I’ve found, throughout my professional career in theatre, that there’s consistent hysteria about the collapse and theatre and the arts. Venues are more expensive, no one goes to see plays anymore, etc.

The latest survey from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) shows that there’s been a drop in attendance at arts venues.

According to a survey on public participation scheduled to be released on Thursday by the National Endowment for the Arts, one out of every three Americans, or about 78 million people, visited an art exhibition or attended a performing arts event in 2012. That figure represents a drop across the board since the last survey in 2008, but the slide was steepest for musicals and plays. For musicals, the 9 percent drop in the attendance rate between 2008 and 2012 was the first statistically significant change in that category in more than 25 years. Straight plays fared even worse, with a 12 percent drop over the same period, a figure that has contributed to a whopping 33 percent rate of decline over the past decade.

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Fortunately, the New York Times article does not betray too much hysteria about the possible reasons for this alleged decline.

Art museums and galleries are also having trouble competing with other attractions. Ten years ago more than one in four Americans passed through their doors; now the figure is closer to one in five. Researchers for the agency’s latest Survey of Public Participation in the Arts said they could not offer reasons for the results; they may be attributed to significant shifts in behavior or, perhaps, simply to the scope of activities that were counted.

Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization in Washington, said that shifting rates reflected, in part, an expanded definition of the arts and a wider variety of ways to participate. Ethnic music was once ignored, he said. “There is a lot more that is happening now,” Mr. Lynch said.

So really, in surveying a “drop in attendance,” there’s good news – there’s a lot of creativity happening, there’s a lot of art and arts events, including theatre, and competition is good.

Also, people are still interested in art, they just choose to engage with arts events differently.

Randy Cohen, vice president for research and policy at Americans for the Arts, said people “are not walking away from the arts so much, but walking away from the traditional delivery mechanisms.” He noted, for example, that while financial troubles forced the Washington National Opera to merge with the Kennedy Center in 2011, an opera simulcast at the Nationals Park, the capital’s baseball stadium, drew about 20,000 people.

“A lot of what we’re seeing is people engaging in the arts differently,” he said.

I asked some Seattle theatre friends, who currently or have in the past run theatres, to get an idea about theatre attendance in Seattle. “It depends on the show. Tonight we are sold out. But last week we had two people in an audience. It’s maddening,” said one. “It’s very up-and-down. We did a run of shows that happened to have very clear hooks, marketing-wise, and they had great houses. Then we did a show that was much harder to describe and didn’t have a clear audience; even though it got great reviews, and plenty of them, it played to very modest houses. It’s easy to see how easy it is to let marketing drive your programming choices…” replied another.

Others, however, were more optimistic about overall attendance numbers. From a member of Annex Theatre: “[A]ttendance varies from show to show and marketing is a key factor. But if we’re talking about the time period in this article (2008-2012) Annex’s overall attendance has seen a significant increase and is trending steadily upward.”

With the help of Theatre Resource Group (TRG), Seattle Repertory Theatre has increased their audience attendance and, more importantly, audience return. “As TRG says about patron loyalty, you need to date before you get married,” says Katie Jackman, who had just been hired and now is SRT’s Director of External Relations. “We ‘dated’ these people for a while—just focusing on getting them back in the building.”

“We had declining sales in all categories. At the same time, there weren’t specific strategies around what to do, especially when patrons came in for the first time,” Jackson said. But, thanks to TRG’s strategy, 30% of the cultivated group returned in the following season, and retention continued over the next 4 years. You can see more about the theatre’s retention rates on TRG’s website.

According to Seattle’s government website, the arts are a huge industry in the city, and the local government strongly supports its artists. Here’s some stats:

  • Create jobs. The nonprofit arts and culture industry in Seattle supports 10,807 full-time equivalent jobs.
  • Deliver a strong return on investment, generating $38.2 million in local and state government revenues.
  • Draw vital tourism into the region. Recently, readers of Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler, two of the world’s foremost travel magazines, voted Seattle one of their top ten favorite cities to visit. What makes Seattle so appealing? According to Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, it’s because of the “unlimited opportunities to experience art, heritage and culture, all in a setting of rare natural beauty.”
  • Provide highly valued services for local residents. Nonprofit arts organizations in Seattle with a primary mission in the arts show per capita revenues over 3 times the national average.
  • Leverage additional event related spending by their audiences who contribute vital revenue into restaurants, hotels, retail, parking and other local businesses. The Arts & Economic Prosperity IV study shows that in Seattle, the typical attendee spends $29.79 per person, per event, to support local businesses in addition to the cost of admission.
  • Attract new business. International studies show that the communities offering an abundance of arts and culture opportunities are the most sought after for global businesses, new start-ups and the brightest professionals.

Another article, this time an op-ed from The Guardian, describes changes in  New York City, specifically, which involve artists – and indeed, most of the middle class – being pushed out of the city by the extremely wealthy.

The city is a body and a mind – a physical structure as well as a repository of ideas and information. Knowledge and creativity are resources. If the physical (and financial) parts are functional, then the flow of ideas, creativity and information are facilitated. The city is a fountain that never stops: it generates its energy from the human interactions that take place in it. Unfortunately, we’re getting to a point where many of New York’s citizens have been excluded from this equation for too long. The physical part of our city – the body – has been improved immeasurably. I’m a huge supporter of the bike lanes and the bikeshare program, the new public plazas, the waterfront parks and the functional public transportation system. But the cultural part of the city – the mind – has been usurped by the top 1%.

What, then, is the future of New York, or really of any number of big urban centers, in this new Gilded Age? Does culture have a role to play? If we look at the city as it is now, then we would have to say that it looks a lot like the divided city that presumptive mayor Bill de Blasio has been harping about: most of Manhattan and many parts of Brooklyn are virtual walled communities, pleasure domes for the rich (which, full disclosure, includes me), and aside from those of us who managed years ago to find our niche and some means of income, there is no room for fresh creative types. Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.

This article, courtesy of David Byrne, has been making the rounds around Facebook in the last week or so. While the article itself isn’t particularly hysterical – just a plea to prevent change, when change is something that happens naturally all the time – those posting it treat it with some hysteria. The cultural capital of the country is dying! Save it! Save our heritage!

I think I’m the only theatre artist in the world that doesn’t care if NYC changes into a rich kids’ playground. There’s a massive amount of great art and culture in NYC, it’s true, and to see that go away would be sad. But there’s a thing that happens, and you can probably see it in your city on a neighborhood-sized scale: artists move into a run-down area because rent is cheap (Greenwich Village in NYC, Capital Hill in Seattle) and that area gets trendy, so more and more people move into the now “vibrant” area, which ups the rent, then businesses move in to take advantage of the population, then the artists eventually get forced out because they can’t afford to be there anymore. Repeat cycle.

Ride the rides at New York Land!
Ride the rides at New York Land!

This is essentially what has happened to NYC on a large scale. It is not the center of artistic innovation for the country anymore – theatre development often begins far away from New York, with staged readings and small productions to “iron out kinks” in shows that then, after several years, get sent to Broadway, then franchised out again in touring shows and regional theatre productions. How many shows get developed in NYC for Broadway or even Off Broadway? Not that many.

As you can see from some of the information above, Seattle is becoming a hub for art. Chicago and Los Angeles have both had huge influences on theatre across the country, creating and developing new work that ends up on Broadway, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not.

Besides, David Byrne is only the latest in a group of people who decry the decline of NYC. David Mamet got to it about three years ago, with much more inflammatory language: “No adult Londoner would go to see the crown jewels, and no adult New Yorker went to see Mamma Mia! for to do so would have been considered culturally repugnant, branding him as a tourist or dufus. New York, with the rise in real-estate prices and the disappearance of manufacture, business, and thus, of the middle class, has become New York Land.”

Support for artists is very important, from a government and economic level, but hysteria about how much the arts are failing is uncalled for. We interact with art and culture differently, there’s more variety, and the centers of cultural development are always shifting. These are all good, healthy things for creative types.

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