NEA Arts Magazine

Focusing on the Work

Arts Presenting in Hard Times


Dancers in Arab costumes on stage

Lebanon’s Caracalla Dance Theatre performed Knights of Moon as part of Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center festival in spring 2009, Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World. Photo by Carol Pratt

"Wary and cautious—presenters are highly sensitive to weakening indicators." That headline from the January 2009 Association of Performing Arts Presenters tracking survey captures the state of arts presenting in the current economic recession. Arts organizations throughout the country are taking special measures to mitigate their budget shortfalls: hiring freezes, reduced and safe programming, higher ticket prices. Not surprising, in these precarious times, many organizations feel pressure—from their boards of directors, from senior management— to stick with tried and true productions rather than new works. Still, some organizations feel their mission is to search out new and interesting art and present it to their communities.

Located in Washington, DC, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts programs about 2,000 free and ticketed performances each year, including themed multidisciplinary festivals, live theater, and symphony performances. A visual arts museum as well as a presenter, the Walker Arts Center presents about 25–30 performing arts projects each season, including presentations of existing repertoire, commissions, and extended artist residencies and public performances. While differing in scale, each organization remains enthusiastically committed to not just presenting existing work but also presenting, and even commissioning, new work that has not already received the seal of approval from critics and audiences.

As the Walker’s Senior Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither explained, "Even as the finances have gotten tight, we’ve held firmly to the belief that it's essential to continue to commission work and find new ways to support the making of new projects. We are sometimes discouraged that we see a decline of commissioning happening on a national level; it’s inspired us to actually try to commission more than we ever have." Bither views commissioning as an investment in the future. "Unless arts organizations are helping seed the future with new plays and new kinds of performances, dances works, new musical compositions, there won’t be things to present in 10 or 15 or 20 years." He also feels that the arts gain their relevance by responding to contemporary issues and situations, and suggests that performance works we now consider classic masterpieces were also timely at the moment of their creation.

Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser agrees that despite the shaky economy, now is not the time for arts organizations to turn conservative with programming. "I read so often now [that] now is the time to do accessible work, now is the time to play it safe. The problem is when you play it safe, if everyone plays it safe, we’re all boring, and funders will go elsewhere. We’re finding that the more interesting work is the work that draws more audiences and draws more funders."

Bither echoed Kaiser’s sentiment. "I would encourage my presenting colleagues in general that sometimes the smartest thing to do is to take the biggest risk. Surprisingly we have found that sometimes the scariest projects, the most ambitious and audacious undertakings, have delivered the greatest rewards...not just in terms of cultural attention and great art being supported or created, but it also comes back in the form of foundation resources. Grants officers are still looking at who is out there trying to challenge themselves and stay relevant to the culture and develop new models that might better serve the field down the road."

Many arts organizations address the growing deficit between income and production costs by some combination of raising ticket prices, limiting the number of productions in a season, and producing smaller shows, a solution that Kaiser characterized as "problematic." For example, skyrocketing ticket prices can actually decrease audience size as more people lose economic access to arts events. "When you keep raising your ticket prices, as we’ve done for the last 30 years in the arts (more than any other industry), you start to disenfranchise whole groups of people," opined Kaiser. "Then we’re surprised when people say the arts are irrelevant. They’re not irrelevant; they’re just too expensive."

The Walker has looked for vehicles other than increasing ticket costs or contributor income to address financial challenges; for example, through collaboration. As Bither explained, "Very infrequently [is the Walker] the sole commissioner of a new work. I think collaboration and cooperation between arts entities that’s on a national scale and on a local level are really part of what we define as requirements that allow us to be fiscally responsible and still support new work." Last year the Walker partnered with the Humana Festival of New American Plays, to coproduce the break/s, a one-man play by Marc Bamuthi Joseph; in the works is a co-commission with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra of a contemporary jazz work.

Man breakdancing on the floor

Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s performance of the break/s at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in April 2008. Photo by Gene Pittman

Collaboration is also a key strategy for Kaiser. "I'm a very big believer in joint ventures. If right now you can't do the biggest production known to mankind, do it with someone else." As an example, he cites his tenure with American Ballet Theatre which—in Kaiser’s words—was "basically bankrupt" when he took the helm. An ambitious new commission co-produced with the San Francisco Ballet helped the company to leverage its limited resources and regain its financial footing

The Walker also stretches its budget by offering artists in-kind resources, which at the Walker means access to its five-year-old, state-of-the-art performance space with the technicians to run it. Another in-kind resource is the access to Minneapolis’' local talent pool. For example, if a particular dance work requires 20 performers, but the choreographer can only afford to travel with eight company members, the cast is augmented through local auditions. This not only saves costs, but also works toward audience development. As Bither described, "It helps ground a work in a community that suddenly feels ownership on that project in a new way because their neighbor or friend or child is actually deeply involved in the making and presenting of the work."

Bither suggested that, given the economic climate, it's especially important to let artists know that there’s a place for them to make work. "You know it’s a very vulnerable and lonely place, especially for emerging and mid-career artists, to not know who’s out there that might believe in them enough to not just put on their last hit but to actually support their next idea. I think in many instances the Walker saying to an artist, 'We believe in you, and we want to help make this great idea you have come to life,' is equally important, if not more so, than the cash we can put on the table or the range of resources we can provide."

Of course, it’s one thing to provide the financial and other resources for artists to create and present new work; it's quite another to get audiences in the door when just going to the movies has become a major expense, much less a ballet, opera, or stage play. Kaiser and Bither agree that presenting interesting, even risky, programming is crucial to keeping existing audiences and developing new ones. "[T]he arts organizations that are successful are the ones that are constantly welcoming new people in and building stronger and stronger relationships to their constituencies and communities," said Kaiser. "The ones that are going to get in trouble eventually are the ones who are holding on for dear life to the people who they currently know." To diversify its audience, in spring 2009, the Kennedy Center programmed a festival around the arts of the Arab world, which Kaiser describes as, "not accessible, not safe. We sold 92 percent of the tickets. We raised more for that production than we have for any other production in our history."

Children in Arab costumes

Based in the Lady of Damascus Church in Syria, the Al-Farah Choir, including more than 100 children, performed Byzantine, Muslim, and Arab songs as part of the Kennedy Center’s festival Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World. Photo by Margot Schulman

Despite its challenges, Kaiser and Bither agree that the fraught financial times have a silver lining. Artists and arts organizations alike have had to pare back to the essentials and rediscover their missions. Kaiser elaborated: "So many organizations have suffered from mission drift, which means they have one central thing they’re trying to do but over the years—because they got a grant or because they had a special idea that started to broaden or change—they started to not really have a very clear mission. Now a lot of organizations are having to go back and say, 'Let's really focus on the work we really want to do.'"

For Bither, the true work of the presenter is to share the voice of the artist, which he believes is needed now more than ever. "I look to artists to really be the ones to help guide us as a society in sorting through some very complicated, very wrenching changes that we’re seeing both in our country and the world at large."

Ultimately, regardless of the economy, Kaiser believes that to remain relevant, viable, and to keep supporting artists, arts organizations need to take a two-pronged approach. "To really distill it down, I’d say the key thing I do is focus on art, to make the art really interesting, and then I focus on what I call institutional marketing, which gets people really excited about what the organization does as a whole. It’s those two elements that I think are so crucial, and I think when times get tough, so many organizations forget both of those."