Those who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s have seen both the most rapid and the widest expansion of theatre institutions in our history. What is more interesting is that the youngest in this field are—or at least seem to be—unaware of that phenomenon. They take the burgeoning of audiences, the proliferation of companies and groups, for granted. They are of course right to start from where they are, from their own generational vantage point.
But there are reasons for keeping the evolution clear in our minds, and the reasons are perhaps critical. Unless we understand the sweep of the past 25 years, we shall not easily identify the roots of some of the most acute issues threatening performing arts groups. For many of them are the direct results of the rapid growth of institutions, in some part perhaps the penalty of success.
If we think of institutions in their maturity, what are the differences over the past generation?
Twenty-five years ago artistic directors and actors were more or less on the same side, if I may put it that way. If there were ever a referee involved, it was Equity, and only sporadically. If there was a manager who was more than part time, he or she was the right hand of the artistic director rather than of the board. It was the creative head—the artistic director—who both expressed and symbolized the short- and long-range goals of the group.
The sources of financial support beyond the box office were fewer in number, chiefly private individual patrons and the private foundations just beginning to act more nationally in the arts. This was both bad and good; good only because it was easier for patrons and foundations to respond directly to the artistic personality. Already, perhaps, a few private patrons reacted because they wanted “good theatre” in their city, but most hopefully wanted a particular company to be good and match its professed aims with developing standards.
The proliferation of the ’60s and ’70s, we are all aware, had manifold effects on theatre. What I should like to observe is that the most telling of these were experienced through seismic shifts or even tremors in the structure of companies. Though institutional crises often seemed to be crises in funding, or at least to begin that way, they were actually crises in governance and motivation. (Parenthetically, if our subject were dance, symphony, the art museum, we would find this equally true.)
I suppose it is in most general terms positive that membership on the board of a theatre group has come to confer prestige, either in one community or more nationally. This obviously is another sign of a changed national climate for the arts. But what climate it is changing to we may not yet have fully encountered. Already, however, we have often seen dilution of leadership within the enterprise, sometimes to the clear deterioration of standards.
The use of performing arts trusteeships for personal status might be affordable in and of itself. It is when interlocked with other more tangible changes—economic, social, political—that governance and motivation become the central problems, the authority of the artistic director abridged, and new tensions felt between the artists and the company. One of these changes of course was the advent of governmental support. The National Endowment for the Arts may never have approached the categorical and long-range commitments made by the Ford Foundation to many key groups, but in its dispersal of financial resources, the Endowment was unparalleled.
The reading given to this by boards of directors changed many signals and many motivations, particularly after the possibility of challenge grants appeared. And the first shoots of corporate support visible in the ’70s contributed to additional strains on relations within a performing arts company and on its governance. Public funds in the arts made the arts look more like other agencies in the community perhaps. And if corporations were ever to share significantly in contributed income to theatre (even to date they have been fairly slow to do so),
then the manager might be more than equal to the artistic director, and the businessman on the board superior to both.
At the very least, in contrast to the scene in the ’60s, the manager has become the right hand not of the artistic director but of the board. In a few instances, as in some museums and many orchestras, a paid lay president is brought into the structure with a strong delegation from the board over both management and art. Artistic directors are in that event consultants to the president, in the illusion that in times when fundraising is a full-time pursuit and chancy, the business of theatre is business.
I do not want to suggest that we can never tamper with relationships between the board and the artistic leadership. But never can this be done without anticipating carefully the consequences, the many cans of worms that can be opened, the clash of self-serving positions. All these take both an artistic and emotional toll. Slowly you may discover that the institution exists only for itself, that even artistic directors and actors begin to lose contact with it, can no longer feel where it is or whether it has a focus.
Somewhere in the analysis of this shifting scene, there arises the obvious question of whether the business or corporate leaders in the community are really the best acquisitions for the board. In the ’40s and ’50s, few of these had been strongly recruited, unless as thousand-dollar annual givers to a symphony or opera company. Trustees were chiefly private patrons or professional men in the community, people with some education or exposure in the arts, who understood, as President Kennedy said he did, that “far from being an interruption, a distraction in the life of a nation, art is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose.”
I assure you I am not anti-business in my commitment to strengthening artistic and academic resources. Indeed, I have to confess, because there are many who could testify to it, that I often worked personally, one-on-one, to help convince individual businessmen to commit themselves to the goals of a significant performing company. My only defense is that at the time the individual businessman professed to be responding to one artistic personality and a collective of performers sharing a personal vision.
The onslaught of the Reagan Administration on the motivation for government participation in the pluralistic support mechanism for the arts has been more injurious than that Administration’s largely unsuccessful efforts to halve the level of government arts budgets. When Rep. Sidney Yates and his allies in Congress frustrated the budgetary slashes, the Administration created a special commission to push voluntarism, chiefly by corporate officers or their staffs, as a substitute for official support. Thus the illusion that business is the business of theatre is superseded by the delusion that voluntarism is for free when in truth everybody’s business becomes nobody’s. In this country, founded and nurtured on the dualism of public and private, official and voluntary, “not-for-profit” has perversely been twisted into a pejorative. In the ’70s, looking at the conflicts over governance, we felt a growing fear that the tail might begin to wag the dog. But as a museum director said recently, already too often the tail is the dog.
It is all too reminiscent of a far earlier time when actors and directors were thought of as feckless artistic types indulging themselves so long as someone else paid the freight, when one of the most influential trustees of a large and commanding institution asked Alan Schneider one night: “What do you people do in real life?”
There are always new problems. Frequently they arise on top of or out of our greatest achievements. There may well be a time for shaking down in the next 10 years. But I shall risk the prediction that the struggle for survival will not be largely financial. Survival will go to those willing to bring the most focus to bear. If there is a Gresham’s law in money, that bad money drives out good, there is not one in art or in ideas. Bad theatre does not drive out good; it ends only by exposing itself.
My proposal is that however bitter and disruptive the toll, creative leaders in theatre reassert control of their own institutions, purging the citadel of its enemies, whether they be inside or outside the gates; yes, even of those who come making promises and bearing gifts.
W. McNeil Lowry, who died in 1993, worked at the Ford Foundation from 1953–74, serving from 1964 till his retirement as its vice president for the humanities and the arts. Lincoln Kirstein, a co-founder of the New York City Ballet, called him “the single most influential patron of the performing arts that the American democratic system has produced.” For this article, adapted from remarks delivered at a Dance/USA national conference in San Francisco, the author substituted “theatre” for “dance” in an argument which Lowry believed applied equally to both fields.
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