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  • Writer's pictureTheater Design Inc.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

One night, looking for something to read before bed I opened Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam, 2000, published by Touchstone. I had noticed it on my wife’s night table for many weeks; puzzled because I knew that fiction was her usual choice of reading material. (I learned later that she had picked it up for me, knowing that my taste in reading leaned toward non-fiction.) Given the availability of another book, Bowling Alone might have languished on my night table too, but I always rely on reading to ease me into the sweet embrace of Morpheus.

What I encountered was a very readable, though sometimes academic, exploration of social change in America over the past century. The basic premise is that significant social interaction has decreased over the past century; most noticeably in the past forty years and that this is not a good thing for American society. Identified as social capital, what one could call the grease that oils the machine of community, its lack fragments families and communities and thereby isolates individuals from each other.

The author cites many civic and social activities that have declined including: bowling leagues, PTA membership, membership is fraternal organizations, entertaining at home, blood donation, voting and volunteerism in general. Among the reasons he offers for the recent decline in social capital, all without judgment, are: television, the internet, racial tensions, generational tensions and the stress caused by both parents having to work to support their families. Historical roots of this decline and its causes are presented along with future projections (if current trends continue.)

Over the past several years at various conventions, seminars and town halls; over dinner and at the hotel bar I have heard a constant concern voiced over declining attendance at venues that present the performing arts. Lack of attendance translates directly to whether you will be in the black or in the red and facility managers are under constant pressure to do “more with less.” One range of solutions targets the cost of supplies, materials, operating procedures and labor and how these can be reduced and the bottom line improved. Another range targets staff management, training and morale and how improved customer service will maintain current patrons and, hopefully, attract new ones. Both of these are valid ways to reduce costs and maintain customer satisfaction, although sometimes the pursuit of the first hinders pursuit of the second. If materials are scarce, salaries stagnant and work hours reduced; it can be difficult to motivate staff.

So, aside from the pandemic - - which has had a unique impact upon all aspects of life over the entire planet, why has attendance at performing arts venues declined over the past 10-20 years? Personally, I don’t believe it is the fault of facility managers or facility staff. My interactions with performing facility staff and administrators are uniformly warm, cordial and caring and these characteristics go to the heart of customer satisfaction. I don’t believe it is the fault of resident arts groups. They are equally invested in customer satisfaction and the presentation of events that will attract and engage an audience. The type and variety of product available has continued to increase and there appears to be “something for everyone” out there. Everyone seems to be doing all the right things; at the right times; but to no long-term avail.

Reading Bowling Alone made me think that perhaps we have been treating symptoms and not the disease. The book posits that American society, in general, has become more isolated over the past 40 (now 60) years and suggests that it may continue to do so in the future. If this is truly the case, then we can only expect attendance to continue to decrease, no matter what “fixes’ are undertaken at a given facility. The last chapter of Bowling Alone proposes six agendas to address the “decline of social capital.” The first addresses the performing arts directly.

To build bridging social capital requires that we transcend our social and political and professional identities to connect with people unlike ourselves. This is why team sports provide good venues for social-capital creation. Equally important and less exploited in this connection are the arts and cultural activities. Singing together (like bowling together) does not require shared ideology or shared social or ethnic provenance. For this reason, among others, I challenge America’s artists, the leaders and funders of our cultural institutions, as well as ordinary Americans: Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 significantly more Americans will participate in (not merely consume or “appreciate”) cultural activities from group dancing to songfests to community theater to rap festivals. Let us discover new ways to use the arts as a vehicle for convening diverse groups of fellow citizens.

To me, this agenda suggests that we all extend ourselves, personally and professionally, to support, engage and participate in cultural activities. In other words, we must put our money where our mouths are. It is not enough to manage the facilities that house and present the performing arts; we must show, by our deeds, the inherent value of participation in and attendance at performing arts events as an integral part of daily life in all communities and across all income ranges.

I believe that performing arts facility managers, indeed anyone with an interest in the arts, can also reach out to create “social capital.” We can join community theater groups. We can work directly with students in schools. We can attend school board and town planning meetings as advocates for the performing arts. We can vote to ensure that our representatives will understand the value of the arts. In short, anything you can do to reach out beyond your customary network of friends and contacts will help. If we all extend ourselves in this manner we will not only return patrons to our facilities but will also enrich ourselves and our communities.

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