Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

Dear readers,

A challenge has been issued. Well, maybe not a challenge, but a redirection of focus has been…requested. A reader, and dear friend (is it possible I don’t know all 3 of my readers?) asked me why I didn’t write more about what was happening in Boston. While I am loathe to review area productions, I agreed that I could speak more specifically about area trends, etc. Here goes:

About a month ago, StageSource, Boston’s best theatrical resource, held the biannual Boston Theatre Conference. I’ve been to all three (if there have, in fact, been only three) and I found this gathering the most successful, even though will all my hand-raising, I was only able to speak at the Small Theatre break-out session (boo for me, yay for you). What better place to raise my salient points then my own blog?

At one of the earlier group sessions, Paul Daigneault (Producing Artistic Director of SpeakEasy Stage Company) gingerly brought up that he finds his company and several others in town are frequently vying for the same shows. He politely wondered if, perhaps there could be more communication between like-minded companies (Paul, if you are reading this and I am paraphrasing incorrectly, my apologies). I don’t recall any particular answer to his query, but fast-forward about an hour to the Artistic Directors Break-Out session – a veritable who’s-who of everyone who is anybody in town.... and people like me. No one really spoke to Paul’s point earlier to my recollection, but one of Boston’s giants did mentioned last year’s Boston Foundation Study, which he said called smaller arts organizations to merge or close.

A lot of people got all up in arms when this study came out. For the city’s major grant-making institution to say that not every arts organization is sacred is disconcerting at best. I mean, if they don’t think all arts are worthy, does anyone in this country love the arts – all the arts - equally?

Cue awkward kid in the front of the room with her hand up. “But, teacher, that’s a misrepresentation of the study.” It’s like American interpretations of Stanislavski – they didn’t get the most important part. If you are so inclined, you can read the study for yourself, but basically, the Boston Foundation study suggests that struggling non-profits have three options. The first, and arguably most important, is that organizations should clarify or refocus their mission, so they are more specific, more targeted in their work. If the organization is unwilling or able to get clearer about what they want to do, they should merge with like-minded organizations or close and shift their funds and audience to another like-minded organization. This calls to mind Mr. Daigneault’s comment earlier. If several companies are frequently competing for the same material, doesn’t it follow that they are competing for the same audiences and donors? The Boston Foundation seems to think so.

That being said, many of the smallest companies have clear missions, are doing work unlike the mid-and big guys, and are more apt to attract younger audiences. But lots of them fail all the time and it’s because of money.

Recently Chronicle did a profile of several arts organizations, including Snappy Dance – one of the most innovative, fun dance companies Boston has ever seen. Their complaint about the study is that the Boston Foundation treats arts organizations like businesses, and they are not businesses. Unfortunately, this is America, and we don’t believe in government subsidy for anything but corn. Medicine shouldn’t be a business, but it is here. Education shouldn’t be a business, but it is here. And this goes extra-true for the arts. Until the Federal, state and local government starts funding social services; they are forced to behave like businesses. Snappy closed their (metaphorical) doors earlier this year and Boston will be the lesser without it.

The real problem with the Boston Foundation isn’t their study, it is their refusal to fund small organizations. The tiniest amount of money would make a significant difference for any of the companies you might see at Boston Playwright’s Theatre, The Factory Theatre or the rehearsal rooms at the BCA. But, TBF, like most grant organizations, want their names on walls. Then they can prove to their donors that they are giving their money to worthy causes. So if you don’t have a wall (as in, you are a non-resident company) you are likely screwed. Besides, if you can’t afford the black box at the BCA, you probably don’t have a grant writer on staff and wouldn’t make it through the first cut anyway.

I am in thousands of conversations about what Boston needs to do to have a vital arts scene. I’m not about to suggest anything revolutionary – I think we all know the answers. We need to be able to sustain local artists. We need to originate more work than we import. We need to develop audiences. We need an attentive press (this is another post altogether – more anon). Almost all of this requires money.

And money is the problem, right? Well, I would like to offer two counter-suggestions to the Boston Foundation and two to the Theatre Community.

First, Boston Foundation, why not start a grant program aimed specifically at small arts organizations or artists? A handful of $500 grants with a minimal application process and turn-around time that you give to the 5 or 10 projects you find the most interesting. These would not be about investing in the longevity of the institution but supporting artistic innovation and risk where it is most likely to happen – call them innovation grants. Be a hero.

Not worth your time? Well, then, why not subsidize the most important, and most expensive part of a budget for any company – space? The state is already starting this (sort of), but if it cost, say $100 a week to use a room instead of $1000, I bet more companies would be taking advantage of the state-of-the-art facilities cropping up all over the city. This way, you get your name on the wall, and smaller companies have a better chance, and everybody wins.

Now you, Boston. To make a blanket statement: theatre people are not very generous in this town. We don’t like to see each other’s work. We don’t like to share our actors. We don’t even seem like to talk to each other about Art very much. Sharing was good for you in Kindergarten, its even better for you now. Share resources. All the time. A common storage for props and costumes (like in New York?) would be a good goal.

Finally, vote, artists, vote! Subsidy works. Massachusetts is 25th (or at least we were the last time I looked) in state arts funding and the NEA isn’t likely to pick up the slack anytime soon. Lobby your local representatives. Vote for candidates who have an arts platform and don’t be embarrassed about it. Arts subsidy is important, damn it. This is obviously not an immediate fix, but if art is important to the public, it will be important in the government too.

I mean, I could be wrong, but that all sounds pretty good, right?

PS. I'm taking requests for topics. I can rant about just about anything.

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