Michael Kaiser — non-profit management expert and president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts — was in Dallas a month ago talking to arts leaders about the recession-related difficulties the arts are facing. He was actually pretty upbeat — arts organizations have not failed in anywhere near the numbers that were feared a year ago. But one area that deeply concerned him was how most arts organizations cannot decrease certain fixed costs (it takes the same number of musicians to perform Beethoven as it did 150 years ago) and neither can theaters or concert halls suddenly add extra seats. So how can these organizations meet the problems of skyrocketing costs?
What they’ve been doing over the years, mostly, is slowly increasing ticket prices. And this is killing them over the long haul because it has made arts attendance a costly, elitist activity. Kaiser returns to this subject at more length in a column for today’s Huffington Post: “Why Ticket Prices Must Change.”
If we want to keep, not to mention rebuild, our audiences, we need to rethink our ticket prices and to find other ways to balance our budgets. We need to find productive ways to lower our costs. Cutting programming is not a good solution, but establishing creative joint ventures and reducing infrastructure are. And we need to work actively and aggressively to increase fund raising revenue (by producing exciting work and marketing that work well) and use a portion of this revenue to lower ticket prices.
We do not need to lower the prices of all tickets, however. We find that the buyers of the higher price tickets are less price sensitive; they will buy at any cost. That is why the premium price tickets on Broadway continue to sell. But the audience members who buy lower price seats tend to be very price sensitive; reducing the price of these tickets should have a big impact on audience size.
Coincidentally, the Jewish Theater of New York announced Monday that anyone on food stamps or Medicaid can see its upcoming production for just $5. Full price tickets are $50.