Be What You’re Like

I came across an article in Backstage, by way of that put me in mind of the chorus of They Might Be Giants’ “Whistling In the Dark.”

There’s only one thing that I know how to do well
And I’ve often been told that you only can do
What you know how to do well
And that’s be you,
Be what you’re like,
Be like yourself,
And so I’m having a wonderful time
But I’d rather be whistling in the dark

The article in question, “Hung up on Tent Poles, Studios Think Too Big” looks at many great movies that haven’t done well financially in recent years because big movie studios are paying big movie studio prices to make independent studio quality films.

Audiences are looking for high quality films and the studio are responding by making films that are clearly worthy of being made. They just aren’t going to be as wildly popular as a Harry Potter movie and bring as big a return on investment. The article points out that it is difficult for studios to be economical because directors and actors know that the studios have the money to pay them and can stubbornly hold out. If the studio wants the picture made badly enough with the draw of a star, they relent.

As is often the case with my entries, I see a lesson in this for arts organizations!

Because our audiences often use NYC based arts organizations (Broadway, The Met, NY Ballet) as the yardstick by which they measure the quality of our offerings (though I often have my events compared to Las Vegas shows!) there is often pressure on us to grow bigger, better, and more professional in quality.

If we were once avant garde, we may be accused of selling out. But who cares, we are putting more butts in the seats and that is paying for all the improvements we need to do. Its pays the salaries of the development office and for lobbying the government to build a performing arts center.

I am guessing you can see where I am going with this so I will stop here. It is hard to resist the lure of becoming bigger and better, even if improved standing in the community is not the goal. If we are reaching out to underserved kids, we feel pressured to expand our programs so we can get more money to support our important outreach activities.

Reading the Backstage article gave me hope. The fact the big guys have a hard time producing worthy stuff economically means that there is a probably a niche in the arts world that the small, hungry orgs can serve successfully without having to grow too big.

Now if only we can get more people out to see the performances 😉

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.


2 thoughts on “Be What You’re Like”

  1. Well said.

    I believe that growth fr the sake of growth is a very American way of looking at it – bigger must be better, right? For our little Chicago nfp, we’re pretty aggressively non-commercial and are happy with the shows.

    Be What You’re Like.


  2. Heh, thanks Don. I had checked out your website a couple days ago. Interesting sounding stuff you are doing. (Though with the Armageddon radio show and WNEP name, I wasn’t sure if you were live theatre or live radio until I read more!)


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