From the moment we saw this post from Chris Ashworth in October, New Leaf buckled down to create a vision of what sustainable theater could look like in the 21st century. It was a clarion call for an idea that had been churning and developing in the company for years.
Our theater must move away from a patronage model of funding and towards a partnership model. I don’t think any of our patrons would argue that art and the artists that make it couldn’t use more support in our society, both financial and social – we have all seen the ancillary benefits that are generated when you connect an artist with their passion – beauty, clarity, revelation, emotional release, simplicity, dialogue. But we also believe that society, corporate culture, and community organizations could directly and immediately benefit from a creative integration of the artistic process and the byproducts of artistic thinking into their work and daily experience. Most of America’s exposure to art is the finished “product” – a couple hours of watching a play, taking in a recital, or browsing paintings at a museum. If what we offer is an experience, our product is not the result, it is the entire experience from concept to creation to completion. And audiences routinely miss or are restricted from the meat of what that experience has to offer.
I’m not gonna lie – this feels like a crazy risk right now, at one in the morning. But putting your mouth where your money is always was going to be a risk.
I’ve immersed myself in the past few months in histories of artistic renaissance both ancient and recent, reading stories about the financial models of the Medici and how they funded one of the most vibrant and ultimately constructive cultural revolutions and sequences of rediscovery in history. The mob-esque patronage model of the Medici was highly supportive of the artist, quite untransparent, seems pretty attractive out of the context of plague, excommunication, brutality, and almost certainly political dysfunction, which all makes it seem oddly familiar to an artist in Chicago.
And on the other hand I’ve also read up on the organizational work of the generation that are now my artistic mentors – the folks that built Chicago theatre and specifically storefront theatre from the ground up and found ways of making it work that lasted through at least a couple major recessions.
(sidebar: if you wanted to know what it’s been like producing in Chicago in the last ten years, check out these decade-wrapping articles from New City. There’s some stunning archival work on display.)
I also feel like, as per usual, it’s a crazy long post. But we have several difficult cases to make. On the one hand, we have to make the case that in an economic downturn, investing in art in general and theater specifically can be directly beneficial to the investors, not just indirectly beneficial in the form of some vague warm feeling of generosity. Which brings us to the other case to be made: Theater may be non-profit, but we need to get out of the mentality that we therefore deserve financial support. Because if donors give money out of guilt or a heart that bleeds for unsupported artists, it’s misplaced. I’m sorry, but we just don’t need money like organizations that fight poverty and hunger and violence and disease do. If anything, we should be working for them. We must either be satisfied with just putting on plays with our own resources alone, which I think is a perfectly acceptable way of producing theater, or if we produce for the benefit of broader social goals, we need to articulate those goals and create direct and accountable value in our donor’s lives.
This shouldn’t leave us in a quandry or a place where we need to suddenly justify our existence, however. The answer is that we need to do a better job of featuring our people. Your company, after all, is your people, and their talents, and their projects, and their dreams, and their vision. To forget that is to risk losing them, and so instead you fight for them. You fight to keep them, you fight to support them, you wrangle and jostle to provide them with rich opportunities in which they will thrive.
I think the mistake we’ve had to make as theaters, especially mid-sized and small theaters, in the past few decades as we often aimed our ambitions towards national and grand scales is that we largely forgot that “our people” includes our audience. We must embrace our scale and scope and choose to feature them too, not just take their money and tell ourselves “yes, we deserve to take their money.” We must draw them out and be able to say: “this person paid for this set, this prop, this sound design. This person made this happen. And it wasn’t just humble generosity, no, this person has talents and dreams that match ours, and we want you, dear audience, to take this thing we made out of that energy and that support and go and support them, and each other.”
It’s so crazy. Here’s hoping it just works.
This post was brought to you, once again, by E. Hunter Spreen. She is a supporter of this blog and my coffee habit that I would like to draw your attention to. She stopped blogging for a time because she had the H1N1. I hope you will join me in forgiving her for having human limitations and reading her just the same. And after being inspired by her example, I actually put her coffee money towards a brief upcoming mental health break from technology and the city that I love. Cheers, E.Buy Me a Coffee?