Asking the unpopular question—is there just too much art?

Posted by Chad Bauman, Nov 17, 2008 4 comments

The economic crisis is starting to trickle down to arts organizations all over the nation. Recent casualties of the crisis include Opera Pacific, Milwaukee Shakespeare Festival, and several Broadway shows. To adjust for the weakening economy, planned productions have been abandoned at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Washington National Opera, the New York City Opera and even at the seemingly untouchable Metropolitan Opera. Not to mention the St. Louis Museum of Art postponing its $125 million expansion or the Shakespeare Theatre missing its gala goal by $300,000.

The impact of the crisis will be felt in communities all around the country. Quite simply, the casualties listed above won’t be the last. Arts organizations will fail and close as contributed income dries up, and earned revenue weans. Although tragic for the artists connected to these organizations, the unpopular question that continues to emerge with my colleagues from around the nation is: are the closings of these organizations necessarily a bad thing?

Is there just too much art? Take for example an article written in the Washington Post on April 23, 2008 which cites a study by the Helen Hayes Organization that says in 2007, there were 402 more performances by theatre companies than the previous year but attendance was down by 36,000 patrons. From this report, it would seem that supply has significantly surpassed demand, and this isn’t surprising when you take into consideration the boom of new theaters in the Washington metropolitan area.

Artists, including myself, like to point to ways to increase demand, revitalize arts education, court younger audiences, launch massive outreach programs—as the answer to this problem. But the supply and demand conundrum that many communities face can also be solved by eliminating the excess supply. This crisis will create a de facto “survival of the fittest” culture for arts organizations. Those organizations that are financially sound and create consistently good product might feel a pinch but should weather the storm. Those organizations who were limping along prior to the crisis will probably cease to exist, thereby eliminating the surplus in supply in competitive markets and returning the community to a sustainable stasis.

In the end, although painful in its process, this crisis might create stronger artistic communities throughout the nation.

4 responses for Asking the unpopular question—is there just too much art?


November 19, 2008 at 12:12 pm

There will never be too much art, but we have to recognize that a LOT of it is taking place outside of the arts institutions that are so much in crisis now -- it takes place in community centers, churches, clubs, and the home, for instance.

In my opinion, it's not that there's too much art, but perhaps too much of the kind that requires people to show up and patronize particular institutions. How many performing arts seasons are based not on demand but on keeping artists and staff employed full-time, or paying for the upkeep of their new facility? How many arts organizations have become more about self-perpetuation than truly serving their communities?

I know that sounds harsh, but I agree with you that it's going to be the survival of the fittest. That doesn't mean that there will be less art, however. Just fewer institutions.

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8Shades says
November 20, 2008 at 7:19 am

I would agree with your answer to the "unpopular question" if I thought that the market was going to reward the strongest organizations and only the weakest organizations or those with the least attention to community needs would survive.

But we know this is so often not the case. Even before the current economic turmoil, many organizations already faced significant economic pressures from increasing production expenses and rapidly depleting state and federal arts funding. While some organizations are of course doing quite well from earned income, so many organizations are relying heavily on support from foundations. Meanwhile, research seems to indicate that foundation arts funding may be dwindling in favor of supporting many other (and obviously important) causes, such as international aid, economic development and sustainable energy.

In this environment, many foundations are sinking the lion share of their funding into supporting the "crown jewels" of their cities and regions ... the orchestras, the operas, etc. There seems to be less and less philanthropic funding for start-up organizations. In this case, start-ups thrive only when they can bring in significant earned income.

Particularly for those organizations whose audiences are disadvantaged or marginalized, whether or not they close will have little to do with how well they are serving their community. And many "traditional organizations" will be buoyed through the crisis by foundations that understandably don't want to see them crumble, regardless of how responsive they are being to emerging community needs or how innovative their programming may or may not be.

Arts Darwinism will almost certainly kill off some of our most sickly institutions ... but along the way, we'll likely lose some very strong members of the herd as well.

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8Shades says
November 20, 2008 at 8:26 am

In related news, the Cleveland Plain Dealer recently did a fairly robust article on how the topic is playing out in that city:

It's worth noting that Cleveland's well-timed 2006 cigarette tax levy, which is annually generally $18 million expressly for support of arts and culture, may give artists and cultural institutions there a cushion during the recession. In just one year's time, Cleveland went from having the lowest per capita public support for arts and culture among the 50 largest American cities to being No. 2 or 3.

It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, this ten-year, $175 million investment in the creative sector has on the surprisingly artsy city's national reputation as an arts hub, particularly against the backdrop of a recession that may rock arts organizations nationwide. For that matter, it will be interesting to see how ALL cities with significant dedicated local arts funding fare against those cities with little or no such support.

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November 21, 2008 at 9:57 pm

The "business" of art succeeds and declines along with the economy in general, but the creation of art will happen regardless.

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