Joe Horowitz has written a stirring essay on the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, and New York Philharmonic on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Center. In response, ArtsJournal has asked a number of people to consider the essay and to weigh in on a series of questions (paraphrased):
Is artistic leadership at America’s arts institutions lacking? Moreover, is this at the root of declining relevancy of the arts? Is something more, or better, needed from America’s arts institutions, particularly at this vexing and critical time?
This essay explores these questions through the lens of the American theater. At the heart of this essay rests the paradox of the Public Arts Institution—a paradox captured beautifully in this passage from a 1970 essay by Arena Stage co-founder, Zelda Fichandler, Theatres or Institutions?
I am not very strong on community giving, except perhaps when it represents only a small percentage of the total. I think we could well do without the hand that rocks the cradle, for the hand that rocks the cradle will also want to raise it in a vote and mix into the pie with it. For while a theatre is a public art and belongs to its public, it is an art before it is public and so it belongs first to itself and its first service must be self-service. A theatre is part of its society. But it is a part which must remain apart since it is also chastiser, rebel, lightning rod, redeemer, irritant, codifier, and horse-laughter.
This is a paradox I also wrestled with in an essay published in the most recent issue of Artivate called On Entrepreneurialism and Publicness (or Whose Theatre is it, Really?).
Part I: Are We Weeding, or Breeding, Artistic Leadership Out of the Field?
Joe Horowitz’s story is a tale of three organizations, only one of which (New York City Ballet) succeeded in changing the face of its art form. What made the difference at the Ballet? By my reading, there was first and foremost a will on the part of both Balanchine and his impresario, Kirstein, to do so; and second, conditions were ripe for these institutional entrepreneurs to make their move.
Last year I worked on a case study on the Margo Jones Theatre, founded in 1947 (in Dallas, Texas) and hailed by most theater historians as the prototypical modern resident theater. Jones produced exclusively new plays and classics. In an average season Jones produced 4-5 premieres and two classics; in contrast, of 23 resident theaters surveyed in 1965 by journalist Sandra Schmidt, 15 produced no new plays at all and four produced only one. At the time, most resident theaters exemplified the vibrant museum model described in Horowitz’s essay.
Historians often chalk this up to a discomfort with new fare on the part of both institutional leaders and their audiences. Perhaps. It seems Jones overcame discomfort by reading a minimum of one new script every day of her life from her college days onward and, more importantly, she made her audience comfortable with new fare through the same process: repeated exposure.
Like Balanchine, Jones had a vision and the will to execute it. Importantly, she also had a business manager who supported her commitment to new plays and a board of directors that gave her free reign. Equally as important, resident theater in America was in its pioneer period. But the first condition is critical. Jones was devoted to playwrights and preached far and wide that nonprofit regional theaters had a moral duty to produce new plays being rejected by the commercial stage, in lieu of relying on Broadway revivals–fare favored by both commercial winter stock companies and community theaters at the time.
We seem to have few such zealots running American LORT theaters these days.
Why is that?
I don’t believe it’s because none exist.
Consider the driving emphasis on instilling arts institutional leaders with business skills since 1960; the now mandatory requirements of a track record of raising money and delivering box office hits (that will fill Broadway-sized venues) to attain the job of artistic director at a major theater; the lack of artists on nonprofit boards, or even many individuals with an aesthetic sensibility; and the dramatic power shift from artist-leaders to business-leaders, generally.
Maybe we have been breeding, or weeding, artistic leadership out of the field?
Margo Jones didn’t like to raise money from the community, she demanded 100% control of her theater, and she walked into the job interview saying to the board, in essence: Count me out if you are planning to be a theater of the past, “striving to exist on box-office hits,” as I am only interested in creating “a true playwright’s theatre, presenting original scripts and providing playwrights with an outlet for their work.”
If Margo Jones were applying to run an American theater in the hinterlands of the US today she probably wouldn’t stand a chance.
Part II: Artists are Getting it Done … But Are Institutions Getting in the Way?
I recently had the privilege of attending a Salzburg Global Seminar called The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage and Renewal. Among many inspiring presentations was one by artist Anida Yoeu Ali, a first generation Muslim Khmer woman born in Cambodia and raised in Chicago. Anida talked about a number of her works, including a performance installation called The Red Chador: Thresholds, created for a 2016 Smithsonian event called Crosslines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality. The work asked viewers: “Can we accept a Muslim woman as a patriotic woman?”
Over breakfast one morning I asked Anida, “So how would you respond to the question, ‘What is the role of the artist post-Trump?” and she said, “Same as always. No different. Get up and do the work.”
The day after the election Anida took to the streets of Seattle, where she is now based, wearing the red, glittering chador she created for the Smithsonian performance installation and holding a sign that on one side said, I AM A MUSLIM and, on the other, BAN ME.
What’s my point?
Artists are doing something about it, same as always.
However, most artists depend upon institutional outlets for protection, platforms, and resources for that something to be fully realized.
To this very point, the New York Times recently ran an article on a new play by Robert Schenkkan, written in a “white-hot fury” in one week. Characterized as a “disquieting response to the Trump era,” it’s called Building the Wall. Schenkkan says in the article:
We no longer live in a world that is business as usual—Trump has made that very clear—and if theater is going to remain relevant, we must become faster to respond.
While the article goes on to mention that a group of theaters has committed to producing the play within the next few months, it’s worth noting that (a) this sort of response is exceedingly rare; and (b) the theaters that have stepped up are largely part of a small alliance of exemplary midsized theaters (the National New Play Network) that has fought the past decade or so to shift stultifying practices around new play development in the US.
Most institutions are not able to respond quickly to artists (doing something about it) in large part because artists exist outside of institutions rather than within them. While resident theaters were initially idealized as homes for actors, writers, and designers what they have become in reality is homes for administrators and technicians. Even when artists are in residence they quite often have minimal (if any) power within institutions, or influence on them. And we have had a number of instances of institutional cowardice (if not censorship) in recent years. (See, e.g. this article on the experience of Anida Yoeu Ali and Gregg Deal at the Smithsonian event mentioned above.)
I have heard playwrights say that they write for television these days not only because they make more money but because it is a more creative and validating environment than the nonprofit American theater. That is a sobering thought.
Perhaps any lack of courage, vision, or moral imagination in arts organizations is related to the extent to which arts leaders have managed risk by disempowering artists or placing them outside the institution?
Part III: Do arts leaders identify too much with their upper middle class donors?
I was at a conference a few weeks ago and heard a development staffer bemoaning over her morning croissant that she had spent the better part of the prior two weeks trying to learn everything she could about some Ultra-High-Net-Worth-Couple in her city so that her institution could launch a stealth courtship and, with any luck, land a major gift. She commented that, as far as anyone could tell, this couple had never stepped foot in the doors of the institution. She fretted over the fact that she was dedicating every working moment to deeply understanding two wealthy people with no relationship whatsoever to the institution; while nary a nanosecond was being expended trying to learn about the values, hopes, dreams, and challenges of the loyal patrons who were not in a position to make an extraordinary gift to the institution.
While donor research and cultivation has become a serious science, the ideology driving such behavior has been with us since the founding of the nonprofit-professional arts sector in the US. I am amazed that we are able to say with a straight face that America’s 20th century nonprofit-professional theater companies were largely established to serve the general public when many institutionalized a practice (at their inceptions) that would ensure they paid attention to the needs of the upper middle class at the expense of all others.
In the 1960s Danny Newman persuaded theaters that it was better (not just economically better, but morally better) to focus their time and resources on the 3% of the population that is inclined to subscribe and to ignore everyone else. Though some artistic directors rebelled mightily against this approach in the theater industry—Richard Schechner and Gregory Mosher were among the most vocal who noted that it was undemocratic and had a stultifying effect on programming—it was embraced wholeheartedly by a majority of institutions. This was in large part because it was strongly encouraged by the Ford Foundation and its proxy at the time, Theatre Communications Group.
Today marketing firms promulgate customer relationship management models like this one promoted by TRG Arts. This sort of philosophy upheld over time will invariably orient an organization toward caring more about those who can buy more tickets and donate more money.
Arts institutions cannot uphold Zelda Fichandler’s notion of the theatre as belonging to the public but first belonging to itself if they are, essentially, social clubs for the upper middle class. The institution cannot be “chastiser, rebel, lightning rod, redeemer, irritant, codifier, and horse-laughter” if it has neither independence nor publicness.
Perhaps a driving focus on cultivating the patronage of the upper middle class has skewed the politics and purposes of arts institutions, and also has been a major factor in declining relevancy? On the most fundamental level nonprofit art institutions are among the cultural spaces that are able to bring people together across divides on equal terms—a vital function that is, at times like these, in and of itself a political act. However, it seems we have too gladly ceded that role to sports and (lately) to some exemplary libraries around the world (see, e.g., the library parks in Colombia) that have transformed their purposes for the 21st century.
Part IV: Good We Are Awake. Now, Can we Stay Awake?
Shortly after Trump was elected a particular a phrase from Tony Kushner’s masterpieces Angels in America, parts I and II began to appear on my Facebook feed, which is to a great extent populated by liberal arts types like me. That phrase: “The Great Work Begins.”
The statement, in turns hopeful and harrowing depending on its context in the plays, provoked two questions for me:
What is our Great Work in the arts? (which I addressed in this Jumper post); and
Why is this Great Work beginning only now, after Trump’s election?
Put another way, why does it so often take a crisis for those of us working in the arts, in the so-called civic sphere, to engage with the struggles, the pain, the hopes, the dreams, the fears … of our communities-at-large?
The extraordinary observer of the human condition, writer Rebecca Solnit, reflects in her beautiful book, Hope in the Dark:
Americans are good at responding to crisis and then going home to let another crisis brew.
She says this is, in part …
… because we tend to think that political engagement is something for emergencies rather than, as people in many countries (and Americans at other times) have imagined, as part and even a pleasure of everyday life.
“The problem” as she puts it, “seldom goes home.”
Unlike television (and libraries) the American theater didn’t use the Digital Revolution combined with the Great Recession as an opportunity to radically transform itself so as to become more relevant, more vibrant, more accessible, more vital—and yes, more economically sustainable.
It seems we have another shot as, for many in the arts sector, Trump seems to represent a wake-up call.
Perhaps now is the time to prioritize artistic vision over business skills; to grant artists primacy within the arts institution; and to shift attention from wealthy donors to the community-at-large. Perhaps now is the time to embrace the paradox of being Public Arts Institutions: a part of society—but a part which must remain apart in order to fulfill its multifaceted role as “chastiser, rebel, lightning rod, redeemer, irritant, codifier, and horse-laughter.”
Finally, perhaps engaging in public affairs for the next four years will remind arts institutions that this is not the Great Work we must do now, this is the everyday work–the doing something about it–we should have been doing the past 30 years and that we must continue to do post 2020.
PS – Huge shout out to Deborah Cullinan at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I love her notion of art centers existing to ignite radical citizenship and I love the YBCA campaign that resulted in the tagline pictured in the photo at the top of this post, which was an inspiration for this piece.
 Fichandler, Z. (1970). Theatres or Institutions? The American Theatre 1969-70: International Theatre Institute of the United States, Volume 3. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), p. 110.
 Schmidt, S. (1965). The Regional Theatre: Some Statistics. The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Autumn, 1965), pp. 50-61.
 Sheehy, H. (1989). Margo: The Life and Theatre of Margo Jones. (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press), p. 88.
Howard Jang says
Hi Diane…great article.
In Canada, the issue of Arts Leadership for our Institutions has been identified as a critical situation. This was first identified by the members of the Canadian Arts Summit, a gathering of our Country’s largest Arts and Cultural Institutions. As a response, the Cultural Human Resources Council has launched a mentoring program to help build capacity for Directors and Managers who are interested in leading arts organizations. the program is called Talent 2 Lead. Here is the web site. http://www.talenttolead.ca
I sit on the advisory and am a mentor with the first cohort.
Happy to chat with you about it.
Diane Ragsdale says
Howard, thanks for point this out. I’m going to be in Canada a couple times this year. Would love to have a conversation … 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting!
Diane Ragsdale says
Someone sent me a link to the following article after reading this post, which seems to really support what I’m talking about in Section II … In this case Steppenwolf is producing a play that writer Tracy Letts just penned in “the heat of the election” … Letts is, as many probably know, a company member of Steppenwolf. I love the last line of the article, a quote by the AD, Anna Shapiro: “The state of the world was really crushing me, and then Tracy got the script into my mailbox,” Shapiro said. “I called him and said that we are lucky you write plays for us.”
Meghan Randolph says
Diane-Thank you for this wonderful essay. There were many moments when I found myself yelling “YES!” at the computer screen.
I believe as cultural managers one of the key things we’re missing is a sense of why we became cultural managers in the first place. We are artists ourselves, or at least avid followers of the arts. Because of the institutional pressures you describe, we find ourselves at a crossroads of trying to create wonderful work and feeling beholden to donors as our organizations grow. But we are supposedly creative by nature. Arts managers become less successful when they lose sight of the innate creativity that made them want to be leaders in an artistic field.
I run a small, professional theatre company in Madison, Wisconsin, where competition is high and funding is dismal (48th in the nation for per capita government spending). For eleven years, I have run the company as its founder. We focus on lesser-known musical theatre pieces and are one of few companies in the city that pays all artists. Because of our limited funding opportunities and commitment to compensated artists and newer works, growth is slow, and frustrating. But when things go well, it’s unbelievably rewarding. We don’t do things traditionally. We perform in unconventional spaces, provide low-cost programming, and don’t cater to a large network of big donors. What we do is encourage our patrons to give what they can, with the mentality that every dollar counts. Which brings me to the concept of size.
We in the field are quick to recognize certain theatres as “major” based on their size, scope, and budget, and I have an issue with this because it implies that smaller theatres doing good work are less important. Of course it is a human (or at least American) mentality that bigger is better, but I think as arts leaders we are in a position to challenge that notion. Yes, larger companies have a bigger reach, but they are also bogged down by more institutional pressures, while the smaller, “fringe” companies are often finding solutions to the issues larger organizations face: Getting young audiences in the door, remaining affordable, and taking artistic risks.
As ostensibly creative people who are supposed to admire originality, we can start to solve our problems by not delegitimizing theatres that are small. These theatres are often run by the types of zealots you mention: Hungry for change, new ideas, and connection. Partnerships between companies with more financial resources and companies with a hungrier, if less traditional, audience are possibilities for improvement on this issue,
Finally, I have spent the last two years researching marketing strategies for lesser-known pieces for my master’s thesis. I believe what I’ve found can be a template for encouraging theatres to take the artistic risks we need in order to stay relevant. As a long-time admirer of your work, I’d love to share it with you and get your thoughts.
Thanks for fighting the good fight!
Diane Ragsdale says
Meghan, thanks so much for reading and commenting. Yes, small is beautiful and many of the practices I espouse on Jumper can be found in smaller organizations. The economics of large facilities are a significant factor in the issues I’m talking about here. I have written previously about the fact that we “rank” organizations based on size of budget and facility and yet there are arguably many other factors that should be much more important than size. Thanks very much for pointing this out!
PS – I really loved the four months I lived in Madison in 2015!
Jerry Yoshitomi says
Thank you again for another brilliant post. It seems that you frequently write about similar things to what I’ve been thinking, but do it much more effectively than I.
First, regarding the relationship between Leadership and Relevancy, those two words are almost never used in the same sentence, let alone paragraph. There’s much more to consider, including the possibility of creating ‘relevancy’ metrics.
Secondly, I believe that there are CEO’s who are stepping up, including Deborah Cullinan, Mike Ross, Emil Kang and other performing arts presenters. And we might want to look at the attributes that make them successfully strong leaders.
Lastly, I agree with one of your responses to a comment about the Importance of leadership expressed by those in smaller organizations in quickly presenting new plays that address new conditions. Those that seem to be taking more risk appear to be those who are already budgeting on a shoe-string, but their vision of a different world drives them to continue on while those in more comfortable positions maintain the status quo. I’m working with a small theater company in Santa Rosa, led by Amy Pinto and Brent Lindsay, two graduates of the North Carolina School for the Arts who’ve worked steadily to unlearn (Jerry’s word here, not theirs) what they were taught at the conservatory. With a budget of $150,000 per year, they’ve been able to create spectacular work, engaged community members as actors and co-creators of bilingual productions and as they say it “up-end the dominant paradigm”. As part of a strategic planning process, we’re working now to generate revenues from the broad range of the people in the neighborhood who have been impacted by theatrical experience. After a performance at the local food bank, low-income clients stepped forward to contribute coins into a hat to thank the artists for their performances and keep Imaginism alive.
Diane Ragsdale says
Jerry, thank you for the kind words. I am an enormous fan of your writing and thinking. I specifically focused my comments on the large producing theaters (the theatrical equivalents to the Met, NYCB, and NY Phil)–in large part because they are the current focus of my research; but, you’re right – smaller organizations are “doing something about it” (so to speak). I hinted at this with reference to the NNPN, which I admire greatly. But it bears repeating over and over again. Also, I didn’t even address the PAC phenomenon, the business model for many of which is Broadway Touring to pay for The Rest and some of which appear to have become the cul-de-sacs that Horowitz identifies in his post. However, there are those (the ones you mentioned and many others) who have sidestepped that model and created something else entirely. They are deeply artist-oriented, are doing ambitious and courageous work, and are deeply engaging their communities in ways that others are not. It’s a topic for a whole post in and of itself. And, yes, a study on not only the attributes of their leaders but on the structures in which they are embedded could be quite interesting. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
Jerry Yoshitomi says
My apologies to The Imaginists. In my haste to respond to Diane’s great post, I neglected to mention the name of the theater: The Imaginists. theimaginists.org
William Osborne says
Something to consider: Performances at the Met cost one million dollars per show. They do about 300 per year. The entire yearly budget of the New Mexico Philharmonic only $2 million. The orchestra is based in Albuquerque, a metro area of about one million people who by comparison live in extreme cultural poverty.
Theater is such a different genre that experiences there don’t translate well to the world of classical music. I also worry when the focus of discussion comes almost exclusively from administrators while artists seem to be marginalized.
Richard Kooyman says
As an artist I’ve been fascinated watching art advocates seemingly spin their wheels still trying to figure out what art does and how it can survive.
These conversations never seem to answer the questions because I believe they conflate “the arts” into what are really conversations about the problems facing theaters and performance arts.
Numerous bloggers at this website and elsewhere write about “artists” engaging with their communities when specifically they are referring to actors and directors and the issues facing theaters and performance spaces.
Does a playwright and a painter face some of the same obstacles of survival in today’s world? Sure they do.
But it’s too simplistic to assume that a theater director trying to get people to purchase tickets is the same thing a painter trying to get people to buy their paintings, or that the evolution of a theater patron is the same thing as one who supporters painters.
These questions become even more controversial when as Douglas McLennan in his ‘Diacritical’ blog recently says “America’s artists might not, it turns out, reflect the communities in which they work”. I would contend that they shouldn’t have to. It’s not our role to blend, it’s out role to stand out.
So to answer the question of whether our artistic leadership is lacking we need to make sure we are clear on what type of art and artist we are referring to before we can tackle the question of what the role of art institutional leadership is.
Patty Jarvis says
I have been working in the arts community in Toronto for 30 years – so the leadership I have encountered, worked under, with and most recently as (in leadership positions) is the Canadian version of this conversation. Thank you for the remarkable insights and responses. My work has been primarily for young audiences and/or within communities and so often the challenges there reflect the models in organizations but on a more grassroots level. I am baffled by the way that the questions and challenges change and don’t change. In a world where we all feel “unsettled” I can’t spend any more time talking about the differences….between institutions and small companies, presenters and producers, artists and arts supporters…. We are all, I believe, riding the same wave of uncertainty but we are there together, as we have always been. I have to believe that we chose our paths in the arts with purpose, a similar purpose of exploration, celebration and demonstration of the human condition. No matter how the world turns, that commitment has not, nor will it ever, change.
I think often, however, about how privilege plays into our perceptions. What does the world need now from artists and arts organizations and how are our models of leadership supporting or disregarding those needs? Some of our funders, in Canada, are asking those questions and the response varies according to the level of privilege and position of each artist and organization. If I as a white, heterosexual, middle class, arts practitioner have to step back in order to allow new and inspiring work, artists, ideas, to move forward….so be it. Are there organizations, systems, processes for reviewing our sector as a whole and acting, as a whole, for the health and well-being of our communities…beyond our artists and arts organizations? We need to take responsibility for supporting what is powerful and meaningful and equally for letting go of what is not.
Jerry Yoshitomi says
First thought: I am wondering how many arts leaders are reacting to what they’re reading here, but are self-censoring themselves for fear of revealing themselves.
Second thought: My thanks to Diane for responding positively about the idea of: “A study on not only the attributes of their leaders but on the structures in which they are embedded.” Financial frameworks are also an important part of this conversation. The organizations I mentioned included Yerba Buena, which receives a significant annual contribution from the City of San Francisco and performing arts centers that receive a limited portion of their support from their host universities. The Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, Meany Center at the University of Washington and the Lied Centers at Nebraska and Kansas each act entrepreneurially within their operating environments and present/shape work of importance and relevance in their communities.
Patty Jarvis suggests the need for “…organizations, systems, processes for reviewing our sector as a whole and acting, as a whole, for the health and well-being of our communities…beyond our artists and arts organizations? We need to take responsibility for supporting what is powerful and meaningful and equally for letting go of what is not.” I wonder if our current arts service organizations, such as Grantmakers in the Arts, DataArts, or our colleagues at Createquity would have sufficient entrepreneurial energy to create a study of leaders, of organizational relevance and of systems of support? And a two-nation comparison might have value here as well. Maybe our colleagues at Oregon State University’s Plural http://www.pluralculture.org or Arizona State might be willing to take it on?
One metric that I’ve seen deployed:
1. How many households are in your SMSA? (per U.S. Census)
2. How many households attended/participated in your organization/centre/program within the last two years?
Carey Perloff says
Hello Diane, and thanks as always for your serious thinking about these issues. I believe the key to the decline in real leadership in the non-profit theater is our obsession with Broadway. As a field, we pay lip service to diversity, to aesthetics, to community, to re-imagining the canon, to new ways of developing work, but in reality, the ONLY real destination that has weight now is Broadway. Commercial success is equated with artistic success. The blurring of the boundaries between non- profit and commercial producing have had disastrous effects. We’ve just hired a Broadway producer to run BAM, once a home to international creative exoration that lay outside the commercial arena. A director is validated by a Tony Award, not by depth and breadth of work or contribution to the field or to the community. Producing classics ( without stars or Brits) is now a radical act. And we never acknowledge this. It’s not just that LORT theaters are catering to wealthy donors— what they are really focusing on is getting the NY TIMES to pay attention to them, and the way that happens ( disgracefully) is if you produce something with “ commercial potential” that the TIMES thinks worthy of its readers’ attrntion. We valorize theaters whose leadership spends most of its time away from the home base, building work for tourist audiences in New York. I think the issue is much larger than administrators taking over institutions and leaving the artists on the sidelines, I think it’s about what American theater artists really value. Why has not a single foundation stepped forward to support acting ensembles or more permanent collections of working artists? Because what’s valued is snagging that star to be in your new play that might, if you’re lucky, move to Broadway. The media is hugely complicit in that values proposition, but so are founders. Sometimes I think the only solution is to get small again and do work under the radar. Large LORT theaters will probably become pre-Broadway roadhouses like they were in the forties and fifties. And the big non-profit dream of Zelda and her colleagues will go underground again.