Lately, I've read a fair amount and seen a fair amount about how theaters and artists need to explain their economic impact, be in conversation with their community, and express with statistical precision what it is that they do.
Theaters are told to prove what service they provide. To explain how a local theater helps local businesses and lowers the crime rate. How a play impacts the public dialogue. The question has become: what use are you?
It would be hypocritical of me to say that speaking in these terms isn't important and savvy. One key caveat, though, is that this type of thinking should be a part of the burden of creative artists.
There is the natural, in many places well founded, hostility that does and should exist between artists and their communities. Writers, poets, dancers and painters are not community service providers. There is, of course, some peripheral impact of their work in dollar terms, but to provide a community with 'added economic value' that is not their core function.
There is a not subtle hostility towards the arts in our appropriations process... we're given enough money to keep us quiet, but not enough to show that we're valued in the same way, that, say, insurance providers are valued. The message is clear: artists challenge and upset communities as much as they amuse and aid them. Giving artists money to piss everyone off, bore them, or generally make them question whether or not their values make sense doesn't really match the modus operendi of the government. Giving artists money that they then spend to make no profit causes cognitive dissonance in a nation that measures positive consequences with a spreadsheet and a slide rule.
Hostility, skepticism and anger are the hallmarks of some of the greatest works of art. We can see that effect now with Caryl Churchill. She isn't reflecting the generally accepted values of the Western World, she's rebelling against them, attacking them. As well she should. She isn't being what would be termed by members inside her community as filling their needs; she is questioning them. She is being, in that way, a fantastic member of the world community. Better, in my estimation, if she asked her community what they wanted from her, and then gave it to them.
This is not to say that I'm condemning the work of arts advocates. When theater companies and advocacy organizations provide statements and data about the value of their work in dollar terms, they are doing what is asked of them and they are doing exactly as they should. We need to make and attempt to win every argument, including that one. Arts advocates and lobbyists are essential, and I pray they are brilliantly successful at every turn.
Artists, though, exist to agitate, provoke, shock (yes, shock), and question. It's for this very reason that communities, national to local, will always view them as troublemakers, try to marginalize them, or assimilate them. Forcing us to present ourselves as bullet points in a PowerPoint entitled The Impact of Theater Organizations on Job Growth, or somesuch, is a way to bring artists into a harmful worldview: one that places all arts within the framework of sales and subsidies, of evidence and fact. Once we begin to match our impact dollar for dollar with that of a foodbank, a restaurant, MacDonalds, Warner Brothers, or the DMV, we become a part of a logic that inevitably leads to faulty conclusions about value.
So yes, arts advocates should research and know all they can about how we improve our neighborhoods, how we educate, what services we provide. Artists, though, should resist thinking of themselves as reflections of their community, or fillers of needs, or educators. We do our job best when we retain that sense of doubt and anger; and communities, whether they prefer to see it or not, are better served by our hostility than our complicitity.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.