Art Works Blog

The New World Theatrical Order

Asheville, North Carolina

Scott Walters, Director, Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education

Scott Walters. Photo by Rob Bowen

On February 22nd, I was invited to attend a meeting with NEA Chair Rocco Landesman and about a dozen leaders of arts service organizations to discuss the #supplydemand conversation that he had started in late January at the From Scarcity to Abundance convening at Arena Stage. He broached this topic in front of over a hundred arts professionals with complete knowledge that the proceedings were being tweeted and blogged as part of the proceedings. He wanted to start a national conversation, and he knew this was the way to do it. If we had any doubts as to whether he was aware of what he was doing, they were dispelled on January 31st, a single day after Arena's convening was over, when he wrote a follow-up blog post on the NEA blog that was entitled #supplydemand, which, of course, is a Twitter hashtag. Clearly, he wanted this conversation to take off, and he had learned from David Dower’s web savvy how to do it.

It seems pretty clear that he didn’t want to confine the discussion to the Usual Suspects. In fact, he said as much in his post (the underlining is mine): “Last week, as part of a new work convening at Arena Stage, I was able to finally spark a conversation that I have been wanting to have for over a year now.” He goes on, “When we released the SPPA results at a meeting of more than 40 national service organizations in December 2009, I said that anyone who hears these two numbers has to ask about balancing the equation, which means either increasing demand or, yes, maybe decreasing supply. I have made this same observation to a number of audiences, but at Arena, the conversation finally took off. So I decided to write this blog post---not to retract or walk back the observation (as some hope I will do)---but to encourage us to keep having the conversation.” At the time, I gave Landesman kudos for doing so; I still do today.

No sooner had “supply and demand” left Landesman’s lips at Arena than, thanks to Trisha Mead’s tweet heard ‘round the world, the on-line theater community was abuzz. Blog posts and tweets came hot and heavy, there were links and comments, ideas floated and condemned. Gee whiz, it was almost like being part of a community!

On February 9, I received an email from the NEA, saying (again, underlining is mine): “There has been a great deal of interest in the ongoing #supplydemand conversation that was kicked off at Arena Stage when Diane Ragsdale interviewed Rocco Landesman as part of their From Scarcity to Abundance convening about the new work sector. A number of leaders from the theater community have asked about continuing this conversation in person, and Rocco would love to organize a small meeting of leaders for an informal discussion.”

What happened in between January 31 and February 9? While I can’t say for certain, I suspect that one thing was a February 4 letter from Teresa Eyring of TCG written to Landesman, a letter that she released online. Eyring asks that Landesman meet “with TCG and a small group of leaders from the theater field” to “personally… discuss the issues you’ve raised….. I understand from your remarks that you want to create a comprehensive dialogue on this issue, so I hope this will add to the discussion.” Why not, right? Right.

But here’s the problem. Those “leaders from the theater field”? They really didn’t want to talk about supply-and-demand. If you read further in Eyring’s letter, she starts guiding the conversation to other areas through a laundry list of “topics our field could be exploring” if we weren’t being distracted by all this annoying supply-and-demand talk. Among the topics she suggests: how can we increase job opportunities? How can we cultivate new audiences? How can we increase arts education? How can we increase partnerships? How can theaters access on-line resources? And what is the role of the arts in communities? She concluded her letter: “I hope that we will not squander the chance to locate our national conversation about the arts, in the context of accomplishment, investment and opportunity.” And, presumably, not waste our time talking about whether there are too many theaters. Which is, you know, what the meeting is supposed to be about.

And that’s exactly what happened. When I arrived at the meeting ten minutes late (Google doesn’t include time spent parking in its calculations), that process was already well underway. Furthermore, the arts leaders were doing their best to dismiss the on-line conversation which had been happening. A good example of this, but not the only one by far, came from the National New Play Network’s Jason Loewith, who said to Landesman something like, “You want to start a conversation about oversupply in the arts sector, and sent us 250 pages of blog posts to confirm you'd started that conversation. I read about half of them, and saw very little ‘conversation’. Instead I saw a lot of one-sided, misinformed hysteria about ‘NEA death panels’ masquerading as conversation. I don't see that as productive.”

Productive. If you ask me, these arts leaders had had a year to have a “productive” conversation about this topic, but chose not to. Instead, they contented themselves with repeating the usual talking points so common and so ineffective when talking about the arts. Furthermore, they were focused on the perceptions of the general public and the legislators, whereas Landesman had addressed the field. He trusted members of the field to kick the topic back and forth and bring to bear their creativity and intelligence, and the on-line world had responded with alacrity.

As I said in my Theatre Ideas blogpost about the meeting, “these leaders are used to controlling the conversation from their privileged positions.” That sounds more dismissive than I intended it---these leaders are all intelligent, articulate people who have committed their lives to the advancement of the arts. But I would argue that the context of this conversation has changed, and we in the arts need to change our approach along with it.

As Clay Shirky announced, “here comes everybody.” It’s not just a dozen “arts leaders” who control the conversation anymore, but artists with blogs and Twitter accounts and “watch parties” that gather people to discuss an event, such as the Arena convening, as it happens. Landesman understands that, and, judging from the approach he took to initiating this conversation, appreciates it.

And so I take this opportunity to applaud him once again, and to applaud the theater bloggers and tweeters as well. What we are seeing is a major change in the way our professional discussions occur, and it is refreshing to see that a government leader such as Landesman gets it. I would also suggest that should also lead to a reassessment of our responsibilities as bloggers and tweeters, because suddenly we find that our ideas are being taken seriously, our arguments are being discussed in the mainstream media, and our opinions are being sought. Now is the time for our best work.

At the meeting, when challenged about his idea that demand for the theater isn’t going to improve, Landesman responded that it hasn’t for decades, so what are we going to do to change it? Nice gauntlet. I can tell you one thing---if it can be changed, it won’t be by mouthing the same tired old ideas. I believe it will be changed by artists coming up with original approaches, sharing them on-line, hashing out ideas in a vibrant back-and-forth, and taking the discussion to the streets and the theaters directly.

Welcome to the blogging and tweeting world, Rocco. I’m looking forward to more provocations.

Add new comment