The Performing Arts in a New Era

Kevin McCarthy, Arthur Brooks, Julia Lowell, and Laura Zakaras

221, 160 pages, $20. RAND Distribution Services, 877-584-8642, fax: 310-451-6915, order[at]

In The Performing Arts in a New Era, the Rand Corporation takes on the daunting task of mapping the performing arts sector in the United States. The report was released in July 2001, as part of the Pew Charitable Trust's cultural initiative, "Optimizing America's Cultural Resources," which attempts in part to build a research capability for the arts that will inform and shape national and local cultural policy.

This appears to be the first research project that attempts to look at the performing arts field comprehensively. Its approach is largely one of synthesis, drawing together the fragmented body of data and research already extant on the performing arts. This task is daunting for two reasons: first, the researchers attempt to define and map the field as it really exists in all its complexity — its commercial, nonprofit, and amateur sectors; and, second, the work is undertaken in the face of tremendous gaps in data.

The report begins by establishing a useful way to understand the relationship between the multiple sectors of performing arts activity. The researchers ask us to think of the performing arts field as a complex grid — what they call a multidimensional map — that contains various components: art forms (music, dance, theater, literary arts, etc); sectors of the economy (nonprofit, for-profit, amateur); and key players (audience, artist, organization, or funder). These components and their complex interactions constitute the framework through which the report's findings can be understood. The researchers stress that they use this methodology to describe the performing arts system in “very broad strokes and with highly aggregated data.” The reader must take into account geographic, discipline specific, and other particularities. Given this caveat, however, the report presents trends from an “altitude” and a perspective that is difficult to obtain in day-to-day observations of the field, and makes some intriguing observations that bear careful examination and reflection.

This reviewer comes away from the report with a renewed sense of the increasing strain felt by the nonprofit performing arts. Important trends are noted that provide evidence of this strain:

• The continued existence and pressure of Baumol and Bowen's “cost disease,” that is, of the inevitable earnings gap created when audiences are too small and fixed costs too high for the arts to pay for themselves;
• A sense of exhaustion around the notion of “leveraged funding” which has worked since the era of the Ford Foundation and the NEA's emphasis on matching contributions;
• A sense that performing arts activity is increasing faster than its revenues are;
• Lack of detailed knowledge about individual artists, in a time when their societal value is still not understood and when deeply discounted wages and difficult career paths are their norm;
• The increase in public sector funding at state and local levels, and the possible corollary that funding is becoming more conservative.

These and other increasing pressures lead the report's authors to postulate a “fundamental shift in the structure of the performing arts system.” That is, they begin to describe differentiation in the performing arts field not in terms of nonprofit versus for-profit organizations, but rather in terms of large and small organizations. As financial and social pressures build in the performing arts system, large organizations, both non- and for-profit, begin to look more alike. They depend more on popular repertoire, repetition, or “star” quality. Small organizations, on the other hand, will offer niche alternatives to the “biggies.” Thus a proliferation of smaller organizations may be the most likely source of innovation and risk-taking. The mid-sized organizations — caught in the middle with relatively higher fixed costs and with a need for more earned revenue — are portrayed as by far the most vulnerable in this new era.

The report suggests opportunities for research and exploration that could help us test these theories and develop better data on the performing arts and the forces that shape them. A central recommendation is that if we want to increase the rate of participation in the performing arts, we must do a much better job of understanding the demand as well as the supply side of the equation. The report argues that much more emphasis must be placed on building strategies to understand and stimulate demand. We do not know enough about how tastes are formed or why arts audiences and participants make the choices they do.

Additional recommendations focus on encouraging all of us involved to take control of our own destinies by taking more aggressive roles in shaping the public debate about the societal value of arts and culture. We should take the lead in developing a compelling case about the public benefits of the arts and in building awareness about their place in community life.

Finally, the report cautions that we need to know more about our artists. It states, “Although artists are at the center of the creative process, we probably know less about them than about any other part of the performing arts environment.” Given the continuing economic disincentives to make a career in the arts, we must find ways to encourage entry into the field, to nurture artists, and to make sure that opportunities exist to create new and original works for the future.

Reviewed by Janet Sarbaugh, Senior Program Director, Arts and Culture, The Heinz Endowments