27 August 2010

Bread and Roses

A few months ago a friend was asked to sign a petition protesting the "sweetheart deal" that a local professional theater/venue had or might have in the future.  She asked me about it and I actually was able to frame a reply that didn't involve sarcastic swipes at the giant, tax-payer funded stadia we have around here:

Sorry that it's taken me so long to reply but I wanted to get past my knee-jerk "don't hurt the arts!" response.

I was actually in that space on Monday night because [Theater}, who uses the space, was doing a season preview.  I chatted for a bit with [their artistic director], and he told me that [Theater] splits their gate with [Venue]. 

Considering [Theater]'s normal show budget, [Venue] is not pulling in lots of dollars from them.  It's kind of win-win because 1) [Theater]gets the use of a nice black-box theater which seats about as many people as they sell tickets for; 2) [Venue] doesn't have to absolutely program there year-round; 3) Silver Spring's profile as an arts destination is raised a bit; 4) people who want to see good shows for cheap can do it in place where there are restaurants and parking.

[Theater]received two Helen Hayes awards (a big deal in local professional theater) for their work in that space and if they are allowed to continue to use it they will continue to bring value to the downtown area.  Theater goers are actually pretty good about spending money around the theater.  They meet for dinner, they go out for drinks after, etc.  The American Association of Community Theaters has something on their website describing the dollar multiplier provided by theaters.  [Real theaters, not movie houses.  :-) ]

And [Theater] isn't the only group that uses that space.  Back in January the Community Theater Festival Association hosted the One-Act Festival there.  I don't know the financial arrangement, but I do know that Association doesn't have much cash, so it may have been a similar split the gate deal.  Folks came in from around the state to perform at the festival, so hotel rooms, dinner tabs, and liquor tabs were run up around the area.  I, personally, stayed in my own home, it being near by, but I had lunch on my tech day at Egg-spectations, coffee on performance day from Panera, lunch at Panera, lunch the next day with a big group at McGinty's, etc.

Contrast that with the situation at [Other] Theater.  They are about $6 million in debt.  [Another] theater is going up for auction on Tuesday due to a $4 million debt.  The economy is bad all around but arts organizations are always hit hard by any penny pinching.  When police are being laid off, it's hard to justify grants for plays.  Theaters cannot pay their bills on ticket sales alone.  If we did, seeing any play would cost close to New York prices.  We depend on donations from audiences and grant money from local, state, and federal agencies. 

But we also provide a benefit, both monetary and artistic to the communities in which we reside.  Theater goers spend money.  Theaters provide the kind of story-telling that is our cultural heritage.  Participating in theater provides the kind of team-work and character development that we ascribe to sports.

I don't know how much of a "sweetheart deal" Montgomery County should give to [Venue]  but I know that Maryland lags behind Virginia in what we give to the arts.  If we want all bread and no roses, helping to put [Venue] out of business would be a step in that direction.


scotte said...

Well said! My one disagreement would be that I suspect cutting out the roses undercuts the bread as well in the long run (see, for example, the school arts program issues).

Maureen said...

Eloquent, well-supported response, though we'd expect no less from you.