organization, what to program, where, for whom, and at what price are not just business decisions, they are moral decisions; (2) the lines between the market and voluntary (i.e., nonprofit) sectors matter and we, thus, need to question our motives for choosing some works or strategies, over others; and (3) if, for arguments sake, we think of our mice as the artists we exist to support and the local communities we exist to serve, some of us may be sacrificing our mice, so to speak, in an effort to thrive in this “market society” (to use a term I first encountered in Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy.

In the end this new talk is an attempt to suggest that while the arts sector has grown and proved to have tremendous staying power that we may have done so at the expense of the goals, values, and ideals that we set out to achieve in the first place.

As an example, in doing my research on the evolution of the resident theater movement over the past several decades, I recently came across an article from 1992 about Arnold Mittelman’s tenure at the now defunct Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami.* The article opens with the following quote, which seems to perfectly encapsulate the heart of my talk:

Like the village that surrounds it, the Coconut Grove Playhouse has lived to middle age in more-or-less constant tension, its stage the locus of a long tug of war between art and commerce, spiritual ideals, and materialistic forces.

For those that don’t know, the Coconut Grove Playhouse began as a movie theater but was purchased, renovated, and reopened on January 3, 1956 as a playhouse. Its first production was the US premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In 1982, actor-director José Ferrer was named Artistic Director and under his supervision the Playhouse gained a reputation as one of the nation’s leading resident theatres. In 1985, Arnold Mittelman was selected after a national search to succeed Ferrer. Mittleman was at first hailed as a savior for pulling the organization out of financial crisis. Before too long, however, some of Mittelman’s methods of salvation began to raise eyebrows. He was criticized for failure to take artistic risks; failure to provide local artists with a place to hone their talents; for having overtly commercial producing ambitions; and for receiving excessive compensation and perks. There were comments in the article like this one …

It galls us that a state-supported institution, a regional institution, does not in fact hire Florida actors. … Mittelman is clearly acting like any other commercial entrepreneur, but under the guise of a state-supported institution.

Or this …

 I’m fed up not just with the fact that Mittelman won’t employ local talent, I’m fed up with the fare he keeps bringing here … A regional theater should be doing cutting-edge stuff.

Or finally …

What we need is someone who is developing more than tried-and-true box office successes. If you’ve got a state theater that’s also supported by contributions, you ought to be less worried about selling tickets and take some more risks. As it is, we’re looked upon as a sort of cruise ship on terra firma.

Towards the end of the article, Mittelman defends his actions on the basis that the world of regional theater had changed significantly from what it was even a few years before. He asserts that achieving those original ideals—(e.g. supporting a local company of actors and producing “serious” fare rather than musicals)—was no longer the goal of his theater or a majority of resident theaters. In essence, he describes an evolution in resident theaters and suggests that he is being judged against a standard set at a different time, when the environment could support the ideals of the pioneers of the movement–pioneers like Zelda Fichandler who (in a 2011 talk) remarked on the formation of the resident theater movement, saying:

What drew us to the way we went? What was the vision, the inciting incident? Actually, there was no incident, no high drama, there was simply a change of thought, a new way of looking at things, a tilt of the head, a revolution in our perception. We looked at what we had – the hit-or-miss; put-it-up, tear-it-down; make-a-buck, lose-a-buck; discontinuous; artist-indifferent; New York-centered ways of Broadway, and they weren’t tolerable anymore, and it made us angry. …

The fabric of the thought that propelled us was that theatre should stop serving the function of making money, for which it has never been and never will be suited, and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living, for which it is uniquely suited, for which it, indeed, exists. The new thought was that theatre should be restored to itself as a form of art.

Nobody was looking for us, peering through the window, watching for us to come to relieve the boredom and unawareness of their lives. It was we who had to teach and persuade them to want what we wanted to give them. And we had to insist on it for their own good, but, really, for our own, if we were honest enough to admit that. … Nobody called us, but we came.

The evolution Mittleman described in 1992 has continued apace.

In the “long tug of war” it seems that art has ceded quite a bit of ground to commerce and that many of the ideals of the resident theater movement have eroded in the face of larger economic, social, and cultural forces in the world.

We have witnessed a long creep towards commercialism in the nonprofit sector in the US generally (not only in the arts), in part, because this is what the American system seems to encourage. What happened to resident theaters? Perhaps it was the same thing that happened to nonprofit hospitals and other social service organizations? In his 2003 book The Resilient Sector, Lester Salamon addresses the evolution of the nonprofit sector in the US in the face of a host of pressures. What he asserts, provocatively, is that US nonprofits have proven to be extremely resilient in the face of such pressures, but that the strategies they have employed to survive have, over time, moved them in the direction of the market and farther away from their missions, what he calls their “distinctive purpose.” Salamon ultimately argues that a better balance needs to be struck between the things that make nonprofits special and the things nonprofits need to do in order to survive. (See pages 75-87.)

Reading Salamon, it seems that the much heralded resilience that many of us have achieved in recent years has perhaps required us to un-tether ourselves from our missions. It’s taken for granted these days that large resident theaters regularly hire NY actors rather than local actors, have done away with both repertory and acting companies with rare exception, send musicals to Broadway, and pay their leaders quite decent salaries.

But it wasn’t always thus; and, as the article on Mittelman suggests, at one point such organizational behaviors gave us pause.

After my talk I had several really interesting conversations with the delegates. In particular, one participant came up to me at a tea break and said, “Your talk made me realize I gave up my mice a couple years ago and I need to get them back.”

I would suggest the same is true of more than a few nonprofit arts organizations out there.

Yes, Mittelman is right, the world has changed. We are in the middle of a decades-long tug of war. If the winds were on our side at the beginning of this tug of war, it seems they have shifted. It is harder and harder for us to defend the existence of our organizations on any level except, perhaps, economic impact (and, as I’ve written about before, we need to be very cautious about going down that path).

I don’t believe we win this tug of war by dropping the rope—by denying our missions or denying this market society. Though, when we are tired after decades in the trenches, it sure can be tempting to throw down the rope. As we drift into middle age many of us let go of our ideals … We need to watch out for this when we are laboring in pursuit of something greater than ourselves. And I’m talking to myself as much as anyone else reading this post.

We win by figuring out how to stay in the struggle. The struggle is our mission.

I ended my talk writing:

There’s a saying that my husband frequently uses (in reference to himself): “Weed never dies.” I gather it is a phrase that has come to have many interpretations, the most obvious that pesky or wild people are often hard to deter or suppress.

I like this saying.

Here’s the thing about weeds: they are rarely cultivated, much less fertilized, but they show up anyway. And they are unapologetic about it. They are often quite hearty. And their strategy is to overwhelm.

I sometimes think what we need is to overwhelm this market society with bold, ambitious art. And we must not be apologetic about it. We must not wait to be asked.

Remember Zelda Fichandler’s words:

Nobody was looking for us, peering through the window, watching for us to come to relieve the boredom and unawareness of their lives. It was we who had to teach and persuade them to want what we wanted to give them. And we had to insist on it for their own good, but, really, for our own, if we were honest enough to admit that. … Nobody called us, but we came.

Which is another way of saying, “We are here to give people what they need, not what they want.”**

We weren’t meant to blend in … we in the arts. We are the antidote … the resistance … the challengers of the status quo. Though we may be in it, we are not meant to be of this market-driven world.

* Rowe, Sean & Almond, Steven (1992). Coconut Grove Playhouse Feature Story. Miami Herald, 11 March 1992.

** This is a reference to a phenomenal talk by Taylor Mac at last year’s Under the Radar Festival Symposium, called I Believe: A Theater Manifesto.


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  1. says

    I agree whole-heartedly (especially the morning after the Tonys, which ought to remind us what the regional theatre was meant to RESIST). I would add something, however. I don’t think the non-profit model, which is reliant on appealing to the same wealthy people who buy expensive tickets, make contributions, and fund foundations, has succeeded either. I think it is necessary to return, Descartes-like, to the basics and build from the roots up, and to create a model that is not reliant on unearned income, and that is scaled to be able to be mission-driven. The thing about the performing arts and the hospitals that you mention above is that all are being run from large buildings using expensive equipment, and this has a devastating effect on decision-making.

    • says

      Scott, indeed! In fact, my research is trying to examine just this — the relationship between the “nonprofit turn”, so to speak, and how things evolved (or at least that is one major facet of it). This is, in large part, why I’m so looking forward to our new models confab.

    • Tom Arvetis says

      I ask this question genuinely: how do we create something that is mission driven and not rely on unearned income? I am the Producing Artistic Director of a small ($750K) theatre program within the confines of a $10 mil social service agency. Our theatre work is not commercial. We earn 25% of our income from ticket sales and venue rental, 25% from foundations, and almost nothing from individual donors. That leaves 50% to be covered by the agency who, each year, grows wearier of having to make ends meet for us. Especially since we are not their highest programmatic priority. Our only solution at this point is to either (a) make more commercially successful work, (b) rent our space more, or (c) find a way to build, donor by donor, a group of stakeholders committed to our future. I’m not particularly interested in the first option and am trying to get creative with the second by finding a way to curate what is happening in the space and do so in a way that is mutually beneficial to the artist and to us. But the third option feels unavoidable.

      By the way, this is all happening while we continue to try and make work that is immediately relevant to the people who are served by the social service agency (mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants).

      Is my only option to tear down the giant bits that are out of balance and go from there?

      • MWnyc says

        Honestly, I don’t think there is a way to create something that is mission-driven (as opposed to commercial) that is not reliant on unearned income unless everyone involved has day jobs, trust funds, or wealthy and indulgent spouses.

        • MWnyc says

          Well, unless you wind up creating a property like A Chorus Line that becomes an unexpected commercial success and provides income to support all of your loss-making endeavors.

          And really, to a considerable extent A Chorus Line was a stroke of dumb luck for The Public Theater: there was no guarantee that the show’s creators were going to come up with something that good, let alone that it would catch fire with a huge international public over an entire generation and earn income for years and years.

      • says


        your budget size is notable – it seems that when organizations reach this watermark (hovering just under $1 million or so) that the economics really start to shift. You are probably no longer relying heavily on people being paid close to nothing (as many small organizations do), nor can you easily scale down to zero if funding doesn’t arrive. You probably have just enough capacity that you need a reliable revenue stream. However, you are probably also not as competitive in going after grants, etc. as some organizations that are larger than you. It sounds like the three options in front of you are all viable but I would suggest that the third is critical and the other two more a matter of your mission/strategy: (1) do work now and then that has stronger appeal at the box office–this is a tried and true method that Christmas Carol-producing theater companies and Nutcracker-producing ballet companies have utilized for years. A “balanced” season that offsets riskier fare with fare that has known demand is one solution that organizations often pursue; (2) renting space, or finding other ways to maximize utility of your space is also an option if you are in the position of owning or controlling the lease on your space (and, yes, curating the rentals so that you don’t diminish your brand is wise). But also some people are renting their spaces for completely different uses (weddings, corporate meetings, coffee kiosks, yoga classes) so your rental program need not necessarily be limited to productions. (3) I think building a stakeholder base one person at a time is a must. And this is not about being nonprofit – this is about having a loyal fan base, which for-profits need as much as nonprofit. It’s about co-creation of value. So do number three no matter what (even if you’re currently able to balance your budget); because (as arts organizations in the Netherlands found out when government support went away) if you don’t have that loyal base of support, if the grant ever goes away you’re sunk, and because your meaningful existence is tied to having that loyal fan base.

  2. rafaeldeacha says

    Good morning, Dianne! As you may remember I lived in Miami, FL for over twenty-five years during twenty of which I helmed a theatre – New Theatre – which I co-founded with my wife, Kimberly. , I lived and made theatre in South Florida and have vivid memories and strong feelings about what was wrong and what was right and good about Theatre in that region. For the moment I need say no more, other than the fact that your article is tremendously insightful and oh-so-timely! Thank you for all the good work you do and your cautionary words of wisdom.

    Rafael de Acha

  3. says

    Well said. Well-put. Well-reasoned. And pertains equally to art museums, symphonies and ballet companies and all of the ways cultural institutions choose to organize and curate individual artists (both living and dead). The commitment to balance home-grown with far-flung talent should be deliberate and lead back to mission. After all, all those New York actors (and playwrights) came from places they didn’t fit in and/or couldn’t make a living.
    But this isn’t just up to the artistic and managerial staff. Board members and funders who value money over mission make this a delicate dance. With no capital reserves or significant sources of R&D risk-capital, who can blame theaters, et.al for choosing commerce over creativity and risk? It’s okay for the NBA to lose $400M (they are taking risks and investing in the future of the sport) but heaven forbid a theater is a nickel in the red. The drumbeat is relentless.
    Here in Silicon Valley young tech start-ups attract and spend millions of dollars. Most of them will fail. But the process is valued as indicative of the value of entrepreneurialism. By the same token, millions of dollars is spent on scientific research and the development of professional athletes. Not all of them will win the Nobel prize or Olympic gold. But the PROCESS is valued. In my own work, it’s the rare donor who understands that artists alone on a mountain, with no work or community engagement requirements, make the world a more vibrant place. Artists need space a time.
    Somewhere, somehow the love and respect of the artistic process has gotten lost. Investors and donors in the arts have a year-to-year window focused on outcomes. There is a low tolerance for risks that fail to result in earned income gold. To me, this isn’t just a conversation about new models but a change in the way we institutionalize and invest in individual artists and the creative process. It also means we need to change how we measure success to include money at the beginning of the process as well as the end.

    • says

      If I could respond to Margot… “After all, all those New York actors (and playwrights) came from places they didn’t fit in and/or couldn’t make a living.” Actually, they can’t make a living in NY either — 58% of Actors Equity members didn’t make a dime in the theatre last year, and 87% would have made more flipping burgers for minimum wage. So the idea that people go to NYC to make a living is the kind of story we tell young artists to lure them away from other places. I would be willing to wager that you could make zero dollars a year doing theatre pretty much anywhere in the country! So if you don’t “fit in” where you were born, find somewhere else that you feel comfortable, put down roots, live and create there. Figure out how to make a theatre is sustainable where you are (hint: it isn’t using the same model as an established big box theatre or Broadway), figure out who your audience is, come down off your mountain and talk to the people.

      • says

        Excellent point, Scott. Having been one of those New York actors in my youth, I understand the economics as well. (I had just enough talent to make me miserable and hated waiting for other people to give me work–I ended up writing and presenting plays about wheat-farming and women’s history in rural corners of Washington State). My comment was more to suggest we shouldn’t in any way denigrate “New York” actors in an everyone-is-doing-the-best-they-can effort.
        In Orlando, Walt Disney World puts more dinner on actors’ tables than the non-profit theaters do BUT BECAUSE of the commercial work for actors (and musicians and directors and scene designers) the theater scene is pretty vibrant. The creativity spills over onto the non-profit stages. I agree–if you can do it–make art where you are.

    • says


      Excellent points. I do recognize (as the passage on Salamon’s Resilient Sector suggests) that organizations are responding to unceasingly uncertain environments and that the decks are, in many ways, stacked against risk taking. And, yes, the commercial world does manage to pay artists pretty well relative to nonprofits and that is, in large part, to do with their producing model. It is also notable to me that many Broadway producers operate with a bare bones staff of only a few people.

      • says

        Commercial producers do work with bare bones staff, but it is important to factor in that commercial producers also outsource many departments, like PR/Advertising/Accounting/Casting, that institutional theaters keep in-house.

  4. Aaron Andersen says

    The prevalent cost structures of large regional performing arts nonprofits cannot have been supported without the increasingly commercial shift you’ve described. So it’s all well and good to offer up a rallying cry, but to actually do anything about it, you need to change cost structures of major nonprofits.

    The biggest expenses in large performing arts nonprofits are salaries and debt service. The debt service is usually in support of a big building project. You can make a very cogent case that nonprofit arts orgs ought to stop with the building projects, especially a certain major regional theater from the midwest, celebrated at the Tony’s, that engages in quite a lot of real estate business. But you can’t divest the debt already on the books without going into bankruptcy or selling off the property (and it’s not exactly a great time for that). Avoiding such costs is a prescription for arts orgs which haven’t already saddled themselves with debt; those which haven’t yet had to get into the facilities management or real estate businesses.

    On the salaries side of the equation, we hear a lot about administrator salaries. However, there is another big piece of the cost structure that has continued to expand in the performing arts that is almost never raised in these conversations: artist compensation. And in quite a few ensembles, this is a piece that is significantly bigger than administrator salaries, even though non-administrators tend not to believe this. Regional theaters and other performing arts nonprofits have generally and genuinely embraced the professionalization of performers, directors, designers, stagehands, etc. And that’s a good thing, compared to the situation several decades ago. But cost growth for these performers has, in many cases, greatly outstripped both inflation and earned revenue growth (which, for a large performing arts nonprofit, is generally pretty close to inflation). The only way for an organization to keep up and pay artists competitively is to rely more and more on contributed revenue. Or to produce works with fewer performers. Or to find ways to inject more earned revenue, which is where the enhancement money from Broadway or other bemoaned commercial choices come into the picture. There is no artistically “pure” way to do it without simply downsizing the whole works. Then, you’re back to a situation where artists (and yes, administrators), can no longer afford to work full-time in their chosen profession.

    I’m not blaming artists. And like I said, there are other parts of the cost structure that have ballooned, too. But If you’re going to compare artists to mice for sale in that study (which is a massively egregious generalization), then you have to simply understand or admit that the mice have gotten more and more expensive to maintain, largely because we’ve tried to make it possible for them to work full time in the arts. I’d say the same thing for administrators, both because there is no need to put an us-vs-them framework on this, but also because I think we’ve pushed for the increasing professionalization of administrators, too, and I also think this is a good thing. Nonprofit regional arts organizations of significant size are the primary venues in which we’ve attempted to achieve this, outside of New York.

    If you want artists to be paid well to create what they create, with the support of administrators who actually know how to do things like sell tickets, then these ever increasing costs are the natural result.

    • says


      you make some excellent points … I’ve often commented that when we started building Broadway-sized venues in the regions we should not have been surprised that we needed to start producing Broadway fare, so to speak, to fill the houses. Certainly the professional and corporate turns, as well as growth in fixed costs, and competition for both audiences and contributions, seem to have contributed to what appears to be a strong pressure to shift goals and embrace more commercial programming. What’s curious to me, however, is that not all theaters followed this path. There are notable exceptions. This would seem to suggest that the causal mechanisms are complex and it’s not only a matter of buildings, or growth in administrative or artistic expenses, but that other factors come into play.

      And just to clarify–I equate the “mice” in the study first and foremost with “mission” and then extrapolate that one way to think about mission is the commitment that organizations make to artists (and the creation of art) and to their communities. I would assert that nonprofit organizations have an obligation to both (assuming both are part of the mission at the get go). So “sacrificing one’s mice” is really code for “losing sight of one’s mission”. But I do apologize if the analogy was in any way offensive.

      Thanks for your comments.

      • Aaron Andersen says

        I guess I was a little offended by the mice-performer connection I admit I made. That surprises me a little bit…

        But even if we’re talking about mission and not mice, my point is that the generalization of the study to an organization’s mission creep is still a big leap. Were the study subjects champions of mice welfare who believed that little lab mice could change lives and therefore need to be supported? Because the administrators I know leading performing arts nonprofits actually do believe that about their missions.

        I know the point is really the delta between the behavior when there is an intermediate party or multilateral parties as contrasted to direct decision making. But we’re still just talking about mice. There are several orders of magnitude between mice and mission.

        • says

          OK – point taken … I like the study because it encourages me to think about how markets can influence our our “moral decisions” … and I believe those running nonprofits must deal with markets all the time, and they must make moral decisions all the time. I actually had the talk written and then found the study a week before I gave the talk and thought it was a nice hook into the subject – but perhaps not. Perhaps I reached too far with the analogy. Thanks for the feedback.

  5. Peter Rybolt says

    Is that the difference, then? That not-for-profit companies are moral and for-profit companies are invariably amoral? A few years ago when I heard my finance prof utter that nonsense about maximizing shareholder wealth I wretched. But I’ve come nearly full circle. Nearly.

    It’s not that we are incapable of balancing the needs and interests of multiple stakeholders, it’s that our horizon is too short. The mistake most companies make — profit and otherwise — is in maximizing shareholder wealth only in the current quarter (and yes we can talk about misplaced incentives and moral hazard if you want). If, instead, we adopt a long-term view, as a few more enlightened companies do, then the attention we give to our other stakeholders makes quite a bit more sense. If we invest in environmental controls, for example, we may reap the long-term benefits of a cleaner environment or simply avoid costly litigation, either of which may serve to maximize shareholder wealth.

    I believe the same thinking can be applied to not-for-profit firms. We can — and I believe should — hold financial health not as an end unto itself but simply as the least ambiguous measure of our efforts to serve our communities. And financial health, once achieved, in turn permits us to take greater risks.

    I am not proposing that we all start doing musicals. I recall an interview not long ago in which a young arts leader asserted that he had never made a programming choice based on financial concerns but then added (and I’m paraphrasing, as I don’t have the article in front of me) “There’s an audience for what we do, and I’m sure we can reach them by staying committed to our ideals.” I think the second statement contradicts the first. By “staying true to our ideals,” we in fact define our audience, and that is a commercial choice. And that choice should inform our choices about ticket inventory, our marketing strategies, our pricing policies, and our investment in the production. Instead, most of us seem to produce every show, and every season, with precisely the same inventory and precisely the same prices, and that’s simply illogical.

    I would suggest, humbly, that in fact it is in focusing on some perceived moral imperative that we sacrifice the most mice.

    • says


      I like your comment very much. I think the analogy to short-term versus long-term horizons is exactly right. And, yes, to the degree that commitment to a mission equals commitment to an institutionalized process then we have lost the plot, so to speak. We are dead (metaphorically) if we are not able to dynamically respond to both artists and our communities.

      Oh – and, no, I don’t see nonprofit as moral and for-profit as amoral … I’m glad you raised the question.

      Thanks, again, for the astute comments.

  6. Don McKee says

    The marketplace is about the real. Art is about ideals. This is the dilemma of human life itself. Marketplace values seem to come from what we are whereas the ideal seems more related to what we would like to believe we are. The problem lies in that we don’t know what we essentially are. Failure to succeed here will at least have something to do with the problem of wisely discerning the relationship between the real and the ideal in our humane makeup. What are you trying to sell? To whom are you trying to sell it?
    Is might also a problem for you that you are trying to gain the presence of people to a specific physical place who can go anywhere, anytime, in a split second while sitting in front of their computer monitors? In these changing times when something isn’t working well, it may well be less our fault than it is sheer cultural, historical inevitability.

  7. says

    Diane, your point about motive is timely in the wake of Sunday’s Tony Awards, but I’d strongly caution and remind everyone that the pipeline of work from nonprofits to Broadway, be they New York-based or regional, has been established for at least 30 years, if not more. In 1983, Nine won the Tony for Best Musical and in the dim reaches of memory I recall a lot of chatter about the fact that it had been developed, in part, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. It’s arrival on Broadway came just one season after ‘night, Mother became the second play in a three-year span to win the Pulitzer Prize after a presentation at the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville; the other play was Crimes of the Heart. All three productions were produced commercially (I could cite a million others) and it seems to me that the model—a kind of courtesy wall between nonprofit and commercial—seemed to work until perhaps Rent in the mid-1990s, when nonprofits discovered that having a fiscal interest in work they develop is fair game, fair compensation. Well, once nonprofits asserted the moral authority to a financial stake in the work they produce, was it not equally moral for commercial interests to reciprocate? The fact that the nonprofit business model has faced, to paraphrase, a long and agonizing creep toward collapse, therefore making commercial investment opportunities harder to resist, strikes me as coincidental more than causational.

    My examples, I should add, merely highlight the problem of the theatre world perceiving New York as the all-powerful Oz, at the expense of correctly valuing other kingdoms.

    But let’s now put “enhancement money” on the table and discuss it, because your point about the vital integrity of programming is important (“what to program, where, for whom and at what price are not just business decision, they are moral decisions…”).

    Some view enhancement money as a sinister and corrupting force, a sullying of the idealistic urges from which mission statements are crafted, theatre groups founded and seasons ostensibly programmed. Well, what we need are people bold and blunt enough to name names—which theatre, which artistic director and which programmatic decisions have suffered due to the involvement of commercial interests and therefore, to use your language, Diane, represents immoral judgment.

    Anyone? Anyone?

    Mind you, I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of examples. Sometimes commercial interests do spoil the artistic broth. But the problem we have as a sector is that we’re content with that giant silent sucking sound. We’re afraid for all the usual reasons: we don’t want to offend potential employers, colleagues and producers. Well, I humbly suggest that that, too, is immoral. Truth is, we’re talk a lot about idealism and we fret for our integrity and refuse to offer anything but nostrums and academic metaphors and gasbaggery.

    I don’t buy this idea that nonprofits are inherently pure, unassailable philosophical constructs or that a profit imperative is inherently immoral. Indeed, I remain leery of grand, sweeping statements in general. I think sometimes artistic directors pursue enhancement money opportunities simply because they dream of their asses up on the stage of Radio City Music Hall one day to accept their Tony and artistic merit of a piece, a subjective concept at best, falls to second or fourth place in priority. But I also think some artistic directors pursue enhancement money because they genuinely believe a piece deserves to be put on its feet by whatever means are necessary and do not see themselves and will never see themselves as having comported in an immoral fashion by inviting and accepting commercial interests to help expedite the process.

    Some tug-of-war is healthy, I would argue. Some tug-of-war is, in fact, not a tug-of-war because not all nonprofit-commercial dynamics are oppositional and adversarial in nature. Each case is unique. Let’s fight to preserve, protect and defend our integrity without fetishizing demonization to do so.

    • says


      great post … and, yes, as I pointed out in response to Linda Essig’s post on this subject, transfers been going on a long time and nonprofits, at some point, woke up to the fact that they could profit from these transfers and this changed the game. My sense is that commercial producers have (since Great White Hope) essentially seen alliances with the nonprofit sector as a way to reduce risk and that this continues to be the case. And, as you suggest, the causal mechanisms are complex. I agree (as I also pointed out on Linda’s blog) that it is not wise to generalize about these deals. “Spring Awakening” is different from “Passing Strange” is different from “American Idiot” is different from “Porgy and Bess” is different from “9 to 5 the Musical” is different from “War Horse” is different from “Pajama Game”. The problem is that the conversation too often turns into commercial alliances “good” or “bad” when, instead, we probably need to acknowledge that the devil, if there is one, is in the details. I don’t believe profit is bad and mission-based is good. However, I do believe the sectoral lines exist for a reason and we need to attend to them. The mice study acknowledges that a trading situation has the potential to make people set aside their principles (the study suggests perhaps because trading allows people to share their guilt over doing something they might normally resist, or because seeing others doing something that is questionable normalizes that behavior, or because they simply forget about their principles in the process of trying to win a negotiation). I find that interesting. I believe (and have for some time now) that there is a potentially healthy alliance between the two sectors (the UK has managed to keep things in balance and there are some notable differences in the cultural policies there). If anything, I’m interested in trying to figure out how to achieve that healthy relationship–interdependence (as opposed to co-dependence, which is what it sometimes feels like we have now.

      Thanks, again, for the comment.

      • says

        Thanks for the thanks! So here’s where I’m going with this. When you state, reasonably, that the “sectoral lines exist for a reason and we need to attend to them,” I ask you this: What are the reasons that those sectoral lines exist? More to the point, are the reasons those sectoral lines exist—are the reasons they were defined in the first place—still valid, vivid and maximally effective, artistically and financially? I say no—if they were, we wouldn’t be in this conversation. I further argue that my view dovetails with Scott Walters’ point that the business of the business is befouled and broken.

        When you write “we need to attend to” those sectoral lines, part of me can’t help but ask, “Do we?” I wonder who, in fact, “we” is. (I also beg the grammar gods for forgiveness.) For while I, too, would hope to “achieve that healthy relationship” between nonprofit and commercial systems, I’m unclear how that achievement would be identified. Indeed, who gets to define what it is? Who gets to judge whom? Who is to say, while we’re at it, whether the intermarriage of commercial and nonprofit interests isn’t already a healthy outgrowth of organic market forces and tendencies?

        Why do we take it as gospel that the quality of the theatre produced by nonprofits is more risk-averse than ever before—by what standards do we, whoever “we” is, issue that judgment? And to what degree is that judgment a reflection of classicism, elitism, snobbery? Why is it unquestioned wisdom that commercial interests always lead to an inevitable slide in lowest-common-denominator vanilla blandness? (Okay, I made this point earlier. I just felt it needed repeating.)

        More questions: So what if one can point to a thousand Christmas Carols and ten thousand Nutcrackers? I can point to audiences who are fully satisfied with that menu and I’m deeply reluctant to scoff at them. It isn’t such a horrible thing, really, when there are as many venues where more adventuresome work may be found, supported and attended.

        Please understand: I get your point and honor it. Nor do I think a dialogue on morality is unwarranted. I do think that we ought to be careful how we set the terms, as you’re clearly trying to be.

        Finally—and not to be flip—I’d gently advise us to heed the words of that superlative philosopher, Joseph Mankiewicz, who wrote this in his All About Eve screenplay:

        The Theatuh, the Theatuh— (he sits up)—What book of rules says the Theater exists only within some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City? Or London, Paris or Vienna? (he gets up) Listen, junior. And learn. Want to know what the Theater is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man band—all Theater. Wherever there’s magic and make-believe and an audience—there’s Theater. Donald Duck, Ibsen, and The Lone Ranger, Sarah Bernhardt, Poodles Hanneford, Lunt and Fontanne, Betty Grable, Rex and Wild, and Eleanora Duse. You don’t understand them all, you don’t like them all, why should you? The Theater’s for everybody—you included, but not exclusively—so don’t approve or disapprove. It may not be your Theater, but it’s Theater of somebody, somewhere.

        I just asked a simple question.

        • says


          I don’t disagree with you … It may be that the nonprofits arts sector has outgrown its sectoral lines (or some organizations have). It may be that the lines are no longer relevant or useful (assuming they ever were). If that is the case, then what? Do we find a different tax status for these theaters? Or do we just stretch the boundaries of what it means to be nonprofit to accommodate what they are doing? And if what they are doing looks so much like commercial producing that it is, according to some, indistinguishable, then what? Does that matter? It might matter to commercial producers even if it doesn’t matter to “society-at-large”.

          There are a number of factors that seemed to have led to the adoption and institutionalization of the nonprofit form by arts organizations – too many to enumerate here. Whether it is still valid is an excellent question. But the fact that “the model” so to speak may not be working does not then imply that everything is up for grabs, does it? As long as some theaters are getting tax breaks, and tax deductible contributions then, I would suggest that, yes, they need to pay attention to the lines. What’s your rationale for allowing them to disregard the lines (if I understand you correctly)?

          And I certainly don’t “take it as gospel that the quality of the theater produced by nonprofits is more risk-averse than ever before” and I don’t have any problems with Christmas Carols or Nutcrackers being produced. I don’t believe I’ve made comments that suggest as much – but perhaps I’ve forgotten a point I made.

          And I love the All About Eve quote … There’s a section in my new talk where I challenge artistic hierarchies talk about the need to get past the ridiculous idea that quality theater can only be made in the nonprofit realm and that anything that is popular, commercial, or amateur is crap. And I believe that what Diane Paulus is doing in her nightclub is theater – though many people would probably disagree with me on that. So you’ll get no argument from me there.

          Thanks, again.


          • Aaron Andersen says

            If this is really about taxes, then let’s push for legislative expansion of the definition of “unrelated business income” to consider enhancement money from for-profit investors as unrelated (note: this is a US-centric solution; your mileage may vary in other jurisdictions).

            If you only tax the surplus generated for the nonprofit by the enhancement money, then rest assured that people like me will make it very clear, very fast, that there was no surplus–that all the money was spent on the product–every dime. So if you want to make a difference, you’ll have to tax the gross enhancement payment.

            Of course, be aware that If a chunk of the enhancement money will go straight to taxing jurisdictions, the value of the enhancement money will be reduced for the nonprofit. They’ll need more of it to get to the same place–essentially an inflationary pressure, as if we need more of those in the performing arts.

            Also, none of this would be easy. What Congressperson is going to want to put forward such a wonkish tax change that will immediately mobilize the entire sector against him or her? But at least it’s something concrete to talk about. Maybe other people have some other ideas.

          • says

            I would remind Leonard that there is no provision in the tax ordinances regarding the arts. The reason an arts organization can receive a 501(c)3 designation is that it falls under the category of “education,” and thus bears a responsibility to serve the public good. While it could be persuasively argued that many nonprofit arts organizations seem to have forgotten that, the fact is that it is a requirement nonetheless. A commercial producer is under no such constraints, and can (and often does) peddle theatre that appeals primarily to our basest instincts. Thus, that “line” exists very clearly in the legal code, and ethically we ignore it at our peril.

          • says

            Funnily enough, given my propensity for blather, I think the answer to some of your questions is a bit of “I don’t know.” In other words, I don’t know if we need to change the tax code (Mr. Andersen’s comment exceeds my pay grade), and I don’t know what if anything happens if, to some, nonprofit producing occasionally appears indistinguishable from commercial producing. I don’t know if we ought to make a value judgment about it, either. I don’t know if “everything is up for grabs”; I don’t know if it’s a bad thing, necessarily, if that is true.

            Seems to me the new takeaway here is located in this statement and question:

            “As long as some theaters are getting tax breaks, and tax deductible contributions then, I would suggest that, yes, they need to pay attention to the lines. What’s your rationale for allowing them to disregard the lines (if I understand you correctly)?”

            Here it depends on which lines you mean. There are legal lines, of course, that must be heeded — although the US government’s oversight of 501(c)(4)s at the present moment is clearly a political hot potato. My understanding of your original post was that the lines were moral — the right and the wrong. The legal lines are much easier to comment about.

            Finally — on a personal note — one day you and I must Skype. Or break bread. Or something. It will not be tax deductible but I’ll wager we’ll find it a profitable exercise. LJ

          • says


            It would be a pleasure to break bread with you … and preferable to Skype from my perspective. I’m in the Eastern corridor for an extended stay this fall and would love to do that. Will drop you a line in advance.


  8. says

    It was interesting to read your piece while trying to understand who the “our” refers to in the title “Our long tug of war in the arts.” 
References to “us” and “we” and “our” were made clear once I got to the revelation that it is “the arts sector” which you refer to but mostly the part of the art sector that manages, promotes, sells, edits, and is a type of gatekeeper to artists themselves.
    If your arts sector does desire to really look into the morals of the present day system of artistic production ( and I agree that they certainly should) then the portion of the arts sector you write for needs to reassess their moralistic role as arbiter of the arts. If you really want art that is relevant and engaging then maybe the focus of the arts institutional world needs to be directed on artists rather than administrators. Maybe we should try directing the monies to those who produce the art work rather than to salaries of those we attempt to manage the arts. Maybe we need to get rid of the middle man, the “our” who you refer to?

  9. says

    Hi Diane-
    After reading your post I went looking for a digital version of the Alberto Ríos poem, Invocation: On Gathering Artists. It’s down at the bottom of the page here: http://freeweeling.com/blog/2011/08/art-save-world/. The essay above has some connective points too.

    For me, your thoughts touched on an insight about perceptions of power. Our field has actively cultivated an ‘act like a business’ model for at least three decades now, presuming that market concepts and strategies were somehow more powerful than other ways of ordering the world. The problem with colluding in that way is that we have diminished the relative power of those other frameworks by not using them. Power is iterated, and not speaking or acting from those perspectives has a real and lived effect.

    I’m not a big fan of dichotomies (except for illustrative purposes!) so my hunch is that it’s a both/and solution. What model might accommodate both market advantages and also amplify distinctly moral positions? The arts are particularly powerful at layering meaning, purpose, and action into lived environments. What if we eschewed something as simple as a business model and took up the challenge of articulating the multiple values and systems that are present when a significant work happens.

    Here’s my favorite from this week in Washington:

    Thanks, always fun to follow along with you!

    • says

      Just in general, Anne, thanks for posting my go-to poem from Alberto Rios. I think I’ve used it to start more speeches than I can shake a stick at. Particularly good for Rotary Clubs and other general public audiences as it sets up bewilderment as a jumping off point for a conversation about artists and what they do and what they need and why they matter.

  10. says

    The late, great composer/conductor, Morton Gould, once received an Oscar for movie music he composed. After being heavily criticized by some people in the “elite,” high art, music world, he replied: “Im sorry I wrote music so many people like. I’ll try to never do that again.

    Diane, what if the study you quote had utilized cute kittens instead of mice? When mice get into my house, we set traps. When there is a lost kitten nearby, I do what I can to save and protect it. I am dedicated to the arts, but morality is not an absolute. To carry your metaphors further, I don’t have much use for weeds in my garden either.

    Isn’t it wonderful when great art becomes popular? Isn’t that why Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker are so dependable for keeping their organizations solvent year after year?

    I am a strong believer in supporting artistic vision, but without an audience, there is no art. For organizations to survive–much less thrive–in modern society, the mission must have an audience-based focus. THis does not mean that we need to compromise our artistic integrity, but we need to produce work that is relevant and compelling to the ticket buyers and donors who we need to support our work. We need them more than they need us.

    • says

      Joanne – I agree entirely. Popularity is neither an indicator of mission accomplished nor an indicator of mediocrity. It’s just a lot of people showing up. There’s nothing in my talk intended to suggest that popularity is bad. For years I’ve encourage arts organizations to pay attention to their communities and to changing tastes, etc.

    • says

      Joanne, I would suggest the audience needs artists more than they even realize. I don’t believe you can have artistic integrity (let’s call it artistic purpose) and yet say art needs to be what ticket buyers or donors want it to be. It’s easy to use the terms artistic integrity and relevance but much harder to come to a full understanding what those mean to artists.

  11. says

    Terrific subject. I’d like to respond to two separate strains of thought in Diane’s piece, that are also touched on by Don Mckee and Aaron Anderson.

    First: The journal headline “Markets Make Us Less Moral”. Recognizing that this is not Diane’s thought, it’s still reflective of a persistent way of thinking in the non-profit world that distorts our economic vision and drives me nuts. It’s a false dichotomy. Ma
    kets are just a lot of people making decisions with their money. When we choose to “kill our mice”, the market is just pulling back the curtain on the ethics we already have. The market didn’t create those responses – it just offered the opportunity for us to expose ourselves. Money is fungible – it’s just a way for us to demonstrate what we value. We can argue about ethics (or the quality!) of individual choices, but we don’t have a choice about participating in this “market society”; it’s there whether we aim our efforts at our local community (one market) or Broadway (another). I think this is Don’s thought above: “The marketplace is about the real. Art is about ideals. This is the dilemma of human life itself. Marketplace values seem to come from what we are whereas the ideal seems more related to what we would like to believe we are.” To mangle Walt Kelley – “We have met the enemy (the market)… and he is us.”

    Second: The section on the Coconut Grove and Arnold Mittleman. Here I am a raving Ragsdale fan. Non-Profit theaters are not buildings and administrative staff to be supported ad-infinitem at any cost and by any means. They exist for the support of performances and the artists who make them possible, period. For far too long the artist has been the last person at the end of a very long line of stakeholders, and has been forced to make do with whatever hasn’t been consumed by those in the front. I urge anyone reading this to check out the full text of Diane’s talk in Australia referenced above, particularly “Section IV, Sacrificing Our Mice To Stay Alive”. Yes, yes and yes. There are many specific ways to get up that mountain, but for now let’s just know that that is where we need to go. Full disclosure – I am an actor and Financial Advisor.

  12. says

    I appreciate this article. In recent years there has been a strong emphasis placed on market strategies in the arts, often at the expense of artistic ideals. It is important to remind ourselves that a proper balance must be found. And it is important to understand that this balance is not only a matter of artistry and professional ethics, but also encompasses aspects of morality.

    I did a new count and found that there are 8 fulltime, year-round opera houses within two hours of my house here in Germany’s Black Forest: Stuttgart, Ulm, Karlsruhe, Pforzheim, Freiburg, Basel, Zurich, and Lucerne.

    Last week I saw the premiere of “La Cenerentola” in Lucerne. It was a Regietheater production. Cinderella runs an ice cream wagon in a place something like and Italian community in Brooklyn. The action is centered around a ping-pong championship. This was all worked out in an ingenious and hilarious manner that delighted the audience. There were repeated ovations at the end in rhythmic applause.

    In these small cities, it’s also wonderful to see opera in houses that only seat 500 to 800 people. For 50 Euros people can see the singers less than 50 feet away and experience opera in all of its transcendent, human viscerality.

    The population of Lucerne is only 76,000 and the metro area only 250,000, but it has a fulltime opera house, a fulltime spoken theater, a fulltime, opera company, a fulltime orchestra, and a fulltime ballet, all resident ensembles. And the city hosts one of the world’s major musical festivals.

    As an example of programming and morality, Lucerne has focused its season on women opera composers. The productions include Chaya Czernowin’s “Pnima,” Ethel Smyth’s “The Boatswain’s Mate,” and the world premiere of Elisabeth Naske’s “Der satanarchäolügenialkohöllische Wunschpunsch.” Not even the Met, in a city 105 times larger, can do this kind of innovative programming.

    The season’s five other productions all focus on works that have strong female leads ranging from Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” to Bizet’s Carmen. The Director of the house, Dominque Mentha, drolly comments that it is also interesting to see how men portray women.

    Moral programming, which often addresses controversial social issues, and which must find a balance between populism and idealism, can only be achieved upon a funding system that is also moral. Europe’s freedom of programming, the plethora of local opera houses, and the very affordable prices all raise moral questions about arts funding systems – to say nothing of the artistic issues that are resolved. I hope Americans will begin to consider the artistic and moral weakness of their system of funding the arts by donations.

    • says

      I realize I’m talking in an empty room after everyone has left, but I thought it might be interesting to also think of art that strives toward moral meanings and is also accessible. An example might be Copland’s work “The Promise of Living” from his opera “The Tender Land.” The opera was written between 1952 and 1954 for the NBC Opera Workshop for broadcast on television. This represents a kind of mass media unthinkable today.

      At the time, the New Deal sensibility of societies working for the common good still imbued Copland’s worldview, as represented in “The Tender Land.” Not long after its completion, Copland was hauled before HUAC. He was deeply traumatized and was never the same afterwards. Those events represented the end of an American sensibility.

      I hope some of you might watch the video linked below of “The Promise of Living.” The images are at times kitsch, but the video includes the text which is worth following. Anyway, the composition is a work that strives to be both moral and accessible, and seems relevant to this discussion:


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