Numbers and Consequences

By Cameron, Ben | American Theatre, July-August 1999 | Go to article overview

Numbers and Consequences


Cameron, Ben, American Theatre


Faithful readers of American Theatre may note with surprise the appearance of Theatre Facts 1998, a mere seven months after Theatre Facts 1997. This unusually quick turnaround of information reflects the diligence of the TCG staff, who worked long hours to produce this document in record time - particularly Judith Cooper Guido, Chris Shuff, Collette Carter, Jenny McMurry and Joan Channick.

The news is largely positive - increases in total income, impressive gains in artist compensation, growth in contributed income, a rise in audience figures and a remarkable gain in unrestricted net assets. And yet at least one statistic remains disturbing - a figure that indicates that while we as a field may be achieving a degree of short-term solvency - we are far from achieving long-term stability. Indeed, we are living in proverbial houses made of straw, and most of us are unprepared to weather any downturn in the national economy.

I remember when several orchestras launched an aggressive endowment drive. They rightly argued for the value of classical music - that every citizen, especially every child, deserves to hear the great symphonic works of Mahler, Tchaikovsky et al., performed live by an orchestra. They went on to say that proper performance demanded a full complement of more than 100 musicians (not to mention administrative and support staff) who needed year-round contracts to ensure cohesive playing. These necessities occasioned huge annual expenses that could not possibly be met through earned and contributed revenue. Indeed, their aspiration to excellence - beyond what the market could support - resulted in a "structural deficit," an annual shortfall of $3 million or more. Their endowment drive therefore argued that the community should help amplify their existing endowment (already at a hefty level) to create an endowment four or five times the value of their annual operating expenses to meet this "structural deficit."

In theatre, however, few of us stood and said, "We believe every citizen, every child, deserves to see Shakespeare and the great theatrical works performed by a live theatre company." Instead we too often said, "We'll do The Gin Game." We have repeatedly agreed to moderate the expectations of our field; to cut back on the scale and sweep of the theatrical imagination that lies at the heart of our work; to focus on the single-set, two- or three- (or at most four-) character play. We have repeatedly failed to secure the long-term artistic and organizational futures of our field.

As a field we are grossly undercapitalized. Check the section of Theatre Facts entitled "The Balance Sheet" and you'll see exactly what I mean. While National Arts Stabilization argues that a healthy arts organization have an endowment of at least 200-500 percent of its annual operating expenses, only three theatres in our survey - three in the entire country - meet this standard; only an additional eight have endowments equal to a single year of operating expenses; and 54 percent of the theatres are without endowments of any dimension. …

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