Theater Commentary: It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid!

by Bill Marx

Has anyone actually read the recent Boston Foundation Arts Report? A column in suggests that the sputtering economy is essentially to blame for what The Boston Foundation sees as an increasingly tough time for nonprofit theaters. The solution for Boston’s theaters, suggests the starstruck observer, boils down to new and improved Rolodexes for the major local companies, which should bring in more big name artists and put them in scripts by acclaimed playwrights such as Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter. Dream on — the Boston Foundation report suggests, despite its stiff upper lip, that it will take innovation and imagination, not a tonier line-up of imports, to rejuvenate Boston theater.

Harold Pinter
Will staging more plays by Harold Pinter reverse tough times for Boston theater? Dream on…

Granted, the report’s eye-glazing mix of corporate guff and happy talk is designed to undercut occasional intimations of reality. But read carefully, the report suggests that the problem for theaters in the future is not just dwindling resources, static audience growth, and a lack of celebrity playwrights. Among a number of other challenges, the report takes up an ominous issue I raised when I was at WBUR: the economic and artistic price paid when marketing pushes creativity aside.

Since 2000, the mantra for nonprofit arts groups has been to “either grow or die.” Marketing and development remains an integral part of the master plan to expand audiences, but now, in some cases, Boston has the worst of both worlds – payroll pressures are increasing while artistic vision weakens because resources are going to expensive marketing staffers who are not pulling in sufficient theatergoers to attend an increasing number of presentations. The Boston Foundation nails the problem:

Based on our research, it appears that payroll is driving organizations expenses and may be crowding out funding for programs. Behind this general payroll dynamic are significant salary increases for marketing and development executives between 1999 and 2004. This suggests that increased competition for audiences and contributions may cause organizations to invest more heavily in marketing and development. These indicators, combined with worrisome studies that show an impending leadership deficit for the nonprofit sector as a whole, suggest that arts and cultural nonprofits may soon face difficulties in recruiting and retaining talent (p. 45).

Ironically, The Boston Foundation in its 2004 report on the arts bestowed its blessing on the Boston gold rush to expand, though nobody apparently had a very good idea about where additional audiences for the tidal wave of productions were going to come from. History may be about to repeat itself in other cities around the country. According to a recent report in the New York Times, the good news so far about a building boom among nonprofit theaters in cities such as Philadelphia, Washington, and Minneapolis is “that even without large increases in ticket prices (some have actually dropped), earned income at most of the new theaters has risen.” But there are also scary signs that companies are not ready to handle “the hugely increased cost of running a new theater once it’s built.”

Perhaps because The Boston Foundation doesn’t want to be too much of a downer, the report doesn’t really go deeply into the aging demographics of theater attendance, though there is talk about the slightly shrinking population of Boston, the tapped-out arts consumer, and the cozy appeal of home entertainment centers. Given Boston’s bland stage repertory and rising ticket prices, young people may not be coming in droves to theater in the future. What’s more, traditional marketing techniques may not work on thirtysomethings who are attuned to the Web, which offers much more economical approaches to publicity than that of expensive old media.

Boston Foundation Arts Report

The Boston Foundation will no doubt discover the online world in its 2010 report. Still, the organization is catching up with the times. Mergers are still being flogged as a solution, but, readers are warned, they “are not a cure-all for the growth of the nonprofit marketplace (p.17).”

It would also be nice if The Boston Foundation offered an alternative to the problematic notion that theaters will be able to market their way out of trouble. After all, as the report points out, the salaries of marketers helped create the current fix. But no such luck — theaters that cannot afford pricey publicists must go under for the sake of the survival of the species. Thus The Boston Foundation’s amusing Darwinian incredulity at the nerve of small companies that won’t face reality and commit hara-kiri so that their audiences and funders will go elsewhere, presumably to one of the larger, more evolution-friendly theaters:

Instead, we have observed boards of directors and staff leadership struggle to survive even though the organizational vision has either dissipated or lost its resonance with its audience and supporters. We recognize that exiting the market is a sensitive and difficult issue, particularly because boards of directors may view it as their fiduciary responsibility to figure out how to sustain an organization no matter the circumstances. However, because we believe that a healthy sector must allow nonprofits to enter and exit the marketplace in order for innovation to flourish, we call on nonprofit boards and institutional funders to consider if an organization should continue to operate or if it has run its course (p. 52).

Die, die, why don’t you die! The question of “innovation” is a tricky one. Quite rightly, The Boston Foundation calls for nonprofits to proffer a “unique and compelling vision.” But the current emphasis on marketing and development, much encouraged by The Boston Foundation, has only made our larger theaters more conservative, less willing to take risks. The removal of the uneven and unruly but at times brilliant director Robert Woodruff from the American Repertory Theater serves as a warning to other Boston theaters that safe and sound is easier to sell, even in Cambridge. Our critics, always the last ones to complain about anything, are beginning to grumble about the lack of dramatic premieres on our major stages. But why the surprise? New work is the hardest to market; timidity will only strengthen its death grip as $4 a gallon gas approaches.

Bill Marx

Meanwhile, The Boston Foundation’s definition of “innovation” needs some scrutiny, since last summer it awarded the Citi Performing Arts Center $225,000, the largest single grant given to any institution for the quarter. President and CEO of the Citi Performing Arts Center Josiah Spaulding Jr., who presided over five straight years of budget deficits and arts programming cuts, earned a $1.265 million bonus for his pioneering efforts in whiz-bang “innovation.” Granted, CPAC has emitted some vague talk about reinventing itself as a “virtual performing arts center.” It sounds like just the kind of creative work The Boston Foundation wants to support – CPAC will sell its marketing and development expertise to theaters in New England and around the country!

The truth is that The Boston Foundation recognizes “innovation” primarily among a select group of fat cat institutions, particularly those who can afford to lose huge sums of money. The smaller troupes, which can only drop a modest amount of dough and can’t exercise marketing muscle, are out of luck no matter what they do, including doing what The Boston Foundation demands.

Young audience member at the Wheelock Family Theater
Young audience member at the Wheelock Family Theater

For example, the report calls for minority involvement in the arts, rightly faulting Metro Boston’s arts and culture sector for not “addressing the diverse needs, preferences and cultures of local residents.” Yet the Wheelock Family Theater, which for 27 years has presented multicultural productions for children, has not received a dime from the Boston Foundation since 1998-2000.

According to Charles Baldwin, the Marketing Director for the stage (he is also “responsible for the box office and subscribers and members and donors and student staffing as well as operations during show times, including students, volunteers, programs, flyers, refreshments, etc”), the average ticket price at the WFT is only $15 and 68% of the budget is covered by box office sales. Why should The Boston Foundation encourage an efficient theater that specializes in multicultural productions for kids when it can toss hundreds of thousands of dollars down the rabbit hole that, at least until recently, is CPAC? Perhaps, in order for “innovation” to flourish, WFT should wise up, do its duty, and die gracefully.



  1. Art on March 11, 2008 at 7:24 am

    I believe the problem extends even further.

    I used to keep track of the Mass Cultural Council giving.

    In 2006 the combined Mass Cultural monies to The Lyric Stage, Stoneham, Merrimack Rep, New Rep, Speakeasy, Company One, Sugan, and Theatre Offensive: $35,350.00.

    Those 8 theatres combined did not equal even near one gift to the ART or the Huntington.

    Of course, we all know what happened to the Sugan.

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