Claire Rice has some ideas.
Theatre Bay Area recently had two very big fundraising drives. One of those was the Blushing Orchid Ball and the other was an on-line campaign asking members to help “bridge the gap” in funding that the event (and I’m assuming other endeavors) didn’t fill. How big a gap? Quoting Brad Erickson: “Nothing life-threatening ($50,000 is about 3% of our total budget)…” I got the first “Bridge the Gap” email on June 12. One day after San Jose Repertory announced it was filing for bankruptcy. Thirteen days after Intersection for the Arts announced that it would be restructuring. As of this writing Theatre Bay Area traversed the funding gap. The sweat can be wiped from our brows and we can all go back to doing what we were doing before…raising money for everyone else.No, but seriously, I’m glad they were able to raise the money. Programing shouldn’t have to be cut because the rent was raised.
Programing should be cut because it isn’t working.
So now that Theatre Bay Area is out of the danger zone, I think it’s time we take some evaluation time.
Here are a few things that I would like Theatre Bay Area to be.
1) Be More Like Public Radio/TV
I’m talking about membership here. My membership to KQED isn’t about me; it’s about what I think is important. I believe that Public Radio needs to exist in the world. My membership to Theatre Bay Area is like that too. I am a member because I believe Theatre Bay Area serves my community in an important way. I’ve been a member of Theatre Bay Area on and off over the years, but it was only the first year of my membership where I was doing it for me. The magazine, as good as it can be, is perishable. The discounts in services are negligible to being a non-member and most events are just as open to non-members as members. Membership dues right now are 30% of Theatre Bay Area’s annual income, but I know plenty of people who aren’t members who benefit by proxy from other people being members (like the companies they work for, or they read the articles on line). They may say: “I didn’t go to the conference because I’m not a member,” or “I was a member, but I didn’t get anything out of it.” American Conservatory Theatre is a member of Theatre Bay Area, and I’m pretty sure they aren’t getting anything more out of the membership than most. Why are they members? For postcard distribution? No. It’s because they understand that Theatre Bay Area is a hub of a very large metropolitan area. It’s a hub that connects a diverse range of communities. Our thinking about cost/benefit of membership needs to change. Our relationship to the organization needs to change. When a membership payment is made the member should not be thinking: I’ve paid $75 and what have I gotten out of it? They should be thinking: I’ve paid what I could and now I can feel like I’ve contributed to the community at large.
2) Tear Down the Pay Wall
And like Public Radio/TV, Theatre Bay Area shouldn’t look as if it is providing services strictly for the benefit of the cash that comes out of those services. There is a big part of me that agrees with local theatre personality and soon to be podcast celebrity Rob Ready that too many theatre companies are operating on a crutch of fundraising. There are too many theatre companies who are more worried about their pass the hat speeches, program inserts, kickstarters, and gala events than they are about whether or not a show actually sells. But theatre companies are not services organizations. As “intrinsic” as they may be to our experience as human beings, (or insert other inane grant-speak statement) they do not provide necessary services that support communities. Not all of them, anyway. Theatre Bay Area does! CA$H Grants aren’t just money to local artists; the process of applying is practically grant writing training wheels. No other organization will hold your hand throughout the grant writing process. No other organization will call you and tell you your budget is weird looking and give you 24 hours to resubmit. No other organization will let you sit on a panel first so that you know what it is like to apply before you apply! That alone is worth the $75 membership fee. But right now, Theatre Bay Area, either because of pressure from members or funders or from their own history, has set up a system where everything it does must be able to fund itself. Thus the pay wall. Right now, as a member of Theatre Bay Area I get a magazine, access to what’s behind the pay wall on the website, and discounts on their events and services. But I argue that the news, opinions, forums and opportunities are too important to put behind a paywall. The articles are too well written, the important news and opinions of the day are too of the moment, and the voices of the leaders of our industry are too necessary to keep behind a pay wall or oppressed by a press date. HowlRound, 2AMt, BitterLemons and various blogs are filling the internet for free with up to the moment opinions, incisive critical reactions, brave foretellings, and just plain old news. I argue that the pay wall is hurting Theatre Bay Area more than it could ever help it. It makes it feel like a for profit venture when in every other way it’s main and best purpose is to be for the benefit of it’s members.
3) A Yearly Omnibus Publication
I know, this sounds crazy! And, in a way, it is. But it needs to be full of nonperishable items like plays, dramaturgical analysis, and a place where writers can be published. The magazine is beautiful and it is the biggest reason to become a member. This month’s magazine included IDEATION by Aaron Loeb, and that is wonderful. But if the pay wall comes down and we can get something that looks closer to The Bold Italic or HowlRound with daily stories, editor’s picks, updates and news bits, then we don’t need a publication with those things. One yearly Omnibus publication can have: a “best of” section for articles that mattered throughout the year, the Glickman winner, Theatre Bay Area’s annual report (LINK: http://www.theatrebayarea.org/?page=2013AnnualReport), a report on the whole Bay Area Theatre scene, and a listing of award winners and where they are now! It can have reports from important unions, big funding organizations, government agencies and more. It can be so much. And it can be available electronically for my Kindle.
4) Really, Stop Being Sad that San Francisco Isn’t a Theatre Going Town
San Francisco is going through an arts revolution right now and theatre isn’t being left out of it. Really, it’s not. We are just so caught up with being “relevant” and “important” that we are overlooking the fact that we are part of a larger tapestry of incredible things going on right now. Yeah, times are hard and Netflix is better than going outside. Fact. It’s just a fact. I can’t and won’t argue it. Please, can we stop talking about it? At the very least can we find another way to frame the thought: “San Francisco isn’t seeing us. How do we make our presence known?” One day there is going to be a San Francisco Chronicle story with a headline that says: “Who knew we had so much amazing theatre?” And we’ll all stomp our feet and get red in the face and say: “We were always here!” I just need a new argument here. I need more than cheer leading and intrinsic impacting. I hope the awards will help, but I sincerely doubt they will do more than boost both internal moral and internal strife (yes, at the same time!). I don’t want to waste time telling people that I’m important. It’s time we figure out how to let them know we EXIST!
Stuart here. Lovely work, as usual Claire, and on the whole I agree (that anthology idea is gold), but I’m going to take issue with an aspect of point two (and with some of the content of Rob’s recent broadcasts, and to some extent, Allison’s piece yesterday) and it’s this idea that keeps popping up in the last few weeks that theater/art is somehow supposed to be self-sustaining and should be and isn’t valuable if it isn’t.
First, Art and artists of any medium have always had to worry about money, and the patronage system has always existed and continues to exist, we just replaced “the Queen” or whatever with “the NEA” or “Kickstarter”. But the idea is the same: art rarely pays for itself on a material end, and artists rarely have the ability to realize their visions themselves, so others must help and enable the artist, ideally because they are getting it back on a spiritual, philosophical, personal, legacy end, etc. At least Kickstarter and so forth liberated us from having to adhere to a particular social or religious ideology in order to get our commissions. Though I agree it seems that not a day goes by now I’m not being asked to contribute money to somebody’s dream project, at least more people who previously could not have found a platform for their voice are doing so and many of those people are legit artists with legit projects who couldn’t get funded for all kinds of bullshit non-legit reasons like their ideas were risky, or they weren’t part of a clique, or just weren’t you know… white. Or a man. Or straight.
Second, I agree that pop art, populist art, and commercial art should all be self-sustaining or evolutionarily purged because it isn’t able to sustain itself. Since the objectives of these things is to first and foremost appeal to the broadest number of people possible, and usually at the expense of challenging their audience in any way, then the masses should be able to determine what is worthy and what is not- we should have our druthers when it comes to picking our junk food. But I hate this idea that the people alone determine what is good and worthy for society as a whole (or individuals on an individual level, for that matter), and the idea that all art should be self-sustaining like a commercial product is offensive to me and also has terrible implications for the future of art as it limits it to the purely commercial, which is rarely visionary, rarely concerned with being content heavy or pushing boundaries. And sure you can say “well, the real Art is excluded, of course” but the trouble is: who gets to determine the real art? You? Me? TBA? The audience? It’s all scrambled up together these days, Art and art, and that makes it hard for me to get behind this idea that we should expect it to adhere to the same rules as iPhones and artisan cocktails.
Thousands of years of cultural history shows us that the people rarely pay for what they need, opting instead to pay for what they think they want (only to change their minds later), and even when the people can identify what they need they don’t think they should have to pay for it and maybe they shouldn’t have to. After all, if it is vital (and I’m sick of this idea that theater isn’t vital, and that’s really what my rant here is about) then aren’t we all entitled to it? If health care and food and shelter are human needs and so is art- particularly challenging art that is not always entertaining or seeking to entertain the masses, but rather pushes us to be better thinkers and people, which should be the end goal of all civilization- then shouldn’t access to it and abundance of it be freed from fashion or whim? To me, there is a real danger in elevating the service organization over the artists is supposed to be serving. Or if we’re going to do that, we need to be holding said service organizations to a higher standard of ensuring that artists are, in fact, getting something out of them and feel they are working to demonstrate to the non-artist community that we not only exist, but NEED TO EXIST. And not because that’s good grant speak- but because that’s the truth. If a service organization can embody that in both its words and actions, then by all means should it be supported just like public radio or television or a soup kitchen for that matter, and supported in bulk by non-artists who believe, when they support the service organization, that they are fundamentally supporting the community service known as ART, or in this case: THEATRE.
I’m definitely not of the opinion that only popular art, theatre, anything is the stuff that should exist and that if it can’t make money it shouldn’t be around. And I think grants and fundraising and kickstarter (and things like kickstarter) are resources that are probably going to be around and people should use them, but what I don’t like is that it’s the first step right now. Right away it’s “how do we get a bunch of people to hand us money for this?” I want more “okay, what can we do with what we have?” More kickstarter and indiegogo campaigns for $3,000 and less for $60,000.
The questions posed in my blog have less to do with thinking about things as a person who makes theatre and more to do with people who give money to things. What if THOSE people burn out? Then it doesn’t matter if we think patrons of art should be footing the bill for big, bold work, because we don’t have enough of them to pay the bills. I understand that it’s been done that way for a long time, but many things have been done many ways for a long time, and then one day they don’t work anymore. We haven’t hit that day yet, but each day we sit in an office filling out grant applications, I worry that the day is coming nearer, and I want to know what to do then. If I don’t have a wealthy patron named Frederick VonGoldbucket or an institution called We Give Money To The Arts anymore – how am I going to make things? Why are they the only option?
I don’t think of art primarily as a commercial product, but I do think that if it absolutely has to rely on an uncontrollable factor, then bringing up the possibility that the resource we rely on could disappear at any time, particularly if we over-use it, seems like a worthy conversation to me. And that’s really the point I was trying to make. Not that I’m a hack and proponent of only popular things.
Like the point where asking for funding just becomes white noise that falls on deaf ears and a project we all believe in gets cancelled for it?
Yeah, that is a scary thought.
Sorry, Allison, I don’t mean to imply that you think all art that isn’t commercial should just be kicked into the ocean, and I don’t think Claire thinks that either (or Rob, for that matter), I just have heard, in the last two weeks, three different people imply that 1) art is kind of a non-vital/non-desirable to the community and the lack of resources/support we’re currently seeing is due, at least in part, to that and 2) we should probably take that into consideration and strive to be either more of a service industry ourselves or rely more on our service organization to take care of us. The later only works if that organization is able to do that and shares our objectives and the former often results in compromise (though of course, as Charles says, not all commercial art lacks artistic merit- just like not all non-commercial art is actually artistically viable). Personally, and I recognize this is idealistic, I’m not sure we’ll ever not be stuck between those two alternatives or some version of them until we have a cultural shift where people recognize the value of Art as a thing unto itself, including art we don’t personally like or agree with, and thus seek to maintain an artistic value system and presence in our society in the same way we seek to maintain a standard of living.
This is why one of my favourite (and, admittedly, overused) phrases is Francis Coppola’s INSIDE THE ACTOR’S STUDIO quote “If you want to know who’s running the world, just look and see who’s hiring all the artists. At one time it was The Vatican or whoever; today it’s corporations”.
The idea that art can exist with ANY reliance on financial income is lovely one… but not a realistic one. Dare I say, it’s immature. It’s radical youth’s idea that that “real art” can only be created that way, whilst the more mature artist not only understands the necessity of financial stability, but knows that just because a work is commercial doesn’t mean it lacks artistic merit. (Trying not to repeat myself too much here)
I’m all for artistic scrutiny/critique and I’m just as worried about closing companies as I am excited for the new ones. It’s the needless drawing of battle lines I could do without.
Charles, I’m having a hard time following your comment. Maybe, at the risk of repeating yourself, you can clarify what you’re trying to say.
It was in reply to your first comment. Admittedly I had a typo, as I meant to write that “art withOUT any financial assistance”, but even then I should have clarified that I don’t think that it’s impossible. It’s art – finance shouldn’t be the deciding factor in it.
The “immature” idea that I don’t like is the one suggesting that making an income off of your work – particularly a corporate income – automatically makes one a sell-out. God forbid we actually make money, if not a full living, off of our work. That’s why I keep going back to the Coppola quote – it doesn’t necessarily mean that the artist is willing to sell out their talents or that the money folks just want to exploit and dilute unique talent (though those are both possibilities); it could just mean that the money folks have good taste and that the artist is savvy enough to translate their work into something lucrative.
The last part of my earlier comment was in regard to the second part of yours about who determines “real Art”. I mentioned in my “Baby and Bathwater” piece that while I’m all in favour of competitive industry, I’m put off by the “our way or the highway” attitude that seems be coming with it recently. When people say things like “Fuck Shakespeare – we make REAL theatre! Join our New Theatre revolution!”, I’m encouraged by the enthusiasm but turned off yet another person saying that art – theatre in particular – can only be one thing. For folks claiming to want to free theatre from some… I dunno, oppressive shackles, their idea of “traditional” theatre seems myopic.
Thank you Claire for opening up the conversation. As you know, TBA is always looking for ways to improve our services and offerings. Currently they we mid-way through a new strategic plan and many of these options are being discussed internally and with stakeholders. So, your impressions and all of the replies to them are particularly timely. I look forward to continuing the dialogue and staying relevant to our members and the field. TBA was formed by Bay Area Theatre Artists for Bay Area Theatre Artists.
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Back to Claire’s essay on 4 Things Theatre Bay Area Should Do…
Claire, first my apologies for this delayed response — I’ve had a bunch of travel this past few weeks and am still catching up. Thanks for your well-thought advice. To some of your points:
Membership: We’ve been giving the whole model of membership some very serious thinking over the past year or so. Your readers might remember that we wrestled in the “cloud” with this question last summer in the ArtsFWD challenge. Exchanging the old “transactional” model of membership (you pay us something to get something in return) with the “NPR” model is one we’re considering as we work out our new strategic plan. It begs the question, what is is membership in an organization for? One answer is helping the organization connect with its constituents. By joining, we get to know a bit about you — like your name and email address. And membership should help the member feel connected and part of the organization. And it also can provide a revenue stream. For us that amounts to about 15% of our total operating costs. The NPR model, as you point out, is much more like a donation. The benefits of public radio are shared equally by those who are members (those who give money to support the mission) and those who are not.
Pay wall: This is really tied to the point above. If we adopted the NPR model, as you suggest, then tearing down the pay wall makes perfect sense. If the transactional model stands, we are left with asking ourselves, what do you get for your membership dollars? This is one answer. Frankly, it’s not an answer I’m in love with. I think we’re seeing all kinds of organizations struggling with how to support online content. You can make people pay. You can sell advertising. You can do both. You can have it supported by some entity (the larger organization, funders, some wealthy person), or you can provide content without paying any of the content-providers. But if you’re going to pay people, as we do, then the money has to come from somewhere. Where is a great question.
A yearly omnibus publication: Intriguing!
SF as a Theatre Town: What I’ll say is this: I come from Chicago, and when I was growing up, Chicago was not a theatre town. Now it is. What happened? For one thing, tons more theatre started being made. For another, the major press started taking theatre-making in Chicago seriously, and started covering it — seriously. Third — I’m not sure. Here in the Bay Area, we’ve got tons of theatre being made — really fine theatre — being made. We’ve got tons of artists and tons of companies. So the problem is not that we don’t have enough theatre to be a theatre town. Then what? Press coverage? That might be part of it. You hope more people would just know that theatre exists. Yes! And then, let’s hope, they go! That they attend, participate, talk about theatre, talk about the ideas that they’ve seen explored in theatre, and then support theatre, and maybe even make theatre themselves.
[…] done right. In fact, in regards to No. 10, I’d love to see our friends at Theatre Bay Area take this under consideration, even if it meant teaming up with a company like HowlRound. Imagine the TBA Awards – which, […]