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Our Tough-Luck Theater Town

December 16, 2009

I wrote this article a few months ago in Show Business Weekly about the struggling nonprofit theater industry. It seemed apt in light of the story in Crain’s New York Business on Monday about the Roundabout Theatre Company’s serious financial woes.

It’s anyone’s guess where New York’s theater artists will be a year from now. Hell, try six months.


Recession Clobbers Nonprofit Theaters
Dwindling funds to arts groups highlight disparity between commercial and non-commercial sectors

By Christopher Zara

At a time when fewer Americans can afford the extravagance of attending a Broadway show, one would expect a conference on the future of performing arts in New York City to be a gloomy affair. However, on the stately campus of Columbia University’s School of the Arts late last month, where hundreds of theater professionals and arts aficionados gathered for a four-hour symposium dubbed “Performing Arts at a Crossroads,” the mood was surprisingly peppy and optimistic.

The conference, part of the “Future of New York City” series presented by Crain’s New York Business, comprised a string of panel discussions with arts administrators and city officials who had hoped to open a dialogue about how New York’s arts industry can weather the country’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The discussions were both lively and rallying — a hopeful token of the city’s position as a leading purveyor of arts and culture — but in the end few solutions were offered as to what, if anything, should be done to combat dwindling funds in the theater industry, particularly within its embattled nonprofit sector.

“The arts are a powerful driver of everything we do and are in New York,” First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris reminded the crowd in her opening speech, touting Mayor Michael Bloomberg as an avid arts enthusiast who returned cultural initiatives to the top of the municipal agenda on his first day in office, January 1, 2002. Less than four months after 9/11, Harris said, Bloomberg immediately green-lit Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates installation in Central Park. “Faced with a looming deficit that out-paced a national recession, why would a mayor even think about public art?” Harris asked rhetorically. “It’s because he was counting on The Gates to do three things that the arts do every single day: transform the quality of life in New York, enhance our identity and, yes, contribute to the city’s economy.”

Eight years after the 9/11 attacks, New York City is facing a new economic menace, one that has forced even the most devoted theatergoers to tighten their entertainment budgets. To be sure, the dire effects of the recession have not battered the theater community equally across the board. At last month’s conference, one panel discussion focused specifically on the theater business. Although its aim was to find common solutions for theater companies both large and small, the discussion ultimately underscored the huge economic disparity that exists between commercial and nonprofit theater.

Nina Lannan, chairman of the Broadway League, a trade association for Broadway theaters, maintained a downright cheerful demeanor in the face of questions about how the recession has affected the Great White Way. Lannan, who also worked as general manger last year on the Broadway shows Billy Elliot, 9 to 5 and Mamma Mia!, said Broadway ticket sales are down only about 10 to 15 percent, far less than in other areas of the city. During the last week of September, for example, nine out of the 26 shows currently on Broadway played at a 90 percent capacity.

In short, while Broadway’s commercial sector had been expecting a sharp recession-related decline in ticket sales, anxiety over its bottom line has so far been unfounded. “We were all worried about the summer, but with many shows, we did proceeds over $1,000,000,” Lannan said. “And September has been pretty good for us, too.”

This is not to say that Broadway is immune to the recession. To illustrate this, Lannan cited the recent musical flop 9 to 5, which, despite being based on a popular movie, failed to find an audience and was forced to close on Labor Day weekend. “I think in this climate people are being more choosy about their shows,” she said.

For Todd Haimes, artistic director of the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company, the consequences of the recession have been far more devastating. Haimes was quick to acknowledge a drop in subscriptions and general attendance, but he said such declines have been minor in comparison to the falloff in corporate and private donations to the Roundabout. “Where we’re getting killed — and I think this is true to varying degrees for all nonprofits — is in contributions,” he said. “It was like falling off a cliff. We didn’t prepare for it at all.”

Haimes said that many of the major corporate foundations, which could be counted on in the past for huge donations to nonprofits, have been wiped out by the stock market. Moreover, he noted a general decline in corporate philanthropy that has taken place over the last two and a half decades. “When I came to New York in 1983, it was the responsibility of every corporation to give philanthropic dollars back to the community,” he said. “Over the years that shifted, which is sad. Now it’s become nothing.”

Panel moderator Steven Chaikelson, director of Columbia’s theater program, kept a necessary degree of optimism in response to Haimes’s bleak outlook on the future of nonprofit theater. Driving home the point that the arts industry is not a particularly stable one, even in times of economic growth, Chaikelson went so far as to balk at the conference’s ominous-sounding theme, “Performing Arts at a Crossroads,” which he admitted is a vague concept. “I read that title and scratched my head,” he said. “When have we not been at a crossroads? It seems like we’ve been facing the imminent demise of theater for the last 100 years.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. Carolina Maine permalink
    December 21, 2009 4:42 am

    Wow. It makes sense that businesses would reduce funding. People still want to be entertained. I know I do. It is our only escape sometimes. I would rant on and on about a culture that prized peace, education, arts, and sciences so that these things would not fall victim to the whims of a fictitious invisible hand–but I shall refrain.

    Love the new blog look. You should connect this to your other account so we can read your notes as you make them:)

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