Issue #69

Last Update October 31, 2010

Arts  Taking Action in the Performing Arts by Eugene Marlow, Ph.D. September 23,2008  According to Dana Gioia, outgoing Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, there are approximately two million people in the United States involved in the performing arts: in music, dance, and theatre. So why are the performing arts so undervalued in this country at the national and local level? Why has involvement in the performing arts been eradicated from our elementary educational systems? Why are the potential benefits for lifelong learning in the performing arts not being realized? Why is the increasing diversity of our communities not sufficiently reflected in our performing arts organizations? Why is there no national policy with respect to the performing arts? 

What can those in the performing arts world do about these challenges at the national, local, individual, and group levels?

Titled “Taking Action Together,” the National Performing Arts Convention (NPAC), held in Denver, June 10-14 was an historic gathering of approximately 4,000 performing artists, exhibitors, and executives of 31 national service organizations in the performing arts, including American Composers Forum, American Music Center, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Chamber Music America, Chorus America, Dance/USA, Early Music America, International Society for the Performing Arts, League of American Orchestras, Meet the Composer, Music Critics Association of North America, The National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, and Opera America.

Guest speakers included Dana Gioia, outgoing Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, prize-winning actress, writer, activist and teacher Anna Deavere Smith, Bill Rauch of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Good to Great author Jim Collins, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, internationally renown Senegal dancer and teacher Germaine Acogny, award-winning conductor Marin Alsop, and La Sistema innovator Jose Antonio Abreu of Venezuela. In between all this, participants were treated to a preliminary presentation by Joan Jeffri, Director of the Program in Arts Administration and the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University. Her report, “Taking Note,” covered some of the emerging demographics of the performing arts world. The full report will be distributed later this year.

The centerpiece of the proceedings, however, was a consensus building “process” organized and executed by AmericaSpeaks. Members were organized into daily caucuses.

At the first caucus, the attendees were presented with a draft “mission” statement regarding the needs of the performing arts in the United States and were then asked to articulate three ways the so-called performing arts community has been “. . . most successful in reaching our vision as a community” and three ways it has been “. . .least successful in reaching our vision as a community.”

At the second caucus the results of the previous day’s summaries were presented in a well-edited, printed document, titled “The Daily Caucus.” This was done on each successive day. Then the participants were all asked: “Based on where we have been most/least successful, and looking to the future, what are the three most important opportunities/challenges our community needs to address in order to better reach our vision?”

The third caucus focused on this question: “For each of the highest priority opportunities/challenges, what are up to three of the most important strategies we need to follow in order to advance our vision (including actions at national and local, and individual organization levels)?

Over the course of four days and much discussion three issues had bubbled to the surface among the several thousand attendees. They were as follows:

1. Our communities do not sufficiently perceive the value, benefits, and relevance of the arts, which makes advocacy and building public support for the arts a challenge at every level.

2. The potential of arts education and lifelong learning in the Arts is under realized.

3. The increasing diversity of our communities creates an opportunity to engage a variety of ages, races, identities and cultures in our audiences and organizations.

For each of these three central issues, three sub-sections dealing with enacting tactics at the national, local, and organizational/individual level were articulated, which generated anywhere from five to eight very specific actions to be taken at each level. The final results and recommendations can be found at

For me, the convention led to the realization that all performing arts groups, whether in music, dance, or theatre, need to move towards three objectives for future growth and survival: (1) internal organizational consensus building with regard to mission, (2) collaboration with other performing arts organizations, and (3) community outreach. The focus of the NPAC provided the necessary environment and energy to get down to specific tactics that could be executed immediately at the local level—and it is at the local level that performing arts individuals and groups can do the most good, while the national service organizations (NSOs) are the ones to come together to attempt policy changes at the national level.

The following week I attended the JazzWeek Summit in Rochester, New York, a meeting of jazz radio programmers, promoters, and artists. The issues that were raised at the much smaller Jazz Radio Programmers Conference paralleled in many ways the issues raised at the NPAC.

The recent demise of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) and the several responses to this occurring in various parts of the United States, and the steep financial and audience building challenges being faced by many performing arts organizations are all exemplary of a common malaise: the performing arts have declined in value in this country and it has been a steady decline over a period of at least a half century.

Technology is partly to blame. From one breakout NPAC session I learned that with the introduction of electricity into theatres—with the concomitant ability to dim the house lights and raise the stage lights--show producers now had the ability to separate an audience from the stage performance. Prior, audiences were very much a part of the show.

Second, with Thomas Alva Edison’s invention of the gramophone and the ability to record one’s voice and other sounds, such as music, as these devices became more prevalent and the technology of sound recording became more sophisticated, the production of live music in the home, as in chamber music and family songfests, diminished. Can we remember when most homes had at least an upright piano and other instruments in the living room as a matter of course regardless of economic status at the beginning of the 20th century?

And as author Kabir Sehgal points out in his excellent, recently published book Jazzocracy (Better World Books 2008), many in our younger generation think that what’s “new” in popular music is therefore hip, a notion that is, of course, a gross misperception.

The de-valuation of the performing arts in this country and its positive socializing effects is also as a result of the decimation of music, dance, and theatre activities in our elementary public schools. And we’re paying the price for it now with a younger generation that has little apparent sense of history. Another piece of evidence is the almost weekly announcement of the elimination of an “arts” critic from a leading newspaper in a moderate-sized and large market; this, even in the face of thriving or growing arts activities in that same market. Shrinking profitability is the usual reason given.

We now live in a world that has both mass marketing and niche marketing, with a strong leaning towards the latter. Growing performing arts audiences or selling tens of thousands of CDs has become close to a miracle in the classic world of the performing arts. As Quincy Jones once quipped “A hit jazz CD is one that sells less than 20,000 copies.” It is perhaps not ironic that in the music segment of the performing arts world opera is thriving, followed by classical music, followed by jazz at the bottom of the musical food chain. Opera is probably thriving because it is multi-dimensional theatre, incorporating all elements of the performing arts. There’s a clue in that, I think. 

It is time, quite clearly, for the performing arts world to pull together at the national, local, individual and group levels. The performing arts in the United States need to turn a corner. To do so, however, requires a collectivity of action. The individualistic philosophy that is the cornerstone of this nation’s founding has been pushed over the line: people seem only care about themselves and to hell with the larger community. The concept of community is well imbedded in China’s long history and look what it is doing now economically. It is not a new lesson that there is a direct relationship between the positive socializing effects of involvement in the performing arts and economic development.

It has been said that when a country spends more and more money on military things (when it doesn’t need to) and ignores the socializing benefits of the arts, this is a sure sign of a nation in decline. While the 20th century was surely America’s century, the 21st century will be known as China’s century, or at least “The Rise of Asia.” This can be balanced, not through military force, but by the force of the pen, the note, the voice, and the body. It is time for those in the performing arts to take action together.

Eugene Marlow, PhD, is a composer and performer, and a professor at Baruch College in New York City, where he co-chairs the (now in its 17th season). He is an active member of the Jazz Journalists Association, the American Music Center, and Chamber Music America. He is an executive member of the New York Composers Circle..

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