On Tuesday night, as I scrolled through a variety of comments about the Rep on websites and social media, I’ve been struck by the deep affection people feel for it. But it is not a simple “let’s roll up our sleeves,” to use football parlance, raising the needed $750,000 only gets the Rep back to the line of scrimmage. It does not win the game.
For the Rep to survive, it must be a sustainable organization. What does a sustainable Rep look like? Does it continue to have a contract with Actors Equity? Does it produce six shows a year? Does it provide education offerings? Does it share space with other arts organizations? Regardless of the answers to the questions (and many others), what it has to have is a dedicated audience and consistent donor base.
It is not enough to say “we need a live professional theatre in Little Rock.” There must be a commitment to attending and continually financially supporting it. As a youth, my ever-wise father frustrated me to no end if I said I did not have time to do something. He would respond, “You didn’t have time or you did not want to make the time?” Yes we are busy, but in order for the Rep to survive, we have to make the time to attend it and support it with our dollars. And it’s not just the Rep that needs our support. It’s the Symphony, the Ballet, exhibits at the Arts Center and Museum of Discovery, Wildwood, the Zoo, and the list goes on.
The subscription model for arts organizations seems to be on its way out. But theatres still rely on it. (As do symphonies and opera companies.) If people are only interested in three of the season shows, or have no idea if they’ll be in town for several shows, or are uncertain about attendance because they don’t know what their obligations will be in six months, they are not likely to subscribe. For the financial well-being of the Rep, this will need to be examined in looking at the future. There are a few other models that are out there. It is scary to try something new. But with the Rep in a mode of self-examination, maybe now is the time.
I’ve read a lot over the past year about the last days of the Arkansas Gazette. There were some well-intentioned efforts to keep the paper going. But nothing was financially sustainable. The players finally had to admit they could not make it work. Emotions gave way to reason. While I definitely hope this situation plays out differently for the Rep and results in it being a continuing organization, the fundamentals are the same. Emotion and enthusiasm can only sustain so much.
When the Rep started, Little Rock had two daily newspapers, three locally owned TV stations, and several locally owned large banks as well as savings and loans. The utilities were either locally owned or had local control of their philanthropy. Plus there was potential funding from locally owned hospitals, major insurance carriers, etc., etc., etc. AND the number of non-profits seeking dollars from the sources outlined above was significantly smaller than today. (Between 1976 and 2018, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the available pools of money and the organizations requesting said money.) In the mid-1970s, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Arkansas Arts Council were both looking to fund theatres, and like Little Rock’s donors had fewer organizations requesting funds. It was a different day. One that is long in the past.
It is not fiscally prudent for the Rep, or any organization, to rely solely on one or two major funding sources. This has plagued certain Arkansas arts organizations over the years. It creates the sense that your contribution doesn’t matter because there is always someone else who will make up the difference. What happens when that funding source closes? or dies? or changes interests?
A future Rep must have a long-term and deep-seated commitment by a wide swath of patrons in order to survive. It cannot live on an occasional audience member’s nostalgia for that fun evening six years ago. It cannot make it on simply ticket sales (even if every show was a sell out). It needs a mid-term and long-term plan for both itself and its audience members. If there is only a burst of enthusiasm now which peters out in six to sixteen months, we’ll be back where we are now.
If the Rep is our theatre, it is our responsibility to bring it back and support it. Not just tomorrow, but next year and next decade.