Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Flip Side

Back when some of the first high-profile theater death spirals were gaining publicity, I linked to a post by Mr. 99 Seats in which he was casting a skeptical eye on some of these plights.

A few weeks ago, Adam Thurman, an Arts Marketer who runs The Mission Paradox weblog posted about yet another plea to help an arts organization:

I read the article, there's no sense of why the org is such trouble . . . just one of those vaugue "caused by the recession" sort of things.

I go to the website of the org. Again, no explanation of how they got there, no info about how they are going to get out of it . . . just talk of the recession.

Let's draw a distinction:

There are challenges caused by the recession

And there are challenges caused by bad decision making that the recession simply exposed.

If an organization is in the midst of a financial crisis they need to let us know if the recession caused it or exposed it.

Yesterday, I posted about the Madison Rep closing. Today, Leonard Jacobs at the Clyde Fitch Report points out that local Wisconsin journalists think it is inept management that closed the Rep.

Meanwhile, Isaac Butler at Parabasis notices something about Trinity Rep's line up for next season:

So we have a new Steven Dietz play, Sarah Ruhl's Dead Man's Cell Phone, and then... Cabaret, The Odd Couple and Twelfth Night. This isn't all that different from Trinity Rep's recent seasons, but the presence of The Odd Couple on the slate of plays is telling. There is perhaps no safer play to do than The Odd Couple. It's so safe- having been immortalized in a pretty good movie, and having no angles into the material other than the obvious one- that there's actually no reason to produce it (unless you want to use it as a star vehicle, as the recent Broadway version did, a dubious reason to do a play if you ask me).

(Oh and by the way: Trinity Rep's mission?: "Trinity Rep reinvents the public square with dramatic art that stimulates, educates and engages our community in a continuing dialogue")

This season is Rock Solid. Impermeable. It's also not very exciting, and I have a feeling lots of seasons like it will be cropping up over the next couple of years.


Thomas Garvey said...

Okay, so today's wisdom from the blogosphere amounts to: theatres that took unnecessary risks prior to the recession deserve censure, and theatres that are managing their seasons conservatively during said recession also deserve censure. AND maybe bloggers who want to have everything both ways deserve a little censure, too.

Art said...

Doesn't it depend though, Thom, on what risks we are talking about here?

As you stated before in some previous comments, and I agree with you, in the end, the organization will stand or fall on the support of its community.

All these blogs are pointing towards is the need for transparency, which is, ultimately, in the best interest of the organization's community, no?

And, I don't think that all bloggers have or will speak as one voice, do you?

Thomas Garvey said...

No, the bloggers don't speak with one voice, but often what they say sounds like a whine anyway.

I guess I'm a little skeptical that inept management is really at the heart of most of these closures. Or perhaps I'm simply wondering whether theatre has EVER been "well managed." Do theatres ever have "rainy day funds," much less endowments to draw down? Almost never. I'm sure many of these theatres facing closure were not very well managed, but I also know from experience that managing a theatre well is a very difficult thing to do, and my few encounters with the finances of other theatre companies have never inspired my confidence in their long-term viability. Artistic types, to be blunt, are almost never prudent managers, and revenue in the arts is famously unpredictable anyway. Of course people don't want to donate to groups that are a financial mess; they want to know they're not throwing good money after bad; they want to see a plan. But they should not be suprised if such a plan requires a production of The Odd Couple.

Art said...

I know.

What does it mean for an arts organization to be well managed?

It is a riddle, a riddle indeed.

One of the reasons I like the Mission Paradox blog, and Andrew Taylor's Artful Manager site is that they wrestle with these questions daily.

(Ken Davenport is a completely different perspective as he is trying to be profitable and get a return on his investment.)

Could we could look to the mission statement?

I sometimes think that is almost too obvious of a starting point. After all, an organization's community probably isn't aware of the mission statement, not is most of the staff I am sure.

Isaac's "whine" may be more on target than you think though. Combined with the other calls for more transparency, shouldn't Curt Columbus at least be askedabout the decision to produce The Odd Couple.

By the way, it may be, as you say, necessary financially.

An perfectly acceptable answer could be: "Well, it doesn't really fit with what we usually do as an organization, or at least in terms with our mission statement, but we feel in these times it is necessary to produce a comedy standard that..."

Anonymous said...

You know, right now I can basically sum up my position as "Do what you have to do to stay open." If that means The Odd Couple, then I'll come review The Odd Couple. You don't have to go through some embarrassing charade where you try to pretend it's part of your mission.

isaac butler said...


I understand your point (and laughed out loud when I read your comment) so I don't mean to sound defensive here buuuut... I don't think anyone alleged that risk-taking programming was at the heart of any of the struggling theater's finances. In other word, there are financial and Artistic risks and they're interrelated but they're different.

My post was attempting to look at the ways that financial risk can cause artistic conservatism and to at least note that while it's understandable, it's also sad.