On the Decline of Arts Organizations

I have to take a pause from my Europe trip recap to share my thoughts on an issue that has become rather personal to me recently, especially since it affects both me and many of my closest friends. It may not be obvious to the average American, but to those of us who work in the industry, it seems like a new theater or opera company closes its doors every week.

Earlier this year, New York City Opera declared bankruptcy and shut down. A couple months later, San Diego Opera made the shocking announcement that they were following suit, and only after much drama and discussion about the shady activities of its highest level of directors did they miraculously rise from the dead. And just this week, the press releases started flowing about the closing of San Jose Repertory Theatre in my own hometown.

The San Jose Rep.

The San Jose Rep. Source

Obviously, this most recent closure stings the most for me and my immediate circle of colleagues. Back in the fall, I participated in the Rep’s workshop of The Snow Queen, an original musical based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairly tale of the same title (the same source material for Frozen, FYI). They had auditioned music and theatre students on our campus the previous spring and I was lucky enough to be offered a spot. Together with a handful of other students, I had the chance to read through an original script and score to give the writers a chance to adapt it before the “real” production went up. It was a fantastic experience and a fun process, and when I found out a few days ago that the company will close its doors, it seemed more real and personal to me than those other, larger companies for whom I had never worked.

When the announcement came out about the Rep, my Facebook news feed exploded with shocked, upset, and even angry comments from the theatre and music world. There were several themes that manifested themselves in these comments, but one of them stood out to me more than others: “Why, in one of the capitals of wealth in the state, the country, and even the world, couldn’t the tech industry manage to bail out a struggling theatre company?”

Honestly, I think there’s a perfectly good answer: it’s not their responsibility.

Yes, art and culture is a huge part of what makes the Bay Area thrive. Some would probably argue that that alone means that we all have a responsibility to keep it alive, and maybe that’s true of individual people and businesses that are directly related to the arts or have already expressed an interest in them. But we, the arts industry and its supporters, can’t assume that the big corporations or “the 1%” will step in to save our skins every time we find ourselves in financial trouble.

Obviously I’m on the side of the arts here. It’s my job, for goodness’ sake. But allow me to be controversial for one second and tell you what I think the real problem is for a company like the Rep: no one cares about their seasons. They program shows that don’t draw an audience. One glance through the archived seasons list on their website is extremely telling. Upon showing the list to my husband who doesn’t work in the industry but is an arts appreciator, a category that I imagine most of the Rep’s patrons fall into, he recognized maybe three titles over the past eight seasons, with eight shows per season. That’s not a very good ratio, or one that will interest the average theatergoer.

This is true for opera companies as well. Many smaller companies are programming operas that are rarely performed and thus less popular, or modern operas whose music doesn’t appeal to the average non-musically educated audience member. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely support the programming of these kinds of shows. After all, opera won’t survive if nothing new is being composed. But entire seasons of obscure repertoire in the name of being “artsy” or “controversial” can’t carry a company financially.

I hope it’s not too late for the Rep. It’s an extremely important part of the arts scene in San Jose, and I would love to see it make a comeback like the San Diego Opera did. However, I also hope that other companies will learn from the Rep’s struggles and realize that the answer isn’t waiting around for a patron or the tech industry to rescue them. They need to rethink how they attract audiences and make their seasons relatable and interesting to the people who buy tickets. When did that become such a challenge?

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