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State of the Arts

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Twenty years from now some expertspredict, the dichotomy of performing arts will have undergone a shift. The two kinds of theatrical companies will no longer be for-profit and non-profit (with the former producing mass entertainment and the latter offering "high art"), but simply big vs. small.

That is one of the conclusions reached in a new study, "The Performing Arts in a New Era," underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trust and compiled by the nonprofit RAND Corporation. After evaluating the current state of performing arts groups across a wide spectrum, the authors of the study, led by Kevin McCarthy, suggest that "the distinctions between what is 'popular' and what is 'high' art will continue to erode." And as those distinctions matter less and less, they hypothesize, the emphasis on financial success will only increase.

While that part of the study is sure to dismay many in the performing arts who would like to see more attention paid to excellence, and less to "blockbuster" status, the report is not unremittingly gloomy. It also points out that the number of organizations offering live performances continues to grow, Broadway plays and live opera performances are bringing in record audiences, and the number of self-proclaimed professional artists doubled to 1.6 million from 1970 to 1990 (a figure that doesn't include amateur performing artists, described as "those who pursue their craft as an avocation with no expectation of being paid for it," a group some 20 to 30 times larger than the professionals).

In addition, the past three decades have seen so much construction of new arts spaces that more than a third of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters' member groups built their main venues between 1980 and 1993.

But all those promising portents are outweighed, in the authors' collective opinion, by the more troubling aspects of performing, familiar to most Back Stage readers. "Pay and job security have scarcely improved since the 1970s," they write. "On average, performing artists earn considerably less, work fewer weeks per year, and face higher unemployment than other professionals with comparable education levels." Even including the pay from survival jobs that most actors must accept to keep going, their annual earnings were 10% less than "professional and technical workers." The authors also note that critics and marketers "have helped magnify small differences in talent … coalescing demand around a very few stars and driving their wages above everyone else's in the field." It's nice for the lucky few who find themselves in that category, but it's a worrisome trend when considering the future health of the performing arts field.

Increasing Conservatism

The authors might have been explicitly thinking of the Public Theater's all-star production of "The Seagull" when they wrote of what will likely transpire in the future: "Professional live performances of the high arts will be increasingly concentrated in big cities and provided by high-budget nonprofit organizations that can support the cost of top-echelon performers and productions." While other areas will continue to have theatre made available through a variety of venues, from touring companies to local groups that "will be able to build and maintain comparatively small but loyal audiences." Hence their pessimistic view of the divide between big and small groups.

"As the rewards of success and the costs of failure continue to climb, large organizations will seek to minimize their risks by choosing conservative programming and technology-intensive productions designed to appeal to the largest possible audience," they predict. "At the other end of the scale, small performing arts organizations will be both more dynamic and more diverse than their larger counterparts."

It might well seem to many, especially to those who feel stymied in their attempts to expand the limits of art, that the future is already here.

The complete 160-page report may be purchased for $20 by calling (877) 584-8642 or e-mailing order@rand.org. An abstract of the report may be viewed free of charge at www.rand.org.

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