Trisha Mead sums up the conversation best at the Arena Stage blog, and here's the relevant excerpt:
"Here's a recipe for a hell of a conceptual fist fight. Convene 100 or so people from around the nation, each of whose mission in life is to grow the field of new work for the theater. Each of whom represents an organization that is fighting to generate new audiences, new ideas, new structures for expanding the American theater.
Then place a guy in cowboy boots in front of them (who happens to control the largest pool of public arts funding in the U.S.) and have him baldly state, "Look. You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply."" (italics mine)
He went on to cite some statistics and explain his comments further in a blog post....yes, the NEA has a blog, who knew?! The post is worth reading, and if you care about this stuff, you should probably also read the good responses from Diane Ragsdale, Edward Clapp, and Aaron Andersen (and the negative reactions). But most of the reactions I've found online seem to be that Landesman should never have thought such thoughts, especially as someone in a public role of supporter of the Nation's art, and that no one should ever believe we have too many nonprofits in theater-ville.
Many people argued against Landesman that you can increase demand, and perhaps this is true. I tend to believe so in my little indie film world, so let's just concede that yes, perhaps you can increase demand. Doesn't matter though, as you'd have to completely reshape the sector, if not the world, to increase demand to a level that would sustainably support the number of nonprofit theaters we have in the US. On top of that, the same can be said about nonprofit arts organizations generally - again, too many.
Let's just look at my arena - media arts. By my count, there are thirty-nine media arts organizations in New York City alone that are members of NAMAC, the organization which represents nonprofit media arts organizations. Not every media arts organization joins NAMAC, however, and some of the bigger names in the sector aren't on the list. Neither are the majority of the many, many film festivals in the City. Now, we can all probably agree that having a diversity of voices is great, and that audiences and filmmakers in NYC are well-served by having so many options for seeing work or getting support. But more than a few of these organizations are on a constant near-death watch, struggling financially and yes, artistically. A few are doing well, but trust me, that's a very few and even some you might think are healthy will tell you off the record that they struggle to make payroll regularly. I'm also willing to bet that there are more than a few that are doing fine, and doing good work, but work that is duplicative of something being done by someone else and that might be stronger if done together.
I've often wished that a foundation, or group of foundations, would put forth a fund to support one big roll-up in the sector. That's right, merge multiple organizations together, and even let one organization acquire the good assets of a few others and shut the rest of their business(es) down. There's quite simply no financial incentive for this now, and nonprofits are hard to put to rest. I wrote a bit about this in my chapter for 20 Under 40. Here's an excerpt from that:
"Unfortunately, it’s not a stretch to say the nonprofit arts sector looks like a field of zombies—undead, potentially harmful shells of their former selves, haunting the landscape, unable to live or to die. Quite simply, funders, board members, and leaders in the arts need to take a hard look at reality and make some painful decisions. More organizations need to merge to save costs, end duplicative services, and achieve greater impact. Many more organizations need to be shut down entirely, having either served their mission well or having long ago abandoned any real hope of having a meaningful impact. These conversations aren’t easy, but they need to be had on a field-wide level. Even those organizations that are healthy enough to survive will need to consider downsizing their costs and refocusing their energies as the dwindling support for the cultural sector is likely a permanent shift away from robust public, foundation, and individual financing of the arts."
That's right - things aren't getting better anytime soon. I'm not a fan of it, and I explain my reasoning more fully in the chapter, but the arts will continue to attract less support from all sectors, even as the US economy stabilizes. We need to have these hard conversations, and Landesman was right to kick start the debate. I'd much rather have it started within the sector, and for us to find a solution, than for us to be forced into a solution - and that time is coming near. I'm not arguing that every nonprofit arts organization needs to be merged or shut down, nor am I willing to publicly share which ones I think should go. These decisions need to be made by the leadership of the arts organizations themselves. They can be prodded and funded in these endeavors by foundations, but they shouldn't be forced. That doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't have the conversation.
It's not necessarily a bad conversation to be in the middle of either. As I also say in my chapter, "Mergers are often thought of as drastic measures to cut expenses or end duplicative services, but they can also be planned for to better prepare organizations to face new economic and cultural realities, fill strategic gaps, and lead to new programming and greater services. In fact, a downsized arts sector does not necessarily equal less artistic programming. As many arts administrators know, budget tightening can often help one to focus on mission and expand services and programming through new, creative solutions." (Italics added). That's what we need to focus on - new, creative solutions - in these conversations. I'll be adding my own ideas to the debate, and hopefully the conversation, as it moves forward, but welcome your ideas in the comments below.