Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Money Lab: Food or a flower, what is the value of art?

In honor of Money Lab, I will be posting a series of blog posts about economics and the arts.  Here is my first, examining the question of the basic value of art.

I was taking a cab the other day, and my cab driver asked me if I had any good ideas to help the world. He was collecting.

I work in theater, I said, so all my ideas are about theater. But I do think art can help the world.

He scoffed. If you were starving, he asked, what would you like? Food? Or a flower?

This reminded me of another incident. Some years ago, Soutine’s bakery on the Upper West Side had promised the theater company a free cake for a fundraiser. The day I came to pick it up, the owner reneged. I didn’t understand it was for a theater, she told me. I thought it was a non-profit.

It is a non-profit, I said.

No, she said. Something that does good. Like cancer research. I can’t just give a free cake to anyone who asks.

That conversation dwelled with me for a while. The nature of non-profit theater is that it depends on donations. Personal donations, foundation grants, and government grants, which are a sort of donation from everyone’s tax dollar. Why do we deserve it?

I can say that without it, the world would be lacking. Only the commercial work could survive. Difficult work that examines ideas or advances the art form wouldn’t exist. The world would be a much duller and less joyful place.

To me.  But then again I’m not starving.

This is how I responded to the cab driver: I just directed a play called The Last Cyclist, written in a concentration camp. The people, all the actors there were starving. The play criticized the Nazis, and some of them risked their lives by even rehearsing it. Most of them were murdered. But then, in that moment, they felt alive. Art is a need, a basic need, dating back to the cave drawings. It helped them feel human when they might have been reduced to pure animal needs.

He was not convinced. Yes, sure, it was a distraction. But they would have been better off with some bread.

He went driving off in search of someone with better ideas.

1 comment:

David Hanson said...

So this is always an interesting topic for the arts while I could go all Maslow I instead start with the Walking Dead. The cab driver in question makes the same mistake that's always made. Sure giving a starving person food is the most important thing BUT the cabbie (and more people than perhaps we care to think about) don't live in that world either. Why? Because business, governments, and academia made investments - some times without the prospect of financial return - to create a food system that actually makes something like the Red Cross efforts possible. I won't debate the larger food industry as like everything else it is good and bad but rather suggest the comparison the cabbie makes is flawed. If we truly lived that world - call it the Evil Dead world of on the edge of survival - the rules are different. We do not. What we live in is a world constantly at war between the needs of the one versus the needs of the many.

There is little doubt that there is economic power in live theater. Wicked has been reported to be the single most valuable entertainment property in the world (or it was Phantom of the Opera I can't remember). The big movie studios are exploring the idea of opening up theater development departments, and the list goes on. So while there is money to be made, the industry itself is one that often forgets that it is an industry.

Every show is - to some extent - a separate company trying to make it financially however it can (including grants, donations, and ticket sales). That I think worked to some extent in the past. But as an industry gets older, certain pieces become more valuable and thus create opportunities for big profits. Once folks get a taste of big profits they forget and decide every project must be a swing for the fences idea. What do you get... Opera, Current Cinema, and most other industries where there is alot of revivals or tentpoles because the push to return massive amounts of money supercedes the need to put more talent in the pipeline. Unfortunately without more talent... the cycle eats itself and you have where we sit today. But some pieces of entertainment work much better than others.

TV is the best in my opinion. Why? Look at how much content they generate. Some of is schlock, some of it is good, and a bit is down right great! But the economics are all different. In TV, the infrastructure is designed to deliver content. It needs content and thus has a model to pay people to bring content to the table. I always tell young writers go to LA and try to get into the TV business. It's the one place that you have the best shot at making a living wage (note I did not say millions, I said a living wage). I do think theater can learn from TV to some extent.

The economics of theater need to change. I don't mean renegotiating contracts or lowering costs (those are good but there is a limit to what they can achieve and frankly historically they have been tried). Theater needs to see itself as an industry that is tied together. When you buy a ticket to a show, I think it would be great if there were a gate fee that goes into a pot of money whose sole purpose is to invest in the future of theater. (Hey, almost every Fringe Festival does this) Imagine a "Theater Pass" that for like $100 dollars a month (roughly the same as some people spend on cable) you get unlimited access to downtown theater in New York. Essentially it becomes revenue sharing (stand down Yankee fans). The most successful entertainment entities understand it is not whether or not I can get you to one event but rather I can get you to come back again and again and again. Remember the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants are only that valuable because there are fans who turn in Green Bay, Kansas City, and Cleveland. Because the overall industry works to engage fans they create a fan based that will live through the good the bad and the ugly.

I get that it is unlikely that we will see such things, but honestly that's what makes sense to me.