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Storefront installation by Dan Reeder, September 2010, Pioneer Square. Part of the Storefronts Seattle program. Photo by Eliza S. Rankin.

Storefront installation by Dan Reeder, September 2010, Pioneer Square. Part of the Storefronts Seattle program. Photo by Eliza S. Rankin.


And Now For Something Completely Different

Marcie Sillman

Nonprofit arts groups survive on a patchwork quilt of funding sources. That's true even when the economy is booming. If you factor in a prolonged recession, the quilt unravels pretty quickly. But money is only one challenge that arts groups face. In an age when you can get every kind of entertainment or artistic experience at the stroke of a computer key, where do traditional arts fit in? That's something arts organizations are trying to figure out. KUOW's Marcie Sillman has the third report in our series on the role of public funding in the arts.


On a recent winter night, dozens of people are crammed into On The Boards' lobby on Seattle's Queen Anne hill. They're waiting to find out the winner of an event called the A.W.A.R.D. show.

This isn't exactly "American Idol." The A.W.A.R.D. show is a four day contemporary dance showcase. The first three evenings feature work by a rotating cast of choreographers, 12 in all. On each of these nights, the audience chooses its favorite. The three finalists go on to the last evening, a kind of dance–off. A panel of professionals picks the overall winner who takes home a $10,000 prize.

Byrd: "Okay, so the first year I was one of the judges."

Choreographer Donald Byrd is artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater. When On The Boards premiered the A.W.A.R.D. show last year, Byrd wondered whether it was such a good idea. Should audiences vote for artwork like they do on a television reality show?

Byrd: "I have very mixed feelings. It's better than 'So You Think You Can Dance' or 'Dancing with the Stars,' so I'm okay with that."

Dance companies around the world perform Donald Byrd's choreography. He's all in favor of expanding audiences for contemporary dance. But Byrd's not so sure he wants to open up his own work to an audience vote.

Byrd: "Sure, I can make it a part of what people are responding to, but I don't think that's what art is about, that's what entertainment is about, but I don't think that's what art is about."

Byrd may be leery about letting audiences vote for their favorite dances. But other artists are intrigued. They see it as one way to entice young people to see traditional live performance. These potential new audience members were weaned on the internet, and they take interactivity as a given. They're used to on–demand, free access to films, music and even dance.

Arts consultant Susan Trapnell says younger audiences have no incentive to buy a theater ticket, let alone a series subscription.

Trapnell: "There's a generation that doesn't even buy a record album. No one else is allowed to curate their choices. Why would they buy a subscription? They won't buy an album!"

Trapnell says that's a problem for arts groups who depend on upfront subscription sales for their working capital. Without that assured income, planning an artistic season becomes a high–stakes crap game. You've got to balance artistic experimentation with the need to attract ticket buyers. One unpopular concert and you could bankrupt your organization. If you add in the uncertainty of the ongoing recession, and the decline in government funding, arts groups face a triple whammy.

Trapnell says everyone's been doing some soul searching.

Trapnell: "I think everybody is looking at how do we change. The good thing is, it creates an environment where change is a lot easier."

In particular, arts groups are looking at how to market what they produce. In 2008 nine Seattle organizations got a combined grant of more than $6 million from the Wallace Foundation. The money is intended to help them reach out to new audiences. At least one arts insider is skeptical. Andy Fife directs Shunpike. It's a Seattle–based organization that helps arts groups with management, fundraising and outreach.

Fife: "I think it's fascinating that large organizations are still trying to figure out how to get younger people to find their methods and their ways exciting."

Fife says it's not enough to use social media to paste a veneer of accessibility on top of the same old products. Fife counsels his Shunpike clients to involve their audiences in the curatorial process — to help choose the art they will see.

Fife: "Start with the people, start with your audiences, include them in the way you're creating the work, in the way that you're marketing your work, in the way that you're fundraising to support your work, and then they will care about it. It's impossible for them not to, because it comes from them."

And the audience will grow organically. The Seattle Repertory Theatre is approaching the challenge a bit differently. Last year the Rep unveiled a project to commission young playwrights to make work specifically for young audiences. Andrea Allen is the Rep's education director.

Allen: "My hope is if you build it, they will come. And that if we can start to have these larger audiences of young people, not only does it help us in terms of growing a future audience, but you know it also makes a very different conversation with funders, and with corporations who are very interested as well as to how you connect people."

The Rep's project is still new, but so far it's been critically and financially successful. That's important to any arts group with a building to maintain and a payroll to meet. Spectrum Dance Theater's annual budget is far smaller than the Rep's. But Artistic Director Donald Byrd says it's still risky for Spectrum to try something radically different — much riskier than it is for an emerging organization.

Byrd: "Younger artists are more entrepreneurial in their thinking. They're less concerned about institutionalizing, but more about what do I need to get my work done right now and at this minute?"

Even younger artists need money to create new work. So when Governor Gregoire decided to cut the Washington State Arts Commission, or when Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn diverted $1 million from arts to parks, there was grumbling across the board. Shunpike's Andy Fife says he's tired of hearing people complain that another round of funding cuts is going to destroy art in America.

Fife: "One of the biggest failings in our expression of the arts right now is that it's dying, or that it's frail or fragile. We use it a lot to say we need to save the arts, or if we don't keep funding them we'll lose something and it's going to die."

Trapnell: "Artists and audiences will always seek out each other. So we don't have to worry about art. We will have art."

For more than 30 years Susan Trapnell has watched arts organizations come and go, and reinvent themselves. Trapnell says artists are driven to make art. Even when there's barely any money, they'll continue to create. And audiences will find that art, whether it's on a stage, or on the Internet or at a dance competition.

I'm Marcie Sillman, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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