Putting the value on the art of performing art

Previously published on the FringeArts blog. Republished by kind permission.

It is time to start placing more value on the “art” part of performing arts. When it comes to dance and theater and all the multidisciplinary performance hybrids, the support for performing arts organizations and artists, of all sizes, pales in comparison to the type of funding that art museums obtain. Art museums and the like have the advantage of also being seen as keepers of national treasures, and a housing place of art that is worth so much money that it is deemed priceless. Meanwhile, none of those artworks are alive.

This painting is valued at $250 million.
This painting is valued at $250 million.

These days, performing art continually justifies its existence and its value by everything but the art itself. The Metropolitan Museum of Art needs only say, “Look at our Monets.” Performing arts companies—and their boosters—have gotten in the habit of not promoting their art as the most valuable part of their existence, but their arts’ economic impact on the city—which might be part of the reason why artists, and many arts administrators, get paid so little, because it’s always about the economic benefit they bring other people.

How many times have you heard, when an arts festival, or new theater is to open that it’s a good thing because of all the business it brings to the surrounding restaurants and shops? Not to mention a spike in the local real estate market. The justification for a new performing arts project is almost always presented in a way that showcases how it will add value to everything except the art itself. It is a weak argument, as if we were to scared to stand up for ourselves and our work, and that doesn’t help the perception of artsy people being a bunch of weenies.

There is nothing wrong with using the economic benefits argument as a buttress to the bigger picture of what the arts bring to the world, but the primary thing, the primary value that needs to be argued is the art itself. Without the art being the primary and most valuable reason for its existence, once the art becomes secondary, or even tertiary, it stops being able to fight for its own existence. Plus, the economic argument is seriously flawed: though I do believe performing arts benefit a city’s economy in various—though at times hard to quantify—ways, it would be hard to argue that they have a smidgen of the economic impact that a company like Comcast, Microsoft, or Hershey has. The argument needs to frame the performing arts as being the most valuable in the only way it is the most valuable, as art—as an economic booster this is simply not true.

The theater is valued at $x ....?
The theater is valued at $x ….?

The tricky thing is to find a way that separates the dollar value of a performance with its perceived value. The dollar value of a particular production is basically what people are paid. While a Cezanne could be worth $100 million, because that is what a collector is willing to pay for it, a particular dance or theater work costs anywhere between $2000 and $75,000 because that is what the performers, crew, and creator(s) and venue were paid. If you can make art happen for this amount of money, why not? When what might get you two tiles at the Barnes can get you a new play or dance, why would you ever give more than the minimum to the performing arts? Your impact is clearly and quickly and cheaply realized. Meanwhile, for a prestigious art museum, if you want to play with the big boys and girls, you will have to lay out some serious dough. Or give them a Cezanne. That Cezanne, incidentally, is worth more than any performing arts organization in Philadelphia—and the net worth of all the artists making that work, combined.

So we need to develop a way that the art in the performing arts has an essential value, one that people take for granted in a lifeblood fashion. Even when we speak of “supporting the arts” it comes across as a goodwill benefit. We are not buying tickets because we want to have transformative experience that might reframe our view of the world, but because we are “supporting” some good cause that the arts represent. People do not buy overpriced T-shirts and jeans because they are “supporting” the clothing industry. They are buying those items because they like them. People should be encouraged to buy tickets to a show, because they like and connect to the art.

Whether it is for large donors, foundations, ticket buyers, or the general public, the attitude towards the performing arts needs to be that these art forms are indispensible, that their given value is essential to society and a meaningful life. Art museums make high art arguments, even though there also exists a financial underpinning—and market—of their artwork. (There are also unseemly aspects to the “high art” world such as this.) But successful historical (and science) museums and sites make priceless arguments as well—yet these are not backed by monetary value, but by the priceless lessons of history, the national treasure that is held in the story of a nation, or a movement, or a people. These are appeals to people’s very existence, legacy, and memory.

The performing arts need to raise the perception of their art to this same level importance. There may be many fits and starts to finding the right language—the kind of language that connects to people in deep and meaningful ways (i.e., not marketing speak), which can then be conveyed to others in turn. But simply becoming dedicated to making that change to redefining the value of these art forms as having inherent and great value onto themselves, this will go a long way in changing people’s mindsets about the performing arts.

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