Cost Is More Than Pocket Change

We had a meeting today with some renters to discuss an event they will be presenting in about a month. It is going to be a performance by a youth orchestra and choral group. One of the organizers told us his method of figuring out how to arrange his musicians given the space constraints. He uses pocket change.

Pennies do for most musicians but nickels are necessary for those like the flautists who need a little more room. Much of the percussion section is represented by quarters.

This low tech approach brought some “kids today” thoughts to mind. Many industries complain that recent graduates from all levels don’t possess the basic skills to perform the task at hand. It is frequently mentioned that the performing arts are so expensive because production costs can’t be circumvented/minimized by advancements in technology and efficiencies (aka Baumol’s cost disease).

However, there have been instances when technology seems to have indeed left people lacking in the ability to perform basic tasks. A few years ago, there was a problem with fitting a visiting designer’s design in the facility at which I was working. He was asked to quickly revise the problem portion and hand it off to the technicians to execute. Unfortunately, since his design software wasn’t available, it had to be done by hand and the designer didn’t have the requisite skill to effectively execute it. The project was delayed a bit longer than expected when one of the technicians had to draw what the designer dictated.

In this last year we had a similar problem with another designer who insisted the show couldn’t be done without a specific type of computer controlled lighting equipment which we didn’t have. We were somewhat incredulous when it turned out that all the special equipment for was going to be used for was backlighting. Using the special equipment would reduce the number of instruments needed by 1/3. However, we had plenty of lighting instruments and circuits to produce the effect. But it took the better part of a week to convince the guy to add the other instruments to the design rather than insisting we rent expensive equipment for a half hour piece.

Alas, technology may have advanced, but the ability for our budgets to acquire technology for our house stock hasn’t. Nor had it for three of our partners so resistance to change in the face of such dearth was also puzzling and frustrating.

I can’t say for sure if the designer wasn’t just busy with other projects and really did not want to revise plans. From my vantage and from the responses we received, it appeared to be lack of imagination and problem solving skills to conceive of alternatives.

I don’t want to leave the youngest set out so I will also roll my virtual eyes at some of our students who don’t know how to use a ruler. I am not talking about scale rulers which I will admit make my eyes glaze over. I am referring to a standard 1 foot ruler. Guys, 1/4 scale means 1 inch equals 4 feet. Shave something off that chair you made out of foamcore–it is 8 feet high on your set model!!!!

I understand that technology does actually contribute to greater efficiency. It is quicker to hang one instrument instead of three. You can also do much more with the same number of circuits. You can design much faster if the computer does it for you and automatically includes all the pertinent information people need to execute the plan. But I think there is a greater cost when people don’t possess the basic skills of their profession for which technology provides a shortcut.

I really do comprehend the desire to move beyond the basic rules to the place where we get to express ourselves. I still have a paper from college with a comment that the content of my writing was simply excellent and insightful–but the grammatical errors were legion. At the time, all I cared about was the recognition of my brilliance. My grammatical skills were obviously sufficient to allow my brilliance to shine through after all. No need to shackle myself with tedious rules which only professors valued.

Now if you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you have probably come across instances where my fingers act independently of my brain. Those times notwithstanding, there came a moment when I realized if I was to advance in nearly any career, I needed to embrace basic grammatical discipline. I know now that paying attention to how others employ those picayune details has enhanced the sheer magnificence my literature professor acknowledged so long ago.

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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