Not-For-Profit Arts Are Grossing Me Out

Posted by Howard Sherman, Mar 14, 2013 1 comment

Howard Sherman Howard Sherman

I have made no secret of my disdain for the practice of announcing theatre grosses as if we were the movie industry. I grudgingly accept that on Broadway, it is a measure of a production’s health in the commercial marketplace, and a message to current and future investors. But no matter where they’re reported, I feel that grosses now overshadow critical or even popular opinion within different audience segments.

A review runs but once, an outlet rarely does more than one feature piece; reports on weekly grosses can become weekly indicators that stretch on for years. If the grosses are an arbiter of what people choose to see, then theatre has jumped the marketing shark.

So it took only one tweet to get me back on my high horse [last week]. A major reporter in a large city (not New York), admirably beating the drum for a company in his area, announced on Twitter that, “[Play] is officially best-selling show in [theatre’s] history.”

When I inquired as to whether that meant highest revenue or most tickets sold, the reporter said that is was highest gross, that they had reused the theatre’s own language, and that they would find out about the actual ticket numbers.” I have not yet seen a follow up, but Twitter can be funny that way.

As the weekly missives about box office records from Broadway prove, we are in an endless cycle of ever-higher grosses, thanks to steady price increases, and ever newer records. That does not necessarily mean that more people are seeing shows; in some cases, the higher revenues are often accompanied by a declining number of patrons. Simply put, even though fewer people may be paying more, the impression given is of overall health. 

I’m particular troubled when not-for-profits fall prey to this mentality as part of the their press effort, and I think it’s a slippery slope. If not-for-profits are meant to serve their community, wouldn’t a truer picture of their success be how many patrons they serve?

In fact, I’d be delighted to see arts organizations announcing that their attendance increased at a faster pace than their box office revenue, meaning that their work is becoming more accessible to more people, even if the shift is only marginal. If selling 500 tickets at $10 each to a youth organization drags down a production’s grosses, that’s good news, and should be framed as such, unless our commitment to the next generation of arts attendees is merely lip service.

From my earliest days in this business, I have advocated for not-for-profit arts groups to be recognized not only as artistic institutions, but local businesses as well. While I think that has come into sharper focus over the past 30 years, I’m concerned that the wrong metrics are being applied, largely in an effort to mirror the yardstick used for movies.

It’s worth noting that for music sales or book sales, it’s the number of units sold, not the actual revenue, that is the primary indicator of success, at either the retail or wholesale level (although more sophisticated reporting methods are coming into play).

In a recent New York Times story about a drop in prices at the Metropolitan Opera, I was startled by the assertion that grosses were down in part because donor support for rush tickets had been reduced. Does that mean that fewer tickets were being offered because there wasn’t underwriting for the difference in price? Does it mean that the donor support was actually being recognized as ticket revenue, instead of contributed income? What does it mean for the future of the rush program if the money isn’t replaced—less low-price access? No matter how you slice it, something is amiss.

That said, the Met Opera example brings out an aspect of not-for-profit success that is, to my eyes, less reported upon, namely contributed revenue. Yes, we see stories when a group gets a $1 million gift (in larger cities, the threshold may be higher for media attention). But we don’t get updates on better indicators of a company’s success: the number of individual donors, for example, showing how many people are committing personal funds to a group.

The aggregate dollar figure will come out in an annual report or tax filing, but is breadth of support ever trumpeted by organizations or featured in the media? I think it should be. I also can’t help but wonder whether proclaiming high dollar grosses repeatedly might serve to suppress small donations.

Not-for-profit arts organizations exist in order to pursue creative endeavors at least in part in a manner different from the commercial marketplace. Make no mistake, the effort to generate ticket sales for a NFP is equivalent to that of a commercial production, but the art on offer is (hopefully) not predicated on reaching the largest audience possible for the longest period possible.

When NFP’s proclaim box office sales records, they are adopting a wholly commercial mindset. While it may appeal to the media, because it aligns with other reportage of other similar fields, it disrupts the perception of the company and their mission. And look out when grosses drop, as they inevitably will at some point.

We all love a hit, whether it’s the high school talent show or a new ballet. But if all we can use to demonstrate our achievements is how big a pile of money we’ve made, well then forgive me if I’m a bit grossed out.

(Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on on March 6, 2013.)

1 responses for Not-For-Profit Arts Are Grossing Me Out


Rachel says
March 14, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Great piece! The gross mentality is also a mirror of corporate America where with web sites, the concern is how many unique visitors to a web site--this is changing. It's an outdated mentality that often means nothing. The shift happening is toward measuring engagement many served (and did they convert to sales) .

The untold story is that between contributed revenue and ticket sales, it's hard to hold onto profitablity in the arts (I'm honing in on your non-profit arts advocacy to get them recognized as small businesses, not necessarily the big orgs you mention here).

What would happen if the "commercial mindset" gave way to entities embracing transparency and truth and sharing those facts proactively with audiences? Would more support the arts? In our social web dominated world all entities--for-profit, NFP, government are facing this audience change. Imagine the credibility on offer if a NFP were to make these facts part their story.

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