One of the first things the Trump administration did was announce that it would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It happens with every new conservative administration, every new group of conservative Senators and Representatives. The NEA has always been kicked around, and things have been particularly intense ever since Andres Serrano submerged a crucifix in a jar of urine and Mapplethorpe created a bunch of homoerotic photographs that made NC Senator Jesse Helms become apoplectic. Twenty years later, threatening the arts is largely symbolic (the amount saved is minuscule), serving primarily as a way for conservatives to stick their thumb in the eye of artists whose influence on the public’s perceptions has come increasingly to dominate the landscape. Hardly anyone in the nation’s capital raises an eyebrow when these threats occur, regarding it as ritual sabre-rattling.
Artists, on the other hand, and organizations like the Americans for the Arts, use these events as a substitute for aerobic exercise, a way to get their heart rates up as they sputter and proclaim about the utter importance of the arts to the nations spirit. They trot out the same arguments that failed utterly in the 1990s, and the result is that their budget is reduced, or flat-lined — or, in this latest iteration, perhaps the ritual will finally result in a blood sacrifice and the 50-year-old experiment in national funding will finally be offed.
Listen, I believe as deeply in the importance of the arts as anyone — probably moreso. But I have had it up to my eyeballs with this budgetary Dance of Death. I’m tired of seeing artists wasting their time and energy trying to make a case for the social good for the arts when they have clearly done little real reflection much less research on the issue. We end up looking like sentimental saps.
I am tired of artists thinking that they have to dance at the end of strings wielded by the rich and powerful, whether the puppeteers are in the government or foundations. It is time to declare independence from a business model that relies on 50% of the budget being unearned income. Artists sell their souls for a a few dollars while at the same time gradually losing touch with the people who make up their audience.
Our job is to create a new way of doing business that is sustainable without having to kow-tow to politicians and rich people. We can’t continue to accept the idea that there is simply now way for artists to make their art in a way that is self-sufficient.
Is it possible to do so? Yes, it is. In fact, throughout theatre history, self-sufficiency was the norm. Shakespeare’s company was self-sustaining, and yet Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and it was a great success; Moliere’s company was self-sufficient, receiving very little royal patronage beyond the use of a theatre, and he wrote Tartuffe.
To do so today will require going back to square one and forgetting everything we think we know about the economics of arts. We need to particularly forget Baumol and Bowen’s 1968 tome Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, which forms the foundation for the great monomyth of arts economics to this day. In that book, these two economists posited that the performing arts would forever operate in the red because we were unable to partake of the efficiencies provided by technology. It takes as many people to perform Hamlet today as it did in 1601, and that means that the cost of doing a production will continue to rise.
First of all, that forces us to ignore the fact that theatre has been able to take advantage of technological efficiencies — it’s called film, television, video, YouTube, audio recordings. Purists — and I admit that I often am one of them — prefer to see these as separate art forms from theatre, and in some ways they are, but it is the way that we can perform in multiple places for a much larger audience than can fit into even the biggest venue. They are not a stand-alone substitute for theatre, but they are an extension of it that we need to embrace.
But even looking back at theatre history, it becomes clear how we have taken several serious wrong turns to get to where we are. Shakespeare’s company, for instance, did things that we don’t do, and it made all the difference to their sustainability. They didn’t have separate sets for each new play, for instance — they had a few props that were used over and over in play after play. The same was true of costumes, which were used in many different productions. They had a company of actors who were shareholders in the company, drawing their income not from set salaries but rather as a percentage of income once expenses were subtracted, and thus they had skin in the game — they owned shares, and a bad season directly impacted their pocketbook. So they made sure they didn’t have bad seasons. IN addition, Shakespeare and his fellow shareholders performed many different functions in their theatre — Shakespeare was a playwright AND and actor AND part of management; Moliere was a playwright AND the primary actor AND the director AND part of management. We think every function in the theatre requires its own specialist. Nonsense. We believe that everything for each new production needs to be brand new and designed for that production and only that production, and then we wonder why our budgets swell. In response to the budget gap, we hire people to write grants and manage the finances. Administrators are helpful — but not if that’s all they do. More people equals bugger budgets equals more red ink.
And the more red ink, the more reliant we are on politicians and wealthy people.
It is up to us to devise a new way of doing business. It will require that you, as artists, start thinking creatively not only about your work but about how you distribute your work and even how you create it.
So I say let’s make those bastards completely irrelevant to what we do. If they eliminate the NEA someday (tomorrow?), we won’t be affected. We’ll go on making our art with the kind of independence that only people who are in charge of their lives can have. And that will feel damned good.