The Playgoer: Corporate Funding

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Corporate Funding

We commonly assume the NEA is our closest equivalent to a European Ministry of Culture. But could the real analogue be Time Warner? Certainly they provide more dollars!

Kate Taylor has a great piece in today's Sun on our de facto Arts Council.

Time Warner, of course, is behind the Signature's super-successful $15 August Wilson season. But as Signature chief James Houghton tells Taylor, it's still no cure-all to the deeper malady.

"The economic equation of theater is impossible, especially in the nonprofit world," he said."It costs so much to produce it that, even if we were to sell out every single seat, we barely get to 50% of what it cost to make it. We're stuck in this ridiculous equation, which forces the ticket prices up and up and up. And there's a fundamental issue with that equation that is contradictory to engaging people in the theater."

Still, he said, the $15 season is "not about trying to lure people in, and we'll charge them more later." After all, lots of people, even if they really enjoy a $15 play, still can't afford a $55 one (the Signature's regular price). "It's trying to deal with the condition itself," Mr. Houghton said, "to say, ‘Wait a minute, this system is incredibly broken.'"

Incredibly broken. I'm glad someone is saying it.

In other news, you may have missed in the Times business pages this little feature on something called "Stage Vision." No, it's not a tribute to Peter Brook or Robert Wilson, but a celebration of corporate-sponsored LCD screens popping up in certain LORT theatre lobbies, beaming advertising and other "content" into audiences' field of vision. And guess what--the NEA has pitched in for this! Is this where we want our scant tax dollars for the arts going? Funding for "funding opportunities"? Helping people help themselves, I guess. (In the article, NEA justifies their support by saying some videos are educational.)

Such intensified and slick efforts to nab more business bucks seems a direct consequence of both sliding subscription bases and declines in individual giving. (Dying donors?)

While philanthropy is still a crucial source of money, donations have flattened out over the years. Theater subscriptions — which supply guaranteed income — account for less than 50 percent of nonprofit theater audiences, he said. But marketing costs to reach potential subscribers continue to increase.
There it is--the era of the subscription audience is fading before our eyes.

And there are potentially good things in that? But hopefully not corporate domination in place of the phone call from the cranky subscriber. Get this from Bruce Whitacre, head of the "National Corporate Theatre Fund":

“Regional theater in the current climate is doing fairly well, but they are very thinly capitalized and dependent often on ticket sales,” Mr. Whitacre said. “The whole point is to expand beyond philanthropy to promotional marketing relationships.”
Aghh! I honestly don't mind the TV's in the lobby. But what further "promotional marketing relationships" may this be building up to?

This NCTF, by the way, is news to me. But seems like a pretty big deal. "[A]n association of ten of America`s finest not-for-profit theatres dedicated to increasing the participation of corporations and their employees in support of theatre across the country and in New York," says their mission statement. So kind of like a lobbying association--but for Wall St. in stead of Washington. (I guess congressional lobbying for the arts has failed so badly that this has become a better use of energy.)

Who are the heavy hitters, the big 10? Louisville, ACT, ART, Center Theatre Group(LA), Cleveland Playhouse, Guthrie, Long Wharf, Old Globe, Seattle Rep, and Trinity Rep (Providence, RI). There are also 9 "Affiliate" members: the Alley, the Alliance (Atlanta), Arena Stage, Arizona Theatre Company, Chicago Shakespeare, Dallas Theatre Center, Denver Theatre Center, North Shore, Walnut Street. My point is not to single these companies out for admonition. My point is these are good, serious companies who, it seems, have gotten very, very serious now about not just corporate funding, but nationwide corporate funding.

Finally, for the most condescending quote of the day, here's Mario Garcia Durham, "director of presenting" from the NEA itself:

“We recognize that with younger people, the idea of a TV screen is probably something they would process, and it could help interest them in the genre,” Mr.
Durham said.
Or, as Chauncey Gardner said: "I like to watch TV."

Maybe, just maybe, the way turn young people back onto theatre, is to show them an alternative to tv?

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