Is the Not-for-Profit Arts Model Broken?

IMG_3454Kristen Coury is Gulfshore Playhouse’s Founder and Producing Artistic Director. She will be blogging every Saturday throughout the 2014-2015 season.

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately. It just doesn’t seem to make sense: people are lining up in overnight droves to buy the latest iPhone 6s, and spending money hand over fist to attend high-priced concerts and National Tours of Broadway shows, but when it comes to the regional theatres, there suddenly becomes this train of thought that it isn’t worth paying for. Am I misunderstanding?

For those of you who’ve heard me speak or have followed this blog, you know that I think that live theatre can change the world. In our classrooms, we teach curriculum through theatre methodologies. But using theatre as a tool has the side benefit of also creating an opening for that child’s creative soul to shine through. It teaches teamwork, literacy and self-expression. Gaining those things inevitably lead to increased self-confidence. This is the indeed the gift that keeps on giving.

People can come to see a play and think “oh that person isn’t anything like me” and suddenly realize they are very much alike, rejoice in our shared humanity, and move through the world transformed.

So why is it absolutely necessary we keep our ticket prices as low as possible and seek those generous souls who will then donate the difference and help us stay in business? If you go on vacation and rent a car you don’t say “oh I should be paying half price for that car and someone else should cover the rest.” You determine that thing has value for you so you pay the price that the market will bear.

TheatreIs it that the masses don’t agree with me that theatre has value? I heard a woman at our national conference this weekend break theatre supporters into two categories: the goers and the payers. WHAT???? My head was spinning around at the thought of this!! Why have we built this world where the goers are not the payers?? The “goers” are paying for everything else! But not theatre? The thing that enriches us, helps us frame our reality and helps us step into the oneness of the Universe by realizing that we are all alike, that we share the same fears, the same hopes, the same dreams and the same ray of light that emanates from each of us, no matter how muddied or dampened it may be.

I guess the question is whether or not theatre should become a luxury product or not. Broadway shows are pricing out at $140 at the bottom and into the stratosphere at the top. And yet, Broadway is reporting rises in attendance with each passing year. Tiffany or Gucci and the like don’t charge half-price because they think their products should be accessible to the masses. We, as theatre-makers, however, believe that art can actually change the world, and can do so if ALL people have access to it. On the flip side of this, I have found that when we have made enormous price breaks, discounts and low prices available, people don’t take advantage of it. So maybe it’s just not an art form that is INTERESTING to the masses.

It is a question that I suppose I, and all those who run Regional Theatres around the country, will continue to ponder. There’s no easy answer. I would not want to stop offering free matinees to school children or having pay-what-you can previews, and yet, it still seems as though the model is broken somehow. We have a rich history of arts patrons throughout the centuries, so maybe it’s just the way it has to be. Or do we tell ourselves that because that’s the way it’s always BEEN? Maybe the time is now to bust this paradigm and start spreading the word that ART HAS VALUE and it’s worth paying for. We pay high prices for great restaurants and fine wines without flinching. The question at hand is: How much would you pay to feed your soul??

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