Michael Kaiser wants us to focus on the reason why we do it (the art, silly!), but I’m more struck by his succinct diagnosis of why arts institutions are in scary times:

The development of new technology has given our audience members new forms of entertainment and new ways to spend their discretionary time and money. This has made it far more difficult to sell tickets at prices that cover most, if not all, of the cost of production. People now entertain themselves with iPads, iPods, iPhones and numerous other electronic devices. They are entertained for so little money that high-priced performance tickets lose their appeal.

This is happening, of course, at a time of financial instability. This has made our audiences more price-sensitive and our donors less likely to make major contributions.

Of course, with more competition for entertainment dollars, we have to produce even more exciting and important art — and this often costs more money.

But with earned and unearned income difficult to come by, risk-taking seems death defying rather than simply scary.

It goes on from there – I would quote more, but I’d be re-printing more than half the piece. In short, even as more and cheaper entertainment/leisure options are popping up everyday, the support systems that get people interested in arts institutions (education and media) are fading away. Therefore, arts institutions are under pressure to reach new people by charging them less for cooler stuff, even though cooler stuff actually costs more money than the status quo. All in a time of economic recession.  Read the whole thing.

  • There’s one sentence that jumped out at me: “we have to produce even more exciting and important art — and this often costs more money. The is a logical leap that, if thought about directly rather than in passing, reveals what may be the underlying problem facing the arts today: exciting and important = more expensive. This says something about our culture’s underlying attitudes, one that unfortunately has been embraced by artists as well, and one that would have been rejected (or at least pushed against) not that long ago. In the face of this economic premise, the arrival of additional low-priced entertainment (surely these ideas were broached when movies, radio, and television began providing low-cost entertainment) pales by comparison.

    • Good point, Scott. I think one detail that perhaps wasn’t as clear as it could have been in my presentation of Kaiser’s words is that he is thinking about this exclusively from the perspective of arts institutions. From a general policy perspective, I can buy the idea that exciting and important art shouldn’t necessarily cost more money. But from the perspective of many established institutions, it seems like almost any change from the status quo is likely to be expensive in addition to difficult to implement, because of existing commitments that need to be met regardless of programming content. Am I wrong about that? I mean, that’s sort of what City Opera is up against right now, for example. On the other hand, you have organizations like the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra who seem to be handling pretty radical change with relative grace, at least from an outsider’s perspective.

      • Ian, that’s pretty accurate, from the perspective of arts institutions. And Kaiser is obviously an institutional guy.

        But there’s another reason live performing arts, specifically, are more expensive than the latest edition of Angry Birds on my smartphone, and that is just the simple issue of scale. Even though Angry Birds must’ve cost more to develop than most storefront theater annual budgets, you can put it on millions of screens, free to the user, and pay for it with add revenue.

  • FCM

    The “form” of the Institution used to be the best way to organize large amounts of people towards singular(ish) goals. The sacrifice, or inefficiency, was the organizational costs associated with keeping the order: human resources, accounting, compliance, facilities, overhead, etc. Transaction costs.

    Organizational costs plummet in a digitally networked society, allowing a wide diversity organizations to form/disperse and create results. While some of this is a fad, bubblish enthusiasm for new ways of making culture, much of it is not. I think the biggest issue is one that Mr. Moss discuss all the time: curatorship. The privilege of curatorship used to belong to Institutions, as a reward, in a sense, of the effective management of organizational costs. This is to say, if an organization survived, it could continue to present culture, on its own terms and values. Whether this is morally right or wrong, it’s simply no longer the ONLY way to go about creating arts.

    I think the very social fabric, that traditional arts institutions have been built upon, is radically changing, beyond the speed at which many of them will be able to adapt. And maybe this is an ok thing.

    I get the sense that today’s arts institutions reinforce a very Eurocentric subject/object paradigm in the arts. Subject=Art (on a Pedestal) Object=Audience (to passively perceive Art on a Pedestal, if they are smart enough, otherwise they need education). Whatever it is, it obviously hasn’t worked.

  • FCM

    Oh, one more thing:

    There aren’t any simple alternatives to this, but the management & talent dichotomy/hierarchy has become an ossification of 20th Century methods, an estuary of Eurocentric aesthetic values and American capitalism. I don’t think models that share that morphology have a strong chance for adaptation.

    With all due respect to Mr. Kaiser, whose ideas I very much appreciate in general, I think considering new/bigger/better “product” is looking down the wrong path. Arts need a complete re-writing of methodology.

    (HAH! Easier said than done, I know, I know, I know.)

  • Pingback: Humid Links: money, love and vampires (sort of) « Endless Possibilities()