, ,

Endowed Artist Chairs vs Social Networks

Wednesday, May 27, 2009 Leave a Comment

Ok, it's not really a versus, in fact, they could be quite complimentary. But Isaac and Adam and 99 Seats have been having a great conversation regarding the creation of endowed artists chairs at institutional theatres. Essentially, these position would be treated the same as capital campaigns, only instead of building theatre spaces, they would build an endowed position for an artist, similar to what you find at universities and orchestras. These capital campaigns would create a 'chair' artists position that would ensure a fair wage and health insurance to an artist who commits long term to a company.

The Public is, in fact, doing this with Suzan-Lori Parks. And TCG's Fox Fellowships offer a temporary version of this with the Fox Fellowship that could be framed as some form of seed money to help the community generate the endowed position.

But at the end of Isaac's post, he considers what change would need to happen with the audience (subscriber and donor base) to make this happen, believing that most institutions would be unlikely to commit to an endowed chair unless there was audience support from it.

Well, we might rally that change from within an institution. Or, the change may very well come from outside of it.

Chris Elam of Misnomer Dance Theater is currently working on something called the Audience Engagement Platform. It was written up in the Times, and has received significant seed money. If it or a similar arts-based social network is successful, it could lead to a radical rethinking of how theatre is made and artists are paid. A key quote:

"AEP is designed as a long-term, arts-wide solution that will facilitate meaningful and productive two-way interaction between those who create art and those who appreciate it"
This platform (or something like it) has many exciting possible applications, but in this context, it allows for a rethinking of how theatre is funded. Imagine that instead of your Facebook account being just acquaintances and friends, it is a social network of self-selected audience members who want to follow your work. Let's say that one of the audience members on your list is convinced that you as Playwright A simply must work with Director B, Actors C, D and E, and Designer F. That audience member then proposes the idea of this collaboration to the network of all six artists. Let's say that 500 audience members following each artist agree that this collaboration has to happen. These 3,000 people each give $20 to the project, and $60,000 is now raised. Perhaps this donation serves as their ticket as well, making the project sell out its first few weeks (assuming the online functionality could handle some form of self-reservations).

These artists now have enough seed money to create a unique work of art with revenue generated solely by an audience already committed to seeing it. Each audience member is a producer, and as such, is intimately more connected to the project, and more likely to follow the artists' work afterwards. Each artist sees their audience base grow significantly from the crossover.

How does this now relate to the endowed chair idea? Taking the above thoughts one step further, funders and corporations now have the opportunity to reach the audience of art they support in a more direct and meaningful way. Let's say that each of 3,000 audience members listed above can generate an additional $5 from funders/sponsors by filling out a survey or watching a 30 second spot from the funder/sponsor. For $15,000, I have guaranteed 3,000 people from a coveted demographic have interacted with my company in a positive, self-selected way, all while supporting the arts. This could then translate into audience generated chairs - if 3,000 audience members believe that an artists should stay in one place to make work, and 3 funders believe in supporting that work, you have a salary competitive with top university and orchestra chairs, all created by a direct connection between audience, artists and funder.

Should institutions support artist endowed chairs? Absolutely. But a more radical and significant change is possible; one that connects artist and audience directly in the collaboration of producing theatre. We're always wondering what the audience wants, and talking about serving that audience; we may be reaching a time where the audience tells us what it wants by serving itself.