Thursday, February 25, 2010

The REAL Case for the Arts in VA

Posted by Bruce Miller
At least 150 Virginia arts supporters lined the halls of the Virginia Capitol today. It felt like more, but that's how many stickers saying "Save the Arts" were distributed. However many of us there were, we packed the place, and certainly made a strong statement in favor of continuing state funding for the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Everywhere we went, smart and well-intentioned individuals asked something like, "Why should the state support the arts when we can't do all that we should be doing for disabled children, for education, for health care for the poor?"

If there were a true choice between these very worthy causes and the minimal financial support required to save the Virginia Commission for the Arts, I too would pick disabled kids, education and health care. The arts will never and should never win the argument that we are "more important" than these very worthy efforts. The case for disabled children, education and health care for the poor has already been argued and won in the hearts and minds of virtually everyone I know. Especially artists.

But in the real world, there is no such choice. Pretending that such a choice exists is an ideological exercise, lacking any foundation in real world economics.

The one choice is this: should Virginia continue to fund the Virginia Commission for the Arts, cutting it proportionally with other agencies, services and efforts, or should the Old Dominion become the first state in the nation to turn its back on its own nonprofit arts industry.

That is the choice. And as we debate the pros and cons, the only truly germane question, given current budget realities, is this: will spending $4.4 million to maintain the Virginia Commission for the Arts result in a net loss for the state budget or a net gain. If we all agree that we want more money to go to the aforementioned worthy causes (and who doesn't), the question is not whether or not the state should fund the arts, the question is whether such funding will be a sound investment resulting in more revenue to devote to all the things the state is honor-bound to fund.

The Virginia economy, like any large economy, is very inter-connected and complex. An economic impact study conducted in 2000 documents that the nonprofit arts generated $1.1 billion per year in Virginia a decade ago. Wise leaders recognize that the arts are like roads, libraries and state parks. They are among the quality of life components that attract businesses to a community, that attract top students and faculty to universities, that bring out-of-state money into local and state cash registers.

Gone are the days when a thriving American city or town (or state) can be "art free" and still expect to attract jobs. The vast majority of major employers don't move into cities until they determine that a thriving arts and cultural community pre-exists. They require a robust arts community not only because they want their employees to have something fun to do on Friday night, but also because virtually all business studies indicate that the most educated work forces, the most creative work forces, the work forces most adept at the skills that 21st Century companies need to compete come from communities that are rich in the arts.

Don't believe me? Check out Richard Florida's (PhD, Columbia University) several best-selling business texts: The Rise of the Creative Class, Cities and the Creative Class, and The Flight of the Creative Class. Follow that with a perusal of Daniel Pink's immensely popular A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

As for small businesses ... the Virginia economy is based on small businesses. Every legislator says so, especially those who favor eliminating the Virginia Commission for the Arts. The ironic thing is that arts organizations ARE small businesses, employing over 20,000 professionals in Virginia each year.

Eliminating the Virginia Commission for the Arts (as has been proposed by the House) will not save money, it will cost money. Lots of money. If you truly want to get more money for your favorite worthy cause--and we all agree that education, health care etc are worthy causes--then do NOT destroy the infrastructure that enables and sustains 20,000 jobs and offers a $250 return for every $1 of investment.

Virginia's arts organizations have already accepted cuts exceeding 30%. We haven't whined. We haven't cried "Wolf!" We understand that we need to tighten our belts and sacrifice just like everyone else.

All we ask now is for the Virginia legislature in its entirety to go with the budget recommendations of Gov Kaine, Gov McDonnell and the Virginia Senate. Only the House budget recommends eliminating the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

All we ask is that the legislature in its entirety think big picture. Save the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and allow our nonprofit industry to continue to provide tens of thousands of real jobs, lure hundreds of thousands or more jobs into Virginia, support education, and increase tourism.

We know the job of balancing the budget is extremely hard. But please, examine the concrete evidence. Think long term and big picture. The voters of Virginia deserve no less.

--Bruce Miller

PS For those who are twittering and facebook messaging that the story is over and the VCA is gone, be patient. The battle will not be fought, won or lost until March 5, and we won't know the result until a few days after. March 5 is when conferees from the House and the Senate begin meeting to duke it out, finding a common ground between their two versions of the budget. The Senate budget proposes the same 16% cut offered by Gov Kaine. The House budget (which passed today along party lines) proposes a 50% cut in year one and elimination in year two. Now is the time to work even harder to convince House conferees to consider the wisdom of maintaining the VCA.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Legislators Propose Elimination of Arts Funding

Posted by Bruce Miller
I'm absolutely heartsick about today's news from the House Appropriations Committee. Here's a letter I've written to the T-D. I have no idea if it will run, so I'm printing it again here. PLEASE fax or call your legislators ASAP. Legislator contact information can be found on the web at

Editor - Times-Dispatch:

The House Appropriations Committee is proposing the elimination of the Virginia Commission for the Arts. I have been the artistic director of Theatre IV, The Children's Theatre of Virginia, for the last 35 years. In an effort to create significant cost efficiencies, the staff of Theatre IV also has managed Barksdale Theatre for the last 8 1/2 years.

As a nonprofit administrator, I have always been trained to speak publicly only of success. With regard to this new proposal, it would be irresponsible for me to pretend optimism when I know first-hand the certain disaster that will follow the passage of such misguided legislation.

Every day, Theatre IV and Barksdale, two of our state's most exemplary nonprofits, deal with the fact that Virginia historically and consistently funds the arts at a level lower than any state in our region. We continue to serve over 600,000 Virginians annually, despite the fact that the legislature eliminated direct funding of arts organizations four years ago, and over the last two years has already reduced indirect funding (through the Virginia Commission for the Arts) by 30%.

In the last 16 months, Theatre IV and Barksdale have eliminated 6 positions and have plans to eliminate 2 more (20% of our lean work force). We have reduced salaries by up to 17%, cancelled company contributions to retirement plans, and increased the percentage of health insurance premiums that must be paid by the employee. To adjust to the eliminated positions, many on our staff work 80-hour work weeks just to keep our nonprofit companies alive.

The elimination of state funding to the Virginia Commission for the Arts will cost Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre an additional $190,000 per year. That will mean the elimination of seven more jobs. Despite all our best efforts, we will not be able to operate under these conditions.

What the House Appropriations Committee is proposing is the elimination of the nonprofit arts infrastructure that tens of thousands of hard-working Virginians have taken decades to build. Hundreds of jobs will be lost. The economic repercussions will not be positive; they will be disastrous.

To avoid causing lasting harm to economic development, education, tourism and quality of life, please ask your legislators to oppose the current proposal of the House Appropriations Committee.

Bruce Miller
Artistic Director, Theatre IV and Barksdale Theatre

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Job Responsibilities Include What?!

Posted by Bruce Miller
Ah, so much to write about and so little time. I have a list of about ten theatrical matters that I'd meant to address on this blog by now--and I'll get to them, honestly I will. But something caught my eye this morning that has elbowed its way to the top of the heap.

One of the links that is being promoted on my start-up page over at this morning reads as follows:

Paramedics & Cops Only Make How Much?
10 stressful jobs you'd think would pay more

And underneath this headline appears this enticing tickler:

Find a job by salary range

Seeing as how Phil and I are facing our third salary cut in as many years (isn't this economy fun?), I thought I might just check out what the employment professionals are saying I should be making.

Three years ago, Phil and I made salaries that were only a little shy of principals in Greater Richmond's high schools. That salary range is pretty comfortable, actually, and seemed appropriate considering the breadth of our responsibilities.

Then as the economy began to shrink, we took a 7% cut in 08-09. In 09-10, we and everyone else at Theatre IV were asked to assume more of the costs of our health insurance. Pretty soon, if things continue to go as they're going now, we'll be taking an additional 10% cut in 10-11.

I'm not complaining. I'm lucky to have my job. It seems everyone is being asked to sacrifice these days. Being a glass half-full kind of guy, I prefer to focus on the notion that sacrifice is good for the soul.

But just for the heck of it, I decided to click on the little box that suggested I could "find a job by salary range." I thought I'd check out just how the high school principals are doing these days, and how theatre directors are doing in comparison.

The link took me to, and a specific off-shoot of their site called I was asked to type in a job title. I typed in "Theatre Director." I was invited to search for actual salaries within a particular community, and I typed "Richmond" and "VA."

Particulars immediately popped up, and I was glad to see that my job was included in's data base. But I was puzzled to see my job described thusly:

"Theatre Director:
Supervise and coordinate activities of correctional officers and jailers"

There it was. That was it. And "theatre" was even spelled with an "re."

Now I know that when one is fighting in a world war, the global battlefield is divided into "theatres." I guess it makes sense for prisons to adopt similar language. So I'm not dismayed to learn that someone who supervises jailers calls himself or herself a "Theatre Director."

Actually that's kind of cool.

But I am disappointed to learn that this is the only type of "theatre" job to have earned the attention of The type of "theatre" that you and I love, my friends, completely escapes their attention, at least in terms of "directors." Are there really more "theatre directors" working in Central Virginia's prisons than there are working in Greater Richmond's theatres? Or, once again, are jobs in the arts being overlooked and/or dismissed as somehow being less worthy than "real jobs."

With attitudes like this being developed and propagated by employment specialists, no wonder politicians continue to make cuts in the arts (one of the most labor intensive industries out there) while calling for more expenditures directed toward "job creation."

Stop the madness!

--Bruce Miller

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Song (or Whatever) of Mulan

Posted by Bruce Miller
Every time I think of The Song of Mulan, I remember what happened eight years ago when we first contracted Paul Deiss to create the show for our touring operation. Schools were crying out for a fun way to support the new SOLs on ancient China, and the epic poem about the young girl who went to war to save her nation from the Mongol (Tartar) horde definitely fit the bill.

It had everything--an inspiring story that illuminates authentic history, a classic work of Chinese literature, and the name recognition that could come only from a recent Disney adaptation.

Paul wrote a beautiful script and score, and when the tour first went on the road, the Richmond Times-Dispatch covered the opening. This was back in the days when we could still get some ink for the arts. There was a beautiful color photo and a sizable caption, all surrounding a prominent headline that proudly proclaimed "Theatre IV Opens The Fish of Mulan."

That's what it said, my friends. We never knew why, but somehow someone in the newsroom changed the title of the play from The Song of Mulan (the actual title of the epic poem, sometimes translated as The Ballad of Mulan) to The Fish of Mulan.

It didn't matter. Then as now, all PR was good PR.

That first tour went so well under Susan Sanford's expert direction, that we soon commissioned Paul to expand his musical into two acts for a mainstage production. Susan again served as director/choreographer, and the show again earned raves from audiences, educators, and critics alike.

Mercedes Schaum created the magnificent sets; Jason Bishop designed a brigade of handsome, authentic costumes; and Steve Koehler worked his usual magic with lights. (Lynne Hartman takes on the lighting responsibilities this time out.)

Now that it's time to revive this Theatre IV favorite, how fortunate we are to have been able to reassemble several members of the original team. (In terms of costumes, Jason has moved to New York, but we have been able to retrieve all his original garments.) Susan Sanford long ago moved to Los Angeles to pursue new career opportunities with her husband, Foster Solomon. But thanks to funding from the Louise Moon Fund, we were able to bring her back to town--a blessing for one and all.

The Louise Moon Fund was created in the late 1990s, shortly before Mrs. Moon died. Throughout her life, she had been a great supporter of the arts. She was on the founding committee of the Richmond Symphony, and she had a long history of support for both Theatre IV and Barksdale.

Before our two nonprofit companies began our strategic partnership in 2001, we worked together to establish the Louise Moon Fund in Mrs. Moon's honor. The fund enabled Barksdale and Theatre IV to bring back to Richmond outstanding theatre artists who had moved on to larger markets. Mrs. Moon had fallen in love this idea after we brought her son, John, back from NYC following his earning his masters in directing from Columbia and his subsequent work with Joseph Papp's Public Theatre.

Susan is only the most recent artist to return due in part to the largesse of Mrs. Moon and her friends.

We have a great new cast for Mulan this year. The titular role is played by Yvonne Samé, recently from the cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Her mother and father are played by Hannah Zold and Jason Marks. Mulan's romantic interest is portrayed by Chris Stewart. Lucas Hall, Audra Honaker, Paul Major and Durron Tyre all provide admirable support in a variety of roles.

If you haven't been out to see this wonderful show, please head on down to Theatre IV's historic Empire Theatre. We'd love to have you join us on our return visit to all the wonders of ancient China.

--Bruce Miller

(Note on the images: Whether she is allegorical or real, the character of Mulan has inspired countless works of Chinese art, several examples of which are pictured. First is a painting on silk, then a wooden carving, followed by the oldest surviving copy of the epic poem, circa 1200, found in the British Museum. The original poem dates from the 6th century. Last is a porcelain vase.)