Making the arts riskier, not broader-based – a call to arms by Michael Kaiser

By Megan Mooney

Should Toronto theatres be producing edgier content given current economic realities?

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette has a great article by Sally Kalson about taking risks in the arts during challenging economic times.

Here’s an excerpt, a quote from Michael Kaiser (president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.) as part of his Arts in Crisis project.

“Too many groups have reacted to the economy by cutting programming and marketing, which is suicide. It cuts the size of your family. Or they do more ‘accessible’ things that are boring and less interesting to donors and audiences. What they should be doing is riskier, exciting programs, if not now then three, four or five years down the road.

“I do all my arts planning five years ahead,” he said. “It gives me time to find the money and educate audiences to want to see the work.”

Take a minute to go read the whole article at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. It’s a good read, and it’s poking my brain awake. Wondering what all that poking has resulted in? Well, let me tell you…

I like the idea. I certainly feel some affinity for the idea that if you offer people new and interesting things, then they’re more likely to come see them. I don’t want to see artists pulling back. I also don’t think they should change their mandate to include edgier work in hopes of bringing in more audience members.

I suppose what I’m saying here is that I don’t think this is a time to change mandates. If you are doing something because you love it, because you feel it’s what you are meant to do, then keep doing it. It doesn’t matter what the economic situation is. If you’re edgy, be edgy. If you’re classical, be classical.

An audience member isn’t going to be less likely to spend their money on something edgy because there is less money to go around. If they are someone who likes edgy, they’re still gonna spend on edgy. If they’re someone who likes traditional, they’re going to spend on traditional.

Now, most definitely things will need to change when we’re hit by an economic downturn. Or upturn for that matter. As the environment changes, the things within the environment must adapt to the changes, including theatre companies. But the change shouldn’t be with your programming. They should be about letting people know what you have to offer. About how to get potential audiences into your performance space, where you present the work you’re passionate about.

If I were running a theatre company right now I’d be looking at my outreach, my marketing, and my publicity. I’d be trying to innovate in those areas, not switch up my programming.

Of course, this goes towards the eternal, and never definitively answered question “how do we get more bums in seats?” I suspect it’s never definitively answered because there is no definitive answer.

Some part of the answer though, has to be “do what you’re passionate about.” If you’re not loving it, people aren’t gonna want to come see you do it. Passion is infectious, and obvious.

 Tip o’ the hat to 2am Theatre for the link to the article via their twitter @2amt