This afternoon, I sat through an hour-long, occasionally impassioned, mostly entertaining, at points gallingly historically inaccurate debate at SummerWorks on the question of whether funding for the arts should continue. Moderated by PraxisTheatre’s Michael Wheeler, the two sides of the argument were represented by Canadian journalist and columnist Andrew Coyne and theatre maker Nadia Ross (guess who argued which side…).

Coyne presented basically two arguments: that the arts are not a public good in the sense that they are the sort of thing that can only exist if it’s funded centrally by the state (like social security or the police) and that benefits everyone, in principle if not necessarily in actuality; and that historically, great art has been created without government funding, that it’s elitist to assume that audiences can’t make informed decisions and support powerful art with their own money, and that there is therefore no actual need for subsidies for the arts. Interestingly, late in the debate he conceded that art which is generally accepted as great might be worth preserving, and that public funding might be justified for that purpose.

As I was listening to these well-worn, if sharply presented, arguments, I couldn’t help but feel that the entire premise of the debate was irredeemably flawed, and flawed in a way that I found especially vexing given that the event was organized by a performance festival: when discussing funding, “the arts” is an impossibly loose category.

Coyne kept using examples drawn from non-live art: books (over and over again), recorded music, painting. And Shakespeare, naturally. Fair enough: those are all artists’ works. But when one is trying to make a market-based argument, they really don’t work as evidence for the case that live performance doesn’t need public support. Theatre, opera, dance — these art forms are essentially unlike literature, painting, recorded music, film, and all the other arts that have the production of a permanent work as their primary goal. And that, from an economic perspective, limits their power to produce the revenues that would make them self-sustaining, especially in a highly competitive market.

The math is pretty straightforward: any given performance takes place at a specific time, in a specific place, and is put on by a specific group of agents who commit to the project for a specific duration. All of those factors necessarily shrink the potential audience for any show. At most, X number of spectators can be admitted per show; at most, Y number of shows can be put on in a given week; at most, the space and the participants are available for Z number of weeks. None of those limitations apply to other art forms, or where they do, they actually have the potential to increase their value: a book does not disappear after three weeks; the audience for any song on iTunes is practically unlimited; it is entirely immaterial to the existence and the appreciation of a specific sculpture that its maker has moved on to other works (or may no longer be alive). Coyne argued explicitly that it’s not only popular works that succeed economically, but that plenty of weird-ass shit (he did use the phrase!) caught on in music and in film and TV. He’s not wrong there, either. But again, the same category confusion applies: a TV show can grow its audience over time (at least in theory, and on the right channel); a song can be discovered and go viral months, even years after being released. This can’t happen with a theatre piece; and it certainly can’t happen with a performance of, say, Beethoven’s 5th. It’s kind of a quirky image: a full symphony orchestra playing away to a near empty hall for a week or two until buzz finally builds and people start showing up. It’s also self-evidently absurd. And even in that unrealistic scenario, the orchestra would still eventually have to stop, because someone else booked the hall. In a fantasy world, I suppose, a performance could just keep running and keep earning, but with the singular exception of Broadway and West End musicals, that is not how theatre works — and if it did, we’d run out of performance spaces pretty quickly.

Now, I don’t actually agree with Coyne’s argument — I do believe that all art is deserving of public support, and that art is a public good. But even if I accepted the basic point, that the state should not fund endeavours that can be self-sustaining and that do not hold the promise of benefitting everyone, I still wouldn’t agree that this point applies to the performative arts. It’s been a long time since most theatre, or opera, or dance, or orchestras, could be self-sustaining. Some performance venues are, sure — but those thrive on a rather small canon of extremely popular works and are generally located in major centres of international tourism. The few other examples of commercially successful performance ventures I know merely seem to confirm that commerce and even a modicum of art don’t easily mix in the theatre. If that makes me elitist, so be it.

The economics of live performance are such that it’s simply impossible to sustain a theatre without external support unless one charges absolutely exorbitant ticket prices — in other words, theatre could only survive as a radically elitist (and not culturally, but financially) form of entertainment, supplemented perhaps with amateur performances. Whereas Coyne suggested that it would be fairer to let people decide which works of art they wanted to support, in practice, this approach would mean that only a very small number of very wealthy people could make that decision on a regular basis — the vast majority of people would be unable to go to the theatre at all, let alone see a ballet, an opera, or listen to a symphony. (Coyne may say that only a small number of people do those things now, and he wouldn’t be entirely wrong; but getting rid of funding would actually make it far more difficult for a far larger number of people to get the chance to engage in those cultural pursuits.)

Aislinn Rose made a similar point during the Q&A, but didn’t get much of an answer; in a tweet, she spelled out a real-world scenario: “small indie show with $100k budget, 10 shows in 100 seat theatre, tix would cost $100.” I don’t think anyone could seriously maintain that this is a sustainable business model, but it’s a common reality — or it would be, without funding, as long as we don’t give up on the idea that being an artist should be something more than a pastime. It may also be worth noting that ticket prices are already very high in Canada, despite government support and significant corporate sponsorship. Coyne at times sounded as if state funding here allowed the arts to proceed without a care for audience levels or alternative sources of financial backing, when in fact the reality is, of course, that none of our arts institutions, and least of all those engaged in performance, could survive without corporate sponsors or healthy attendance figures.

There is an answer to all this: if most live art is not financially viable, perhaps it shouldn’t exist. I think that’s a valid response. It’s not my response, or one I have any sympathy for, but it has the advantage over Coyne’s position that it at least faces up to the consequences of an end to public funding.

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