OOB Statistics Offer Foundation for Real Change 

Doug Strassler 

The last few weeks have seen some monumental changes, both for the good and for the worse. The recent election has ushered in a season of change, but a rapidly shrinking economy has forced abrupt layoffs and shrinking budgets, the ripple effect of which continues to make itself known throughout New York City. The arts and entertainment sector, a perennially under-funded group, has also suffered as a result.

A joint Theatre Task Force meeting with Community Boards 3, 4 & 5 was held on October 29th to discuss the role the cultural sector plays in the city and ways in which it can expand. According to Paul Nagel, Arts and Culture Liaison for the New York City Council,  “arts and culture have a central role in business, education, community, and government, yet cultural policy in the United States has not moved beyond a 1970s model of allocating and distributing grants to not-for-profit organizations.”

Nagel’s solution is to readjust the cultural policy field by using a vocabulary that policymakers can understand. The chief way in which this can be accomplished is the use of appropriate, policy-friendly data collection. The data heretofore available to policy-makers, according to Nagel, has consisted largely of a combination of employment figures from institutions affiliated with the arts, such as hotels, parking lots, and restaurants. The time has come, Nagel insisted, to provide clearer data which proves that the cultural sector offers a necessary and vital service.

At this meeting, The New York Innovative Theatre Foundation presented the findings from a 5-year study, “Report of Off-Off-Broadway Performance Venues,” with data compiled from venue data from September 2004 through the present. It indicated roughly 500 active Off-Off-Broadway theatre companies in operation. The report also found that there were approximately 200 Off-Off-Broadway venues in operation from 2003 to 2008, with 175 in continual or regular use.

Furthermore, a great plurality of performances was concentrated in the Midtown West neighborhood, accounting for 43% of overall spaces. It is of note, however, that because of high (and ever-increasing) rents, these spaces are often priced outside the budgets for OOB productions, or are otherwise unavailable for OOB use. The October IT report indicates that the actual OOB usage of these spaces only accounted for one-third of productions taking place there per year. Additionally, the research demonstrates a declining number of productions in the midtown area. In fact, twenty spaces in the midtown area have folded in the last five years. During this same time, a quarter of theatres in the West Village area are now defunct, with three additional theatres in danger of eviction.

Meanwhile, the number of productions occurring in the East Village (which accounts for only 14% of available OOB performances spaces) continues to climb. There are currently nearly as many productions in the East Village as there are in the midtown area. The number of productions in the outer boroughs has also continually increased.

Nagel believes that now is the time for the culture sector to use such data to assert itself. “It’s about erasing the false boundary between the commercial and non-profit cultural industries and looking at the actual contracts of cultural production from the community level to the global,” he said.

He cited several individuals who had made strides in culture research. Ann Markusen and David King, authors of “The Artistic Dividend,” address the chronic problem of under-counting arts employment, by looking beyond the traditional method of only counting full-time employees who work for arts institutions. Government wage data generally excludes contract performers and self-employed artists, though these numbers can tally very high. By framing their inquiry within an occupational approach, they track the full range of activities of individual artist subjects, capturing previously missed data on freelance and part-time arts outputs.

Nagel also mentioned the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C, which has created the Arts and Culture Indicators in Community Building Project. ACIP seeks to “integrate arts and culture-related measures into neighborhood quality-of-life indicator systems.” Led by Maria Rosario-Jackson, these researchers explore new methods to measure and analyze all the ways that culture adds value to communities.

Data like that provided by the IT Foundation is a great first step, but it is just the beginning. It is incumbent upon the many in the theatrical community to band together and find ways to frame this information in ways that bolster the world of arts and culture as a vital entity, one that needs aid as much as the real estate and insurance markets. It is an endeavor that will require time, research, and perseverance.

As Nagel said, “Like a tree, if we grow roots deep into the community, we can branch out and still remain stable in the wind.”



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