One Size Does Not Fit All

When we speak about the value of the arts and how they need support, we usually group all the arts together. Doing so is good since the Ben Franklin quote that “We must all hang together, or we shall surely all hang separately,” can certainly apply in regard to the government funding each might receive if they don’t.

In some respect though, this practice does blur the fact that each branch does things in its own way and the answers for one are not viable for another. But perhaps some are…

I was reading a recent Adaptistration entry about job satisfaction in orchestras. There is a link to an article at the bottom of the entry that was really eye opening for me in terms of the perceptions musicians have about their relationship with the conductor, the rules governing their lives and their place in the orchestra ensemble.

Coming from a theatre background, there were things that were familiar to me such as union defined limits on rehearsal times. Other things like the deference shown to the conductor and the timid manner in which comments and questions were couched was amazing to me.

Certainly there are domineering directors in the theatre who try to keep actors cowed. But that is an individual working on a particular production at a specific theatre rather than the systematic situation Robert and Seymour Levine describe.

This brought to mind conversations I had with a friend in ballet administration. To my mind, ballet dancers have it worst since they have no union protection at all. (Not that I am a big union person. I have had mixed encounters with them. But with a union there is at least a standard of treatment a non-union person can point to.) According to my friend, in addition to weak protections against being overworked, getting the rights to choreography can be a humiliating experience. (And if it is different, please correct me if I am wrong. It seems rather bizarre to me. Perhaps this is only true for a small segment of regional ballet companies with which my friend is associated.)

Unlike music and theatre where securing performance rights is based on fairly objective criteria, ballet is apparently very subjective. The rights are often in the hands of a person (often a ballerina who danced the principal role) who reviews the skill of the ballet company applying for the rights by attending a performance or via a video recording. From what I have been told, there tends to be a lot of criticism of the female dancers’ technique and body weight (especially if they show any sign of having a bust). The male dancers are generally spared as much scrutiny.

I had attended a black tie affair for my friend’s ballet company and was told that the petite, absolutely gorgeous dancer who had charmed me that night might have to leave the company because her “weight” was judged unseemly. (I think the chair I was sitting on probably outweighed the woman.)

I mention these elements to illustrate some fundamental differences in the assumptions three branches of the performing arts have about how things should be done. I could certainly go on for a week analyzing the flaws in the way live theatres do business. In some respect, I wonder if it might be better if different branches didn’t get to know each other better. It is probably easier for an orchestra official to advocate for more arts funding if he isn’t thinking about the barbaric theatres who might only employ actors for six weeks before sending them back to waiting on tables while his musicians are guaranteed an income all year round.

On the other hand, even though their disciplines are grouped together as “the arts.” Managers in each area rarely talk to each other on substantive topics. Who knows if there are efficient solutions to common problems if no one really shares that information. One of the most common expectation of attendees of the National Performing Arts Convention held last June in Pittsburgh was that they were attending a forum for an exchange of ideas with people from other disciplines. This according to the surveys administered by the IDOC project. But according to the final IDOC report (found at the above link) and The Artful Manager’s own observations of his attendance, people gravitated toward their own kind.

Granted, the IDOC effort found that some of the scheduling was not conducive to mingling. I don’t know when the next National Performing Arts Convention will be held, but perhaps an effort will be made to replicate the efforts of every junior high school dance committee and force the boys and girls together in the center of the room. (Leave some room for the Holy Spirit though as the nuns used to say.)

Since the general public is hanging us all together under “The Arts”. It would probably be good to take up residence together under that roof and talk a little. Perhaps we can see the way to better relationships with our actors/musicians/dancers.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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