Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Boston Foundation gets its wish! (Part II of what may be a long series)

Well, I'm sure there were some folks who were glad to hear that Boston Theatre Works is going "on hiatus," a fate which had already befallen Snappy Dance Theater; the Boston Foundation, which last winter issued a report (left) recommending that smaller, struggling arts groups "consider exit strategies", was no doubt pleased to hear the news. Likewise Boston Ballet's financial troubles were probably music to their ears. After all, it's nice to be right, isn't it.

I was very interested, in fact, to find out what the Foundation's response would be to the current situation. (For the record, Boston Foundation has in the past actually awarded grants to BTW.) So I sent Ann McQueen, one of the authors of the Foundation's report, the following email:

Hello Ann -

My name is Tom Garvey, and I write a local arts blog at

As you may be aware, I was highly critical of the recent Boston Foundation report suggesting that smaller, struggling arts organizations close up shop.

I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about the current closings - or at least the "on hiatus" status - of groups such as Boston Theatre Works and Snappy Dance Theater. Are these outcomes in line with what you and the Boston Foundation saw as best for the Boston arts scene? Do you see the closings as allowing stronger arts offerings to flourish in their stead - even though both Theatre Works and Snappy Dance were award-winning groups with substantial audiences? Or do you perhaps see this is an opportunity for arts funding to more plausibly shift to minority groups, as your report seemed to suggest was the Boston Foundation's preference?

If you'd like to time to reply, or perhaps respond to a more thorough set of questions, I'd love to publish your response on my blog.

Thanks so much,

Tom Garvey
The Hub Review

So far, no reply - although you can ask her some questions yourself, at (the other author of the report, Susan Nelson, a consultant from Technical Development Corporation, wasn't listed on their website).

Now before you say it, I know - it's always shocking, and even considered rude, to confront stupidity directly - particularly monied stupidity. But really, haven't local foundations been given a free ride in terms of public opinion for far too long? Suddenly, I think, people are realizing how sub-prime the financial status of Boston's art scene truly is, how it was always underfunded, even in the boom years. For an organization like the Boston Foundation to have been encouraging small groups to go out of business, while happily pouring dollars down the money hole that is Citi Center, suggests a tunnel vision bordering on idiocy. (In the face of ridicule, including a "die-off" staged by local artists, McQueen later defiantly said she'd happily fund "mergers," but not actual "funerals" for small groups.)

What's intriguing, however, about the crisis at Boston Theatre Works is that it neatly refutes the legitimacy of McQueen's model - she imagined, as so many MBA types do, that superior art must, perforce, succeed in the "marketplace," if it's "scaled up" appropriately, and makes efficient use of its "unrestricted net assets." Sigh. But Theatre Works's most recent production - Angels in America (above) - was an artistic success that drew sold-out houses (I know, I was there) that still, apparently, didn't pay for itself.

I say "apparently" because I'm a little skeptical of the implication in Megan Tench's Globe article that it was rental costs at the Roberts Studio that finished Theatre Works off. A little back-of-the-envelope calculating, based on reasonable assumptions, indicates that at most the Roberts could have cost around $16,000 total for the run, while a sold-out show should have pulled in perhaps $8-10,000 a performance, or $40-50,000 a week. Clearly longer-term issues were at work.

Still, few would argue that we're better off without Theatre Works - and if it's "creative destruction" McQueen and the Boston Foundation were looking for, it's hard to see the "creative" side of this; what are the odds that an artistically stronger group than BTW will take its place? No, it's time instead to nail the coffin shut on the Boston Foundation mindset - which was always obviously an excuse to clear the field so the Foundation could more easily fund its friends' projects, and support a few minority groups, too. Indeed, it's actually past time to look for a more aggressive response from Boston's foundations and private wealth to the current economic situation, particularly a response that takes into account the aesthetic quality, and community implications, of the works proposed, rather than merely the "world-class brand" status of organizations like the BSO and the MFA, which have been sucking money into huge follies like giant atria and five-hour operatic obscurities. Perhaps Ann McQueen should hire a new consultant and start sketching out a new report.


  1. Actually Thom,

    Your "back of the envelope" calculating shouldn't be necessary.

    As a commenter on my blog, Patrick Gabridge, brings up: We are talking about two non-profit institutions. The rental costs and the income from ticket sales, all of this should have been reported concretely and with hard numbers in the Globe article.

    For an article that bills itself as a cold hard look at the realities of the artistic marketplace, it is surprisingly vague on the cold hard numbers.

  2. Well, no one wants to say what any of the numbers are, and even nonprofits aren't expected to open up their books in such detail in the press. The Huntington certainly doesn't want people to know precisely how good (or how bad) a deal it gave BTW. My gut is that other costs - the Equity contracts, the travel arrangements, the royalties, etc. - were probably larger than the rent; but journalists tend to go after the landlord (as you point out, without hard evidence in this case). But at the same time, does anyone think the actors or the playwright got rich off the production? At any rate, the few thousand dollars in play is chump change to a major foundation, and if BTW couldn't pull together some grants to get them over their post - Angels hump, then something is very wrong with the foundation scene around here.