Around the nation schools and communities are reevaluating their budgets with an eye to cuts. Schools across the nation are laying off faculty/staff, issuing furloughs, and considering cutting vulnerable programs. We’re in a free-fall of monetary loss, and the Feds only seem interested in propping up the biggest of businesses/elitest of supporters. What’s a community rec center, school district, or institution of higher ed to do?
“Trim the fat!”
Problem is, of course, most of us have no fat left to trim.
Iowa State University has recently been in the news due to the worryingly high number of Covid-19 cases in Ames. Now we’ve landed ourselves another news-worthy story: the possible closing of C.Y. Stephens auditorium to augment ISU’s projected loss of revenue. The plan (as reported by the Des Moines Register) was proposed by Athletics Director Jamie Pollard and reeks of ages-old acrimony between sports and arts; two essential sectors of entertainment and education that are oft pitted against each other at great cost not only to the art community (which often suffers the greatest funding cuts) but to the community at large.
Now, this is not an article about C.Y. Stephens. Although I am a proud faculty member of Iowa State University’s Theatre Department, I am not privy to the particulars of Pollard’s announcement and as a result can’t evaluate the merits of his plan. I can, however, express disappointment that Pollard appears to have fallen into the same trap responsible for devastating arts sectors across this nation: divisiveness.
Divided we fall…
Divisiveness (especially inter-departmental divisiveness) is a destructive path for any organization to contend with. Organizations are built by humans, and we argue a lot because, well, we’re human, so it’s natural for any institution to go to battle on occasion. But even the fact that the first metaphor I applied in that sentence is “Battle” is a problem! We should not be “Battling” within our institutions! When conflict arises, we should be debating with open hearts and an innovative spirit, with a shared goal of building (sometimes unconventional) bridges towards compromise instead.
I know…I know… that sounds so idealist. What can I say? I’m an artist.
And here is one of the primary differences between Arts and Athletics, which informs the shouldn’t-be-a-battle-ground between us: Sports are inherently competitive — Arts are not.
Sure, artists may think of other artists as their “competition” but the “field” is the open market. An artist gets a role, or doesn’t. An artist sells a sculpture, or doesn’t. They don’t have “play-offs” aired live on national television for hordes of cheering (or jeering) fans. So even if an artist thinks of their peers as their “competition”, they still largely apply collaborative and entrepreneurial skills to their field over competitive ones.
Athletes, on the other hand, are working in a win/lose field. Depending on the sport, they may also be highly collaborative within their team — but outside of that, they aim to win! To dominate the competition! To be the best, score the most points, and be the champs! The athlete’s mindset is one of constantly striving to better understand their opponent so that they can defeat them!
Whereas Artists strive to understand the human condition so that they can connect to people and create art that fosters connections between audience members and the world, Athletes work to create distance between themselves and others because that what it takes, oftentimes literally, to be successful in their field and win the game.
These two vastly different mindsets set us up for problems from the start. When budget shortfalls come into the picture (ESPN predicted that college financial losses due to cancelled games may reach upwards of $4 billion dollars) is it any wonder that sports is going to be in a “Better” mindset to “Win” the budget wars?
The Writing’s on the Wall
Let’s be honest: the entertainment industry at large is suffering, which means Arts and Athletics are in this Covid-19 free-fall together. (Dr. Fauci has said we won’t be able to sit in a theatre without a mask until a year after a vaccine is available!) But let’s be very clear: while sport/art institutions — and the people they employ — are in very real danger, the sports/art themselves will be just fine. That’s because there will always be a field or a basement for us to play on/make art in. I mean, where do athletes and artists find their calling in the first place? In their youth, in backyards, playing with friends…
(Money just ruins everything, doesn’t it?)
But anyone who actually makes a living in an entertainment industry right now? They’re freaking OUT, man! Because they depend on audiences to pay their bills, and — as we all know — live audiences ain’t happening any time soon.
Is it any wonder that Pollard, in crunching the numbers, has gone on the offense?
And yet, even in the face of serious financial shortfalls, it’s my opinion that we should not be fighting over money, but rather getting more creative with it.
Compromise & Collaboration
I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t compromise just code for ‘a solution which disappoints everyone’?”
Dear reader, you’re so jaded!
I mean, sure, if I give a little of what I want in service of helping you get a little of what you want — and you do the same for me — both of us are sacrificing our preferred solution in service of finding one that fits the whole. If you’re a zero-sum kind of person, that may feel like taking a loss. I think of compromise as necessary for a healthy, productive society, and something which keeps us all humble.
I understand that athletes can’t compromise on the field. But that way of thinking is destructive once the game is over. As an artist working in a highly collaborative field, I compromise all the time. And I can tell you that a lot of the compromises I’ve made in order to make sure the art I’m working on happens, have led me to find vastly more creative (and sometimes even better) solutions than my original idea would have yielded. That’s because necessity is the mother of invention… and invention is at the core of what makes humans so damn interesting!
So why don’t the arts and athletics field collaborate more? Well, we’re not really encouraged to, are we? We have spent several decades operating from different silos, and as a result, our interactions are sparse. And as long as funding is flush, we don’t see the dangers of operating that way. It’s only when we are told there won’t be enough money for our institution to fund ALL of our different passions that we each run to our battle stations, egged on by the administrative money-counters who continue to get paid, listen to podcasts, watch Monday Night Football and binge their HBO faves while we bloody ourselves in the ring…
Yes, the drama between us is fomented by those who hold the purse strings. We’re so predictable, right? It’s almost as though athletes and artist both get played by the money-men…
Money makes the world go ‘round…
And so here we must ask why we are constantly pitted against one another? And why does it seem that sports get the bigger endorsement from the institution sponsoring the budget cut wars?
Could it be because athletes earn money?
Duh. Yes. Of course.
But how they earn that money is important.
Both athletes and artists provide entertainment for the community. The differences in delivery and content between sports and, say, a choir, are many — but the the essential service is the same: People show up to watch an event, most often paying a fee to do so, and they watch the event for entertainment’s sake. And guess what? The very same people who watch Monday Night Football also buy movie tickets and binge Netflix shows. So, whether you’re an actor, a musician, or an athlete, you’re in the business of serving a lot of the same audience.
In this regard, athletes and actors are profit generators for their communities. And while The Avengers franchise has raked in billions of dollars (OMG!) for Hollywood, local and educational institutions consider athletes to be bigger local profit generators than artists.
Why is that?
Well, let’s break down some of the practical differences between arts and sports. (And I’m going to focus on theatre because that’s my area of expertise, but my arguments extend well outside the “Theatre” world to encompass a broad swath of creative fields that are often lumped into the same budget-cut stew)
Let’s look at Football Games vs. Theatrical Productions. Football makes money. Everyone knows this. Let’s look at why Football makes more money than Theatre… it’s not just because people “like football more”.
Bodies on Stage/vs\Bodies on the Field. People show up to see their children/grandchildren/cousins/etc. perform. It stands to reason then, that just based on the sheer number of bodies required to pull off a football game, you see more ticket sales. You’ve got two teams, plus the marching band, cheerleaders, and pom squad. Maybe even a color guard. That’s a LOT of performers! So it’s a no-brainer who stands to sell more tickets on that front alone.
Frequency. Athletes play more games then artists get performances. If you just look at scheduling, you can see that sporting events stand to create more revenue by the sheer fact that they happen more often. Football may play upwards of 12 games a season, whereas theatre is only able to produce a handful of shows all year (and that’s if they’re really busting their butts/have the budget and the space to do multiple shows!) If you compare the number of theatre shows, choir concerts and orchestras to the number of athletic events… yeah. It’s a lot.
Fun factor! Here’s where I’m going to pick at my own field for a moment… Now, both sporting events and arts events draw in crowds unrelated to knowing someone “on the field/in the show” because they’re FUN! And the bigger your community support, the more ticket sales you make, and the more ticket sales you bring in, the more self-sufficient and “helpful” your program is to the school/community. This is an area where the arts could learn from athletics… because you don’t have to LOVE football to want to go to a football game. There is a whole other side to attending a game that has very little to do with the actual sport and that is the social side. They have snacks! Which you can eat in the stands! They probably have beer! You get to talk to people during the game. You get to shout and stand and cheer! OMG, I want to go to a football game just thinking about it, and I don’t give two figs for the sport itself! Theatre, on the other hand… well, theatre has embraced a lot of unwelcoming practices designed to make snobs feel at home being snobby. (Sorry, Theatre, but the truth hurts). Theatres everywhere are constantly fighting their own reinforced cultural biases as they try to figure out how to attract new audiences… I have an idea: BE LESS STUFFY! (Actually, I have several ideas, and they’re listed at the end of this article, so you know… keep reading!)
I’m also not the only person who thinks theatre could learn a thing or two from the sports world. Drama critic Elisabeth Vincentelli had quite a bit to say about it in the New York Times just this past week.
Commitment. Siting through a bad football game is easier than siting through bad theatre. I’m sorry, but it’s true — and the reason it’s true is because of all the sports-having fun factors listed above. If I’m at a bad play, I can’t turn to my neighbor to talk about last month’s show instead or chug a beer and boo. No — I’m supposed to sit still, be quiet, and applaud at the end even if it sucks. I once attended an amateur production so terrible that when I checked my phone at intermission and found out my father had called to say he was going to the hospital with chest pain, I was simultaneously worried about him and relieved to have a legit reason to escape the show. Yikes!
Fans. Sports fans are loud about their commitment to the game. They wear t-shirts, post yard signs, flaunt bumper stickers, and they freaking tailgate before events! When’s the last time you saw theatre-goers paint their faces and tailgate pre-show? Yeah, that’s what I thought! Theatre fans are out there, they are passionate and they are many! But they don’t have as many visible outlets to demonstrate support as sports fans do — so their support is less visible and therefore underestimated.
All that said, the arts still contribute over $763 billion annually to the U.S. economy — which is nothing to sneeze at!
Changing Hearts and Minds
So, why talk about any of this? Isn’t it obvious the deck is stacked? Why don’t we just embrace the inevitable culture wars and get down to fighting already!
Except… what if we don’t?
What if, instead of competing, Sports and The Arts actually collaborated for a change.
For a really, really big change.
Like, I’m talking fundamentally-shifting-how-we-think-about-both-fields HUGE.
Because here’s the thing we all gotta’ remember: regardless of who sells the most/most expensive tickets, human beings need both Arts and Athletics in their lives.
They’re essential services, dudes!
And if once you look at this shared truth, it becomes really hard to argue that one deserves more support than the other.
I don’t know about you, but my creative juices are flowing. One of the things theatre does so well is cultivate divergent thinking, so I would love to engage in a little brainstorming before we go. Care to play along?
Let’s start by asking questions: What would athletic/artistic collaboration look like? How can arts and athletics join forces? What if we created opportunities to share space and audience? Wouldn’t that enrich us all? Wouldn’t it help cultivate shared community? Wouldn’t it be fun?
Here is a quick brainstorm of some steps we could take in the arts/athletics fields — especially in education — to cultivate these changes:
- What does a gallery of sport inspired art/performance pieces look like?
- What happens when athletes and playwrights team up to create a new play festival?
- What would happen if cheerleaders cheered at arts events?
- What would art events feel like with live sports commentators?
- What if the school mascot showed up at arts events?
- What if the theatre department created short pre-game sketch comedy bits to perform before games?
- What if we created a seminar course about interdisciplinary collaboration aimed at athletes and artists?
- What would a pre-show tailgating event look like for art events?
- What if we let people eat and drink (and, omg, cheer??) at art events?
- What would collaboration between arts and athletics do for our community and supporters?
- What would it feel like to finally put the cliched sports/vs\arts animosity to rest?
This list certainly isn’t exhaustive… Do you have any ideas to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts/responses below.
More Articles by Tiffany