Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Value Beyond the Price of Admission

Every now and then I am confronted by someone who complains, as did a commentor in today's Tribune (see the comments associated with the letter): "What is it about dance, theater, opera and symphony, that they can't finance themselves like so many other artistic genres?"

This person is probably suffering from a common delusion that most of the operating money for live theatres like the Empress and organizations like OHPAA come from government grants. For the record, OHPAA received a whopping $3,000 in government subsidies last year; compared to over $500,000 in donated cash, volunteer labor, and materials from private sources and over $70,000 in earned income from ticket sales, etc. And that was just our first year of operation. We expect to make about $150,000 from ticket sales this year.

Nevertheless, the question is valid and deserves an answer. I think however, that we must first reframe the question slightly. Dance, theatre, opera, and symphony and all of the other performing and fine arts are all able to "finance themselves," but they don't do it strictly from the money collected from admission to events or sale of artifacts. These art forms are funded by a combination of "earned income," sponsorship revenues (from the sales of advertising and promotional partnerships) , and donations or grants from private and public sources.

For what it's worth, TV, movies and even professional sports wouldn't make it on admissions alone. They need sponsors and they get subsidies too! There is just a different mix and visibility, as well as different production & distribution efficiencies.

Next, I think we need to ask the question: Why is this this model used? This question is really two questions: What are the alternative models and why is this model chosen over them? And Why does this model work at all?

We can take up the first question at a later time, but for today, lets examine the 2nd. Why is it that "dance, theatre, opera and symphony" can finance their art and the operation of their venues with tax subsidies and private donations?

What value exists in the performing arts that justifies governmental subsidy programs like the Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts, and Parks program or a grant from the Utah Arts Council or the National Endowment for the Arts? What prompts a charitable foundation like the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Foundation to establish arts as a philanthropic focus? What inspires a private donor to write a check for several thousand dollars and give it to an organization like OHPAA? And what's up with all the donated labor and time?

I have my thoughts on this, but I think I'm going to leave the question open for today. Instead, I'd like to hear your ideas about why it is even possible for a performing arts organization to acquire funding beyond what it can earn from the sale of tickets. Click on the comment link below and tell me what you think.


leannie said...

The man in the photo is Charles Chaplin, who once lost a Charlie Chaplin look a like contest! :)

Tad said...

Well, we have a winner, but this comment should be on the next post down. Offsetting points.

Glenn Gregory said...

An intereting question to quote: "Why is it that "dance, theatre, opera and symphony" can finance their art and the operation of their venues with tax subsidies and private donations?"

To begin, in the interest of full disclosure, I prefer live venues to recorded ones, so there is a bias on my part toward what is referred to by some as the elitest entertainment (opera, ballet, live theatre, et al.) Not fair, but that will be fodder for another discussion.

Also, to bolster the contention of the question I have reviewed data indicating that The Greater Salt Lake Metropolitan area can support more live theatre than it does now as well as more dance troupes and live comedy shows. Support meaning that these organizations would generate sufficient revenue to be self-sustaining.

In answering why can this be done, we need to ascertain the reason why people want to go to these shows and what drives the people of organizations such as The OHPAA to go to the trouble of providing the shows, if we examine these two whys, hopefully we can then answer why it can be and is done.

So why do people go to these shows? I would venture to say if I interviewed 100 audience members of The OHPAA shows as to why they attended, I would get a varied list of reasons. We would likely hear comments such as: "My cousin runs the sound." "We came with my church group." "My mom made me come." The reasons for attending are going to be as individual as the people that attend. For the most part, however, the answers all indicate that the experience is not painful (with the possible exception the last commentator.) Indeed, most that attend enjoy the experience and in some instances the audience are repeat attendees. So there must be a reason for this, I believe I know what it is that makes this something people seek. These shows offer an intimacy that recorded entertainment cannot. It is inescapable that there a closer link between live actors and their audiences than is possible on a movie, television or computer screen. The audience ideally can not only connect with the players but with each other as well creating a synergy that is exponentially greater the sum of the parts. This synergy is different for every performance because the audience is a unique blend of people with its own aura that creates a new interaction. Electronic entertainment cannot connect to the audiences in the same way and thus, there is a different level of interaction. It is not to denigrate that interaction, it is however, different. For the sake of space I will simply conclude that this effect is why people of any stripe can participate in an intensely personal experience and that is why they come.

The second why is much more briefly answered. That connection with audiences is extremely alluring. Indeed, I toy with the idea of trying to clear some time to audition myself. I would like that connection, wouldn't you?

So, this personal connection of audience, players, (incidentally player includes those on and backstage and in the pit.) is certainly enough to create a demand for these experiences on a frequent basis.

Then, it is clear why the audience is satisfied to pony up the price of admission. It is equally clear why the players offer their good offices and time. However, what of the the third leg of this tripod? Why do people support these activities when they are not necessarily part of the audience or the cast?

The answer is not a mystery, if you believe as I do that at least three quarters of human beings are naturally good. They want that good to be shared with others. The intimate experience created by the audience and players of live performances is one of those mystically wonderful good things. Then it is clear why those that have the resources to do so, happily write a check to support that good thing and reap a pyschic reward that is far above my meager talents to put into words.

Simply put: Live performances flourish because they are a good thing.

At least that is my opinion. I do look forward to other's thoughts.

Tad said...

Glenn, Thank you for commenting.
I think you have captured why someone would decide to come to a play at the Empress instead of watching television or going to a movie. I've attended live performances at several different venues. I've found some of those performances to be wonderful experiences and some to be rather less than hoped for.
At the same time, I am sure that others will argue that each of the other media (TV, movies, pro sports, and whatever else there may be) have their allure and merits.
I am intrigued by the concept you refer to as "elitist entertainment." This seems like a label someone would apply to media they didn't like. More an excuse for not wanting to engage brain cells in understanding the content. "Shakespeare's too elitist for me," translates in my mind to "The Bard is too hard for me to think about, so I'm going to ignore it and watch WWF Wrestling instead." (There is a whole 'nuther line of thinking on this topic, but we'll save that for later.)
But I think we may be on to something there, in pursuit of our answer. Could one of the reasons for government subsidies and private donations be to make theatre less of an elite pastime and bring it to everyone?
It is very much part of OHPAA's mission to create "family friendly" entertainment, and that includes making it affordable for entire families to come.
Could it be then, that one of the reasons that wealthy donors, foundations, and voters choose to subsidize live theatre is to make it less of an elitist medium and make it available to everyone?
But that still leaves me with the question of why? What is the 'good' that these folks want to share? And why do they want to share it?

Glenn Gregory said...

To quote:

"But that still leaves me with the question of why? What is the 'good' that these folks want to share? And why do they want to share it?"

My, two questions and a point about elitism to address, that is certainly a full plate. May I address the latter first?

"Elitist entertainment" is less of a label for media that someone does not like as it is a rationale for not participating. So your point of using it as an excuse is valid. My concern is that some may hear the tag assigned and not attempt the experience. Nor should we undervalue the other than live media, there is good to be found there. As you point out quite rightly, there may be a misperception as to what live venues are in actuality. Your example is somewhat ironic in that it is believed that The Bard pointed his work to the less elitist minds of the time. It is indeed a valuable service that OHPAA and similar organiations render to make this kind of experience available at an affordable level. There is more to be said on this subject and I suspect more will be said.

You asked what is this What is the 'good' that these folks want to share? I fairly sure my attempt to explain this phenomenom will not give it the treatment it deserves. That is not an excuse to avoid trying to do so. So here's my attempt.

We humans can "connect" on level that is not well understood. It is an intangible place we can meet. This meeting can only happen with the mutual willingness of the participants. So when two people enter into this connection,an intereting thing occurs, the whole of the experience of the two is greater than the sum of the input of the participants, so, when the connection breaks both parties have more than when they started. I do not pretend to know how this works, I can only attest it works, because, I have experienced it. Now suppose instead of two participating, three participate, or four or four hundred participate. The effect compounds and all in all the players and the audience leave with much more than they started. That is what I described as a "mystically wonderful good thing." Anything that helps a human being grow is a good thing and the ability to help it grow in a big way must be a good thing. Hopefully that is a little bit more clear as to what was meant.

Then we go to the question you feel we have begged: Why? I think I will ponder that a little longer before trying to answer. thanks and I look forward to hearing more.

Tad said...

You are quite correct in pointing up the irony of Shakespeare's playing to the peanut gallery (litterally... that's where the term came from!) Yet, his troupe was known as "The King's Men" because the king was their patron, and it the King's Men received "special payments" from James' court during hard times in 1603, 1608, 1609, and 1610. Methinks too many folks are forced to read Shakespeare (as opposed to seeing it performed live as it was intended) and find it too difficult to understand. When the opportunity to see a live performance comes around, they shy away. It's too bad; my eight, nine and 10 year olds have seen both Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing on the Empress stage and loved them.

I had not considered the synergy between audience and player as I asked the questions, but your point is well taken. There is always an interaction between audience and actor, even when the fourth wall remains intact. That interaction affects the quality of the performance as much as the quality of the performance affects the audience's experience. There is an almost tangible sense of the 'energy' in the audience.

But if I am a member of the Eccles' Board and I'm considering granting tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to support a live theatre, is this synergy the motivation for making the grant? If I'm a voter faced with approving a sales tax increase to support a program of arts subsidies, like Salt Lake County's ZAP or Davis County's RAP programs, is this why I vote 'yes?' It doesn't seem to me to be enough to justify those large donations.

Yet, like the Jacobean court, this type of arts patronage has been around since the beginnings of recorded history, and it has been found in cultures as diverse as the Roman Empire and Feudal Japan.

So why does the Eccles Foundation give supporting Arts & Culture the same consideratino as their other areas of focus, 'Community', 'Education', 'Health Care', and 'Preservation & Conservation'?

Perhaps if we narrow the scope of the question a bit: what is the common thread between these five "focus areas" that makes supporting a community theatre compete with finding a cure for cancer?