No Special Grace (Alas)

I was having a conversation with a friend from a previous job that brought up a few questions for me about what motivates people who work in the arts to attend arts events.

This gentleman was assistant marketing director and then marketing director for a theater at which I once worked. He eventually left to work for another marketing company, formed his own company which was acquired by another and is now a partner in that combined company.

In the same period his wife has been phasing herself out of a career in which her services were in high demand and is trying to earn her Actors’ Equity card. A couple years ago they both traveled to Scotland, young children in tow, to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe.

My friend tells me he hasn’t gone to see a show at the place we worked or almost anywhere else in years because of the ticket plus babysitter costs. This is a barrier to attendance that is commonly cited so there was no surprise in that.

What I was thinking as he told me was that if a guy who was paid to convince others that there was value for them in surmounting this barrier is unwilling to attend, how much harder is it these days to appeal to those without any background in arts attendance at all.

Granted, there is the element of his daughters’ youth that has to be factored in as well. Arts person or not, there is a necessity of child rearing that must be heeded. He gave the impression that he might be attending events more often now that his girls were getting older. It will be interesting to revisit the topic in a couple years to see if he did indeed start paying to attend shows more often.

I make the specific qualifier about paying to attend because he has been attending the shows his wife performs in using the comp tickets she gets. This fact spawned another train of thought that does not reflect on my friend’s practice, but is something I have observed in general.

I have known about 20 people in the last 15 years who haven’t been able to make the philosophical transition from starving artist to paying member of public. They got used to paying $5 or getting comps when they were students and/or starting out and years after won’t attend a show unless they receive the same treatment. In some cases they appeal to some pretty tenuous connections with people they only talk to when they want tickets. At least once a year I get a call invoking the name of someone 10 years gone.

I am betting some of my readers know these people. I am also willing to wager that some of them are pretty well off and put their ramen eating days behind them or worse, are successful professionals in the industry and feel their importance earns them free admission. (I have to confess, much to my chagrin every year I am sent two season passes to a theatre based on my theoretical importance. I am typically too busy and embarrassed by the idea to attend more than once or twice a year.)

I don’t know that this type of behavior is necessarily solely endemic to the arts rather than just being a component of a personality type. I am sure there are people who expect free food when they return to a restaurant where they once worked. Personally, I would prefer the problem to be personality related than to think that a lot of arts people are parasitic jerks.

The problem with this answer is that it provides more evidence that us arts people just like everyone else. If a guy who has performed and worked in theatres for over a decade leaves the performing arts world and has as hard a time motivating himself past to attend as the couple next door, maybe the arts aren’t a calling for a special segment of the population.

Frankly, I hate to have this sort of pessimism creep into my world view. The idea that being part of the arts confers a special grace and nobility makes being flat broke a little more tolerable. (It also dovetails nicely with a Catholic upbringing replete with tales of suffering saints.) And even though I am in administration, I feel the phrase “run arts like a business” robs it of some value.

I have come to realize that this grace and nobility isn’t the sole providence of those working in the industry but rather can be shared among all those encountering it. (Which is not to say that a dirt poor existence doesn’t sharpen the senses and appreciation of those who are receptive to experiencing art!) Partaking of this grace and nobility as a suffering poverty stricken artist in your youth certainly hasn’t earned you comps for life. You can’t be part of the in-crowd forever. One day you have to join the great unwashed and pay for your tickets.

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.


1 thought on “No Special Grace (Alas)”

  1. Unfortunately a percentage of the population will always try to blag something for free if they think they can. But to be fair to them, it does suit theatres and productions at times to have a number of invited guests, either to gain word of mouth or just to fill seats. Surely it’s up to theatres how they wish to respond to such requests (personally I’d suggest sending tickets for the poorest seats in the house).

    Sadly I also have to report my experience with those involved in amateur and student productions – it always amazes me how rarely they attend professional theatre.

    Lastly, I’ll try to bring a little positivity with my own situation. As a reviews website we’ve been offered comp tickets in the past but always decline – it adds a little bit more to a review if you’ve spent your own cash on it, and we feel it is unfair to deprive the company of a ticket sale that we would have bought regardless. And although my wife has a valid student card due to a recreational course we never take advantage of student rates as we feel it would be paying less than the value we attribute to seeing the show.

    So although there are definitely some chancers out there, there are also others who are prepared to make the effort to attend the theatre regularly, and pay the going rate.


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