I’ve said this on my own before, but Rebecca Novick has now pointed out, more loudly and in a better forum (and with better research into options!) that the Non-Profit Theatre Movement has served it’s purpose and is now doing more to hamper artists than help them.

It’s a great, pithy article, full of examples from people Novick knows and knows of (including the Neo-Futurists, who are my faaaaavorite). She cheekily titled the article “Please, Don’t Start a Theatre Company!” but what she really meant is, please don’t get sucked into the standard non-profit model. There’s too much competition with large, established non-profits for scarce resources; there’s a sense of oversaturation in the market that might be turning off potential investors; people don’t really know why or how non-profits work so they don’t know what they’re investing in (and even using the term “investment” can be dangerous these days); the structure focuses on bulking up administrative efforts, but turns actors, writers, directors, and tech people into migrant workers, to be blunt; there’s no sense of sustaining the art, just the mission statement; there’s a desperate need for movement toward permanence, rather than being willing to form temporary producing bodies that do what they exist to do, and then disband; and there’s this insinuation that if you work as an artist only, you’re too sensitive to handle paperwork, which is bullshit because most people who work for theatre companies and are artists generally work as administrators for large companies, while desperately trying to make the transition to being full-time artist.

Here’s some of my favorite quotes from the article:

Neither the field nor the next generation of artists is served by this unexamined multiplication of companies based on the same old model. The NEA’s statistics on nonprofit growth, set against its sobering reports on declining arts participation, illuminate a crucial nexus for the field, a location of both profound failure and potential transformation. The proliferation of small theater companies sits at the intersection between the necessity to imagine different structures for making theater and our field’s failure to provide career paths for the next generation of artists. Since the Ford Foundation’s investments kicked off the regional theater movement fifty years ago, there has been tremendous collective buy-in to what has become a fossilized model of a particular type of nonprofit theater. Within this structure, there is now a critical lack of opportunity for emerging artists and leaders, leaving the next generation of artists no alternative but to start companies of their own, companies that often replicate the problems of established theaters on a smaller scale.

Context matters as much as content: It’s been seven years since Todd Brown and his partner began transforming a small house in San Francisco’s Mission District into what is now the Red Poppy Art House: a gallery and presenting space, a training program for artists interested in self-producing, and a hub for neighborhood-based arts events. “As an artist myself,” says Todd, “I’m interested not only in content (my own work) but in context. I want to empower artists as space-holders, as creators of the artistic context. Instead of the old model of building a big cultural center, I imagine a thriving cultural neighborhood with diverse, scattered artistic hubs that each become an epicenter for different communities.”

I spoke to a number of funders who were forthright about foundations’ complicity in perpetuating the problem. “Why build a building and such heavyweight infrastructure for this thing [theater] that is both underfunded and ephemeral? This just doesn’t make much sense,” says Moira Brennan at the MAP Fund. Diane Ragsdale (still at the Mellon Foundation when I interviewed her) agrees: “Funders and others have had such a limited idea of what a theater should look like, we’ve institutionalized the process to such a degree that we’ve constrained these organizations in terms of how they’re structured, how they make work, who they make it for. We’ve lost track of what we really need to put on a good show. Do we need 150 administrators?”

The Hewlett Foundation’s Marc Vogl concurs: “Funders have been in service of perpetuating the structure we know. But focus on the work has to come first.” The Hewlett Foundation, Marc reports, has begun to aim for more nuance in its funding decisions, beginning, for example, to support fiscally sponsored organizations and “understanding that ‑because organizations do different work, they may need different structures to support their work.”

When funders talk about sustainability, they have generally meant that an institution looks stable enough to continue forever. Diane Ragsdale is no longer sure this is the point: “Why should funders wonder whether this is a twenty-five- or fifty-year plan? Why not just support the two-year plan without worrying that everything must exist in perpetuity?”

But please, do read the whole thing. I’ve worked for non-profit theatres of many kinds in several capacities over the years, and I’ve been thinking for a long time that this model, with its pathological insistence on fundraising, is failing. Kickstarter might be a great funding wave of the future, but that’s because people get something out of it aside from an assuaged sense of civic duty or middle class guilt. In fact, I think Kickstarter and the ilk prove that people want art to be funded, but that they also want to be the direct recipients of the benefits. It’s not just about beautifying their community or spreading a certain political/moral message anymore. It’s about directly supporting people who clearly work hard and want their supporters to be happy, satisfied, and interactive.

Viva la revolution!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *