What Oskar Said

The keynote speaker for the recent Arts Midwest conference was Oskar Eustis who is current artistic director at the Public Theater.  Tweets in reaction to his speech have been Storified if you want some insight.

A lot of what he spoke about centered on the value of government support of the arts and the value of non-profit arts organizations, especially in his career.  One of his first jobs in the arts was supported by a CETA grant. National Endowment for the Arts money supported the development of Angels in America which he commissioned and directed.  Lin Manuel Miranda’s invitation to perform at the White House saw him perform a song that eventually became the opening number for Hamilton which Eustis developed at the Public Theater.

He also mentioned how he was sitting with Julie Taymor at a session of Aspen Ideas Festival when Michael Eisner stood up and said he thought too much importance was placed on the value of non-profit theater, citing how he had bolstered Taymor’s career when he choose her to direct The Lion King. Eustis said before he had a chance to throw down with Eisner, Taymor pointed out she only developed the skills to direct a show of the caliber The Lion King thanks to the experience she had in non-profit theater.

Like me, a lot of these topics are close to Eustis’ heart. He spoke of how worried he was that as a country we have equated having a market economy with having a market society. That is, that we judge the value of what we do based on how financially successful it is.

If you have been reading my recent posts about economic value of the art and culture vs. intrinsic value, you know this permeates societal thinking beyond just the idea that arts organizations need to be run like businesses and support themselves.

Eustis said that he had been pushing for the Public Theater to present more of its work for free as they do with Shakespeare in Central Park, but his board was reticent because they didn’t feel that people would value something they got for free. Eustis acknowledged that might be the case with some things, but given that people were camping out overnight just to get a spot on line to see Shakespeare, he was pretty sure the Public Theater’s work would be sufficiently valued. In the upcoming year, the Public Theater will mount their first free production at one of their regular spaces.

He also mentioned despite doing so many free productions in Central Park, they discovered only their prison program and the shows they trucked out to the five boroughs of NYC were the only programs that were serving a mix of people that reflected the demographics of NYC.

During the Q&A after his address, Mario Garcia Durham, President and CEO of Association of Performing Arts Presenters rose and expressed his dismay that the Kennedy Center was essentially telling people that they would need to buy subscriptions to two seasons if they wanted to get tickets to see Hamilton when it came to Washington D.C.

Durham was concerned that this would place the show out of reach of the demographics with which Miranda most wanted the show to resonate and plead with Eustis to ask Miranda to arrange auxiliary programming to accompany the show that the general population would be able to access.

Eustis replied that while he really didn’t have any control over the decisions made by organizations that presented the show, he did have a right to sit at the table and provide guidance when policies were being shaped. He said if he had his way, when it came time to make the show available for amateur performance, it would only be licensed to only high schools in perpetuity and would never be available for production by theatrical organizations.

I am embarrassed to admit there were some other noteworthy things Eustis said that I can’t recall. They were so noteworthy I tracked down  Arts Midwest President David Freher to discuss them. I figured I needn’t make note about them since they were so vivid in my mind.

If anyone else was at the keynote and was impressed by anything else they heard, please share because it may jog my memory.

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the 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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