Michael Kaiser Explains “Why the Arts Don’t Pay for Themselves.” What About…?

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Michael KaiserMichael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, has continued a great series of short essays for the Huffington Post with a new piece called “Why the Arts Don’t Pay for Themselves.” (You can see a list of his other HuffPo pieces here.)

I’ve written a bit about Kaiser before: he’s one of the great heroes of the arts in America and certainly at the moment, what with the Arts in Crisis program, one of the saviors of the nonprofit business model that we’ve come to know and love to criticize.

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Kaiser’s new essay is also about business models in a way, but I think if you read between the lines it’s equally about ignorance. Consider his opening graph:

One of the questions I receive most often whenever I write about the arts is, “Why can’t the arts pay for themselves? Why are public or private contributions required?” (These questions are frequently asked in far more colorful language.)

Kaiser’s goes on to talk about the two reasons why the arts in the country cannot and generally do not pay for themselves: the inability to derive productivity gains (“Orchestras do not play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster every year…. A Balanchine ballet that required 32 dancers in the 1950s still requires 32 dancers today.) and real estate (“once a theater or gallery is selected, one has literally set in concrete the real earned income potential for the organization; one simply cannot sell more tickets than one has seats”).

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Reading this, of course, one would be challenged to disagree: no one wants to hear the Ninth Sympthony performed faster. But then again, if it were possible and desirable to hear the Ninth Symphony performed faster, precisely what productivity gain that would that constitute? Would it mean, for example, that you could offer two performances or three? If so, would that not increase labor costs, which are, Kaiser writes, “typically the largest expense item for an arts organization”? Perhaps so, depending on contracts and the like. But, of course, Beethoven’s timeless work would be mangled beyond all comparison, audiences would feel shortchanged and the value of the orchestra that played the symphony would perhaps be damaged going forward. So I’m intrigued by this notion of productivity in the arts, just mystified as to how it could be applied.

But beyond this discussion, which is really more theoretical than substantive, I’m much more moved by the cited initial graph in Kaiser’s essay. Who is it, exactly, that is asking, “Why can’t the arts pay for themselves?” It seems to me that patronage, which flourished during the Renaissance, is one example of how the arts “paid” for themselves — it was paid for by those, like the Medicis with the money and the power and the wherewithal to pay for it. The royal patents under which companies like Lord Chamberlain’s Men were created represents a variation on this theme: Instead of the Medicis, it was Queen Elizabeth I and/or her likes.

The point I’m clumsily attempt to make with this egregiously glossed over bit of history is that the arts, historically, have never paid for themselves; consider, just for a somewhat more recent example, the predominance of the actor-manager during the 19th century, when actors sustained a living of sorts on the payroll of the star and the star could and did hire hacks to crank out vehicles for their repertory. That wasn’t a way for the arts to pay for themselves, it was close to the equivalent of indentured servitude.

Kaiser is entirely on the money, as it were, when he diplomatically but clearly writes:

Our Puritanical heritage still influences the degree of federal government support for the arts; the notion that music and dance were evil meant that the federal government did not directly support artistic endeavors in a substantial way.

But here’s something I would like to ask Kaiser — and arts leaders in general. While the notion productivity savings is, shall we say, somewhat confounding, and while it may be true that one “cannot sell more tickets than one has seats,” to what degree is the full utilization of a space factored into productivity gains? Many arts advocates have written over and over about how theaters, just to use those as an example, are only used perhaps four to five hours in a day. During this decade, so much infrastructure was built — so many performing arts centers — yet it’s not at all clear that they are being used to their fullest capacity. Would using an orchestra’s performance space for panels, classrooms, paid tours or various colloquia — perhaps combined with a ticket to the performance — constitute a productivity gain as well as additional income?

Kaiser does address that issue in his essay:

Another approach to filling the income gap has been to start auxiliary businesses, though few if any arts organizations have been successful balancing the books with unrelated business income.

My question is why have they been unsuccessful? What is it in our arts administration training programs that leaves our leaders able to write grant proposals and learn how to do the “ask” but cannot think entrepreneurially? My guess is that if our arts organizations collective thought entrepreneurially, it would be easier to bring the conservatives — no doubt the people who are asking “Why can’t the arts pay for themselves?” — aboard.