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Is there more that can be done to save a major art institution?

Much to the reluctance of many, one of the oldest theatre companies here in Canada was forced to close down its operation and further disband last year. Other than how the board of directors have been managing the finances, the company has faced financial deficit over the past years that the deficit has culminated to such point that the company could no longer put on shows that have for years and years been the landmark in our regional theatrical scene.

Theatre companies thrive on its financial success; ticket sale is life to a company's operation. But this also means that if a theatre company is to survive, its productions need to cater to its audience. But what if this entertainment aspect of theatre hinders its artistic pursuit? Should there be a public funding to ensure a steady operation of a company so that it can remain intellectually stimulating? Some argued it is the fault of the government and of the general community to fail to recognize the company as a vital artistic institution within the city, and also the fault of the artistic community to produce something that the rest of the communities deem culturally essential.

Theatre is just an example; it has happened to various performance-based art ranging from orchestra to opera to ballet. Is there more that can be done?

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    Sep 16 2013: I think there needs to be a three prong approach to theatre: 1) Promote artistic creativity in the youth. Feed off what is already there (rent out to schools, youth clubs, drama classes, etc.) 2) Play to the audience. There needs to be a level of entertainment that in itself educates the palate of your viewers to greater things. You have to start somewhere 3) Governments should fund a partial amount (not full). Once you have these three things in place the more purist theatre can breath freely to act rather than feeling they have to "play to the audience" or become a corporative entity to make profit.
  • Sep 23 2013: Thank you for all of your comments.

    Spencer has described a situation that closely paralleled what happened to the particular theatre company described above. As a theatre lover, I was heart-broken by its closing. The theatre scene, however, remained vibrant though little can be say what the future holds for the smaller companies.

    On a concluding note, 7.2 billion dollars on Arts is indeed fantastic, but Arts encompass more than theatre. I just would like to point out that theatre is expensive. It involves more than just actors sprawling on stage. There are also the set and the lightings and the sounds and the effects, etc., on top of if they need to rent a facility to put on productions. I do not see how a company can generate enough revenue to sustain itself without funding,
  • Sep 20 2013: The arts are important. Theater when done right is a very special event to be remembered. In my native state of WV this week, our only professional theater group, Theatre WV, had to close its doors after 50 plus years of operation. A sad day for us who grew up with their productions, Many well known TV and Film actors had got their start and performed with them. Many of my high school friends performed in their summer productions and were paid as actors through the years. There comes a point, especially with a mature production company, that they have to earn and keep their market. They have to be relevant to their patrons, provide great performances for their audiences, and be able to manage their finances. Failure in any of these areas and others means they just took their eye off the ball and forgot they still have to please their ultimate customers.

    A solution could be a new group acquiring their assets without their debts and starting where the original group left off.

    Art for art's sake shouldn't be subsidized by government. Government can help, but it shouldn't carry the freight. What is to stop someone from just standing on stage and spewing profanity? If you want to do that as art ---raise your own money from patrons, grants and ticket prices. If it lacks taste, substance, or entertainment value one probably won't raise any money. It boils down to creating a customer to support your efforts. Without that, you have to close your doors.
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    Sep 20 2013: Tina, In view of the current world wide economic crisis .. that Canada has spent 7.2 billion on the Arts is terrific. In the USA the message being sent by our government through the education system is that Arts of not important or necessary. Arne Duncan the Sec of Education is smarting from the whipping that the USA took in head to head academics at the PISA exams, has directed that the schools focus on STEM at the cost of eliminating other areas of study ... primarily the Arts. It is mandatory that student will have four years of math, English, and sciences. The core has changed and the funding diminished ... as the old saying goes ... some new enters something old must go ... in this case the Arts.

    When your leadership fails to support, appreciate, or fund the Arts the message is loud and clear .. without any academic involvement or exposure art appreciation will continue to falter until we are again faced with a "Dark Age". The current support for the Arts in the USA is "rappers". You think you have problems .......

    The answer is to go outside of the box. Traditional sources are drying up. combine resources ... merge with the competition ... align with sponsors .... use public facilities ... ego's are enemies during tough times .... Is artistic pursuit more important than saving the company ... Where Oak trees break ... willows bend and survive.

    Good luck. Bob.
  • Sep 20 2013: I have to agree with the previous post that it starts with your youth, this is how you build a public. Until you have educated the people to have a finer sense of culture your efforts will not be as efficient.
    It should start with a group of committed individuals that are willing to work "for the love of the arts". Go to schools, offer a drama or thespian program as an extra curricular activity. Offer free plays, build your audience, create some fans. Approach the church groups and offer coaching for biblical teachings based on theatrical teachings and or choir lessons. Once the public sees an effort in a committed group, the movement usually takes momentum. Organize a dinner (it could be in a church hall or banquet hall) and a play(murder mysteries are usually fun) as a fundraiser kick off for a non-profit org that can responsibly administer the funding.
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    Sep 20 2013: How did most of the arts survive for centuries? Wealthy patrons and/or The Church! Answer in a nutshell....
  • Sep 17 2013: Art needs to be separated from business in arguments seeking to justify its continued existence. Artists that choose to do nothing else but pursue their art are banking on the viability of their art for to survive as a business. Survival of an art form as a business is not guaranteed by anyone. Survival of a business involves the quality of the product or service being provided, the market for the product, and the willingness and ability of consumers to make a purchase. Art ownership, appreciation, and patronage is perceived by most as a luxury. When the economy tightens, luxuries are the first to be removed from the budget.

    Large public funding projects to provide art to the masses have to be approved by the voting public. In a weak economy, the funds are direct competition with projects that increase survival of a particular group. Artists are still free to practice the art, learn the art, and transfer the art to the next generation, but public funds come with project leads that are interested in getting best value for dollar. If there is no profit being made in a business, the answer is petty clear. However, companies can insert funding into their accounts to continue. Unless you can group art as part of some culture worth preserving for future generation, funding will come from consumers.
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      Sep 17 2013: The reason I included the link below is that Canada's spending 7.2 billion of public funds on arts and culture does not necessarily suggest that the society fails to recognize the public value of the arts above and beyond what immediate consumers of it are willing to pay in their ticket prices. It is, after all, 7.2 billion.

      One could reasonably ask two questions. First, is 7.2 billion too small a public subsidy to the arts in Canada, given the other things the people of Canada also value? Second, does this particular organization deserve for funds to be diverted to it from other arts organizations that have been awarded public funding so that this organization can pursue its artistic activities rather than those other arts institutions' making the sorts of unique contributions they make?
      • Sep 17 2013: I was responding to this passage:

        ...But what if this entertainment aspect of theatre hinders its artistic pursuit? Should there be a public funding to ensure a steady operation of a company so that it can remain intellectually stimulating? Some argued it is the fault of the government and of the general community to fail to recognize the company as a vital artistic institution within the city, and also the fault of the artistic community to produce something that the rest of the communities deem culturally essential....

        Specifically, the argument that financial viability somehow limits the art. In my mind, the of a performance art's audience is a measure of its value to the masses. Public funding should be distributed on value for public dollar. It is not a measure of the value of the art, or the relative worth of the artist, or ability to intellectually stimulate, just an indicator that the value for public dollar was not there.

        It is not the fault of the community or government to financially appreciate the company as a vital art institution. Such appreciations are subjective, and if you are trying to assess such a thing for the masses, then audience size is how I would do it.

        I am inclined to agree with placing the fault on the artistic community (specifically this troop) for not producing something that meets the criteria of "culturally essential", whatever this might entail.

        With 34.5 million people, the 7.2 billion number means a little over $200 per person for the arts. If I were making the decision, I would look at the audience draw, see how much they grossed from tickets and private contributions, and subtract this number from the operating expenses. If I then multiple the number of estimated customers by some fraction of $200 to see if the government can reasonably cover the difference based on attendance. If not, I would let them close or find a better business model, perhaps reassessing the public's definition of culturally essential.
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          Sep 17 2013: Your post was truncated.

          You are correct that the public is not necessarily interested in subsidizing the artistic explorations of any and all individuals and groups that may want to invest their time and energy into projects that appeal to the artist without attention to any other potential audience.

          I think undertaking only artistic projects that will sell can limit the artist. Specifically, the time he takes doing work that is commercially viable takes time away from work that is interesting to him but not commercially viable. There may very well be such work that has high value to the artist but only to him.
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    Sep 16 2013: Is there not now a mix of funding from those who attend performances and government and foundation grants? It would be smart for any arts institution to monitor what other successful arts organizations are doing to stay interesting and relevant to the communities that support them.

    According to Statistics Canada, your major agency that does data gathering, the federal, provincial, and municipal governments of Canada spent 7.2 billion dollars on culture in 2009-10. This was down from 7.5 billion in 2005. http://www5.statcan.gc.ca/cansim/a05?lang=eng&id=5050003&pattern=5050003&searchTypeByValue=1&p2=35