In 2023, public conversations regarding nonprofit performing arts organizations have been as high in stakes and as emotionally charged as any theater season’s must-see new play. Artists and arts administrators, advocates, audience members, designers, researchers, students, writers, and other stakeholders have all weighed in vigorously on the state of the field over the past few months, whether with close friends in group chats or with tens of thousands through mainstream media. Below this article is a list of more than 20 such news items, editorials, and reports — a small fraction of this fraught discourse about the U.S. theater sector, described by some as experiencing the most severe crisis in its history.
Generally speaking, these perspectives and prognoses stem from the same dedication to, and passion for, the performing arts that once led subscribers to purchase tickets well in advance to productions that didn’t yet exist, and once justified long hours of hard work for little or no pay. However, that was then, as it’s said, and this is now.
One can agree or disagree with the solutions offered by columnists and critics, but access to thoughtfully interpreted, hard data “is a relief,” says Marissa Lynn Jones, executive director of Driehaus Foundation grant recipient League of Chicago Theatres, “in that data can confirm our assumptions and observations.” Recent studies and surveys, commissioned locally by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and nationally by the National Endowment for the Arts, Foundation grant recipient Theatre Communications Group (TCG), and other entities, “generally verify what we’ve seen and heard from our members,” Jones says. While not everyone requires empirical evidence to arrive at their point of view, “we’ve been glad to see the appetite for this research,” she adds. Corporate sponsors in particular, many of which have paused or decreased their support of arts organizations since 2020, “want those numbers,” Jones says, especially when it comes to quantifying economic impact.
It will likely take longer to sort out how live theater can be produced sustainably going forward, inflation being one of many contributing factors. Dallas-based SMU DataArts applied a 15-percent adjustment for inflation to the numbers, from late 2019 through 2022, that it crunched earlier this year and sourced from more than 200 Chicago arts organizations. While those that center Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people, people of color, and other specific populations saw the total dollar amounts of their foundation support increase over that three-year period, the reduced value of those dollars today essentially erased any material gains for that subset. (Overall, the Chicago-based organizations studied fared worse.)
Advocates for greater pay equity and transparency in the performing arts say increased labor costs bring theater workers closer to fair compensation levels, narrowing but not closing a persistent and exploitative gap. Jack Tamburri, director of the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Purchase College in New York, put it plainly during an interactive “MegaLAB” on labor justice and the theater workforce, organized by TCG as part of its annual conference in June 2022:
“Producing institutions produce beyond our means as a matter of course,” Tamburri said, “and we subsidize our production activities by underpaying labor. That is no secret to anyone in this room, but it is largely invisible to our audiences, our funders, and often our boards. And so, is there a project — a very complicated, challenging, and delicate project — of reeducating funders, and boards in particular, to understand what a dollar means? Because we have taught them, through our ingenuity and through our commitment, to expect too much.”
Novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Monica Byrne and others wonder whether the nonprofit producing model itself is still viable. Unsurprisingly, numerous articles quote Michael M. Kaiser, former president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and now chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland. While Kaiser’s 2015 book “Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America” didn’t and couldn’t have foreseen the COVID pandemic, its prediction of a wave of closures in the nonprofit cultural sector doesn’t seem so farfetched in the current climate. Amy Wratchford, president of arts consultancy The Wratchford Group and interim managing director at Virginia Repertory Theatre, told The Washington Post in July 2023 that she expects the nonprofit theater industry will contract by half within a year.
From her vantage point leading the League, however, Jones says the nonprofit model is and should remain “the heart of theater,” in part because it’s the best vehicle we have for advancing equity, arts learning, audience development, and representation. “It allows communities to access theater and it opens possibilities for new stories to be told.”
References and research:
“Arts Participation Patterns in 2022: Highlights from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” and “Online Audiences for Arts Programming: A Survey of Virtual Participation Amid COVID-19” by the National Endowment for the Arts and U.S. Census Bureau, October 2023
“Navigating Recovery: Arts and Culture Financial and Operating Trends in Chicago” by SMU DataArts for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, October 2023
“Arts & Economic Prosperity 6” by Americans for the Arts, October 2023
“Fewer People Are Going to Movies, Theater, and Museums, NEA Study Shows” by Thomas Floyd for The Washington Post, October 18, 2023
“Decentering Doom: A Word from Chicago Theatre Workers” by Elsa Hiltner and Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel for American Theatre, October 17, 2023
“In the Wake of a New Study, the City Declares Theater Season” by Kerry Reid for the Chicago Reader, October 13, 2023
“Is There a Future for the Nonprofit Arts Model in the U.S.?” by Jim Farber for San Francisco Classical Voice, October 10, 2023
“Chicago’s Theater Community Reacts to Cultural Arts ‘Crisis’ Report” by Miriam Di Nunzio and Stefano Esposito for the Chicago Sun-Times, October 9, 2023
“Spaced Out in Chicago: When Storefront Theatres Run Out of Storefronts” by Amanda Finn for American Theatre, October 6, 2023
“Post-pandemic ‘Crisis’ in Chicago’s Cultural Arts Scene Is Real, New Report Finds” by Stefano Esposito for the Chicago Sun-Times, October 2, 2023
“Hitting Theater Hard: The Loss of Subscribers Who Went to Everything” by Michael Paulson for The New York Times, August 29, 2023
“What Happened to Theater in Chicago?” by Chris Jones for the Chicago Tribune, August 17, 2023
“Why Theater (in its Current Form) Does Not Deserve to Be Saved” by Monica Byrne for The Washington Post, August 9, 2023
“U.S. Love Affair with Stage Faces Crisis” by David Smith for The Guardian, August 8, 2023
“Theatre in Crisis: What We’re Losing, and What Comes Next” by Alexandra Pierson, Amelia Merrill, Gabriela Furtado Coutinho, Jerald Raymond Pierce, Joseph Sims, and Rob Weinert-Kendt for American Theatre, July 24, 2023
“American Theater Is Imploding Before Our Eyes” by Isaac Butler for The New York Times, July 19, 2023
“Theater Is in Freefall, and the Pandemic Isn’t the Only Thing to Blame” by Peter Marks for The Washington Post, July 6, 2023
“America’s Not-For-Profit Theaters Are in Trouble” by Zachary Stewart for TheaterMania, June 30, 2023
“Reduced Expenses and Growth in Government Support Kept Theatres Afloat in 2021” by SMU DataArts for Theatre Communications Group, February 7, 2023
“The Perfect Storm: A TCG MegaLAB on Theatre’s Labor Justice and Workforce Crisis” from the 2022 Theatre Communications Group National Conference in Pittsburgh, available on YouTube
“The Alchemy of High-Performing Arts Organizations: A Spotlight on Organizations of Color” by SMU DataArts for the Wallace Foundation, March 10, 2021
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