Should Art Be Sold; or, Is Patronage Patronizing. Lyceum #1.
When I arrived in Philadelphia in 1994, Cary Mazer was the theater critic for the City Paper. As I was drawn in to the theater community over the next several years, I was of course drawn into the on-going evaluation of the critics: which ones were despicable and which just idiots. I jest of course, and yet I have written before about the often contentious relationship between artists and critics. I have played my role in that contention. Cary, however, was never burned in effigy – figuratively speaking – the way some other critics were. The worst we said of him might have been, he really didn’t like it. But my sense was that we artists felt he was fair and never nasty: two essential qualities of a good critic, if you ask me.
Since then, Cary and I have managed a feat which is sadly uncommon in the modern theater. We, the critic and the critic-baiting actor, have become friends. When I felt I had no one to mentor me at a former university where I was employed, I turned to Cary for advice about a manuscript I was writing. His advice was useful, and he was supportive and encouraging. That manuscript became my first book. Later, Cary shared a manuscript with me, about he and his wife’s journey in the high-stakes world of international adoption, woven with a back story about being a dramaturg for The Merchant of Venice. I liked it a lot, gave him some honest feedback, and hope it is printed some day.
Now we are neighbors. So when I was looking for smart, creative people to help me form White Pines Productions, Cary was a no brainer. He is on our Advisory Committee. And when I decided to create the White Pines Lyceum, a series of lectures, presentations and discussion on a topic or question germane to White Pines, I asked Cary to be our first speaker. Of the many blessings this work has brought me, being able to collaborate with people like Cary is certainly one of the finest.
We gathered Monday night in the library of Elstowe Manor, about 12 of us, to hear Cary on the question, Should Art Be Sold; or, Is Patronage Patronizing? Cary began by describing the origin of the term “subscriber”. It dates from nineteenth century England, when theater owners, realizing that they couldn’t make ends meet on ticket sales, turned to wealthy patrons to “subscribe” the outstanding expenses. These patrons essentially cosigned on loans and underwrote large expenditures. Theaters have been turning to the wealthy for hundreds of years.
In Shakespeare’s time, actors sought the patronage of nobles less for the financial support, than for the civic status it gave them. The companies were paid fees to come and entertain at court. But to be known as “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men” was to be publicly associated with nobility and therefore protected to some degree. Unattached, actors were simply classified as vagrants.
Later in his presentation, Cary turned his attention to some of America’s theatrical economic paradigms. Prior to the early 20th century, theaters were businesses, and the same market forces that drove any business determined what theaters presented, how much artists and workers were paid and the way the product – theater – was developed. A full critique of this era is pointless – so much about America and American tastes was so different. It is worth noting that this would be the Libertarian ideal for theater – let the market work it out. The birth of what we have come to know as the Regional Theater, Cary explained, was due to the Works Progress Administration – the WPA – the anti-Libertarian effort of the late 30s. There was not an artistic goal here, Cary pointed out. This was an employment project. Within ten years, cities which had previously been served only by the Vaudeville circuits and the traveling circuses suddenly had theaters of their own, theaters that needed actors, designers and workers of all kinds.
Twenty years later, it was again the intervention of government that facilitated a parading shift. Provoked by large, successful theaters in unlikely places like Houston and Washington DC, and stimulated by Tyrone Guthrie’s challenge to find an American city for his theater, the National Endowment for the Arts was born, and with it the era of the large, not-for-profit theater. This era came with a kind of re-imagining of the tax code, in which deductions were now allowed for contributions to these new not-for-profit institutions. This effectively institutionalized the patronage system which had been at work in england a hundred years earlier: wealthy people were offered a number of incentives to support the arts. There was also an idealistic mission attached to the birth of the NEA which is very often overlooked, Cary reminded us. One of the goals of the NEA was to create an American culture in which artists were able to make a living wage by earning salaries working for robust artistic institutions.
Underlying all of these paradigms besides the strictly commercial one is the assumption that performing arts organizations like producing theaters and dance companies are not, and never have been, viable commercial enterprises. Connected to this assumption is this: that the success of arts forms like theater and dance is tied to artists’ abilities to experiment and innovate. Left to the cold precision of laissez-faire economics, the only theater and dance presented is that which can turn a profit. So in some sense, we see that western cultures have acknowledged in deed, if not in word, that profit-making is anathema to healthy creativity. Thus, western cultures have sheltered performance creativity in a various economic purgatories – neither profit-making nor free – in order to preserve the ability of artists to fail and live to try again. In a way, these economic shelters are protections from the tyranny of the dominant taste or fad. For it is precisely that fad which will turn the quickest profit, and to which the commercial producer will bend the artists’ efforts.
In 1966, William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen published Performing arts, the economic dilemma: a study of problems common to theater, opera, music and dance. Cary brought his copy to show us. It is a book I will have to read some day, but for now I can only report what Cary pointed out – that Baumol and Bowen came to precisely the conclusion stated in the previous paragraph. The performing arts are a perilous territory for the money-maker, and that in order for the art forms to thrive, they need financial support not found in the commercial marketplace.
During the lively discussion that followed Cary’ s presentation, we took turns taking apart the economic forces at work now in the performing arts, and spoke about both the positive and negative effects of those forces. We glanced at White Pines notion of an arts institutions based on an exchange of gifts, and acknowledged that it such a radical notion that an entirely new language needs to be developed in order to describe it. We all agreed that the notion that White Pines was offering events “for free” was at best misleading, and at worst plays into precisely the commercial language and mind-set we are trying to avoid. Getting something for free implies you’ve taken advantage of someone or something; you’ve “gotten away” with something. But White Pines wants to make it clear that everything we do costs money, that we need money, that we are determined to support out artists, but, for a variety of reasons, we reject selling what we make, and who we are.
During this discussion I sensed two things. I sensed how engagement in conversations about commercial value makes people tense and testy. It can quickly become, we deserve to be paid, dammit! The language of commerce is often a language of comparisons, insecurity and resentment. I also sensed, again, that ultimately those of us making money through White Pines will need to lead the way in a new and fearless transparency about our own financial circumstances. I sensed that we will need to publish our tax returns on-line and without shame for all the world to see, so that we can begin to have a discussion about the issue that really matters. What is a living wage anyway?
Should art be sold? It’s a silly question really. Of course it should – it’s the only way artists can make money. But maybe underneath there are deeper questions about the effects of money making on art and artists. Several times during Cary’s presentation, I thought again of how this discussion we are beginning to have around art, community, money and creativity has echoes of the wrenching national debate going now about the role of government, the freedom of the individual and the obligations of community.
Next Lyceum is Monday December 5th at 7 pm at the Quaker Meetinghouse at 4th and Arch Streets, Old City, Philadelphia. I hope you’ll come.