I count myself lucky to have been among the two hundred people that NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman addressed at the national new play development convening at Arena Stage on Wednesday, January 26, 2011. If you are interested in viewing the entire speech, it can be viewed here.
His speech caused a swift and emotional response from bloggers and media alike. Some of the more interesting responses are below:
Dear Rocco Landesman, We Don't Want Your Theater Death Panels, Arts Dispatch
Landesman Comments on Theater, The New York Times
Fighting Words from Rocco Landesman, Arena Stage Blog
On Rocco Landesman, Theatre Ideas
In his speech, Chairman Landesman said "there is a disconnect that has to be taken seriously — our research shows that attendance has been decreasing while the number of the organizations have been proliferating,” He continued by saying "You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.” I must say that hearing those words spoken by the chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts initially struck me pretty hard, but then I decided to reflect upon them. Landesman isn't the first person to suggest that the arts are over populated. His partner on the stage that day, Diane Ragsdale, previously of the Mellon Foundation, had a few days earlier written a blog entitled "Overstocked arts pond: fish too big & fish too many" with a very similar argument. In fact, yours truly wrote a blog on the same subject matter on November 17, 2008.
A couple of hours after his speech, outrage over his comments took over social media platforms. The tone was frighteningly homogeneous--how dare the NEA Chairman say that we have too many theaters! However, I would challenge everyone to momentarily set aside your emotional reactions to a statement that rocks who we are as artists just long enough to look at the data and ask if his conclusion, although painful, might be rooted in logic. Study after study shows an environment where supply exceeds demand, from the National Capitalization Project to the Americans for the Arts National Art Index to local reports like this one from DC's Helen Hayes Awards.
The data shows that at this moment in time, there is too little demand and too much supply. That is fact, not opinion. Where I believe Chairman Landesman drew sharp criticism was at his suggestion that we have to decreased supply, because we can't increase demand. Many marketers, such as HowardW, immediately went on the defensive, stating that of course we could increase demand (it is the job of marketers to create demand for art, right?). I respond by saying if you could increase demand to meet the current supply, then why aren't you? This isn't an acute symptom we are discussing, but a chronic trend. Marketers are not super humans. We cannot on our own create an infinite amount of demand to meet the skyrocketing numbers of non-profit arts organizations. The data shows that we are out of balance, and whether we want to admit it or not, we can only live out of balance for so long before outside pressures will return the system to stasis. Don't get me wrong. There is nothing I want more than to prove Chairman Landesman wrong, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.
From a motivational sense, what Chairman Landesman has done is remarkable. There is nothing that unites artists like telling them they can't do something. By nature, we are counter culture. We like to swim against the current. We need a challenge. Well, Landesman has thrown down the gauntlet. He has said that in his opinion supply will have to be reduced to meet demand. So, if you so passionately believe he is wrong, my question to you quite simply is--what are you going to do about it?