My first reaction in my perusal of the Cultural Census was to think about the many things Richmond theater is doing right. One of the main ones is increasing participatory opportunities via programs like the Barksdale’s Coffee and Conversations series or the Acts of Faith talk-backs. I also think the theater community does a decent job of marketing itself within the community itself via Robyn O’Neill’s email list, Facebook, etc.
I also understand people’s reactions to the self-selection aspect of the survey and that any set of survey results can be used or skewed in different ways. But in the world of surveying, this number of respondents is pretty significant, regardless of where they come from. And while this kind of sampling may be less useful in gauging overall sentiment, there still is highly useful analysis that can be done in comparative analysis (theater vs. dance vs. museums, etc.). And from what I hear, there is so little comprehensive information-gathering done on the arts here that this information is going to be latched on to by many folks like a dog grabs a bone.
Finally, the surveying was done by a California firm that does this kind of thing for other cities and, from what I can tell, it has no vested interest in the results showing one thing or another. So when they make a point of saying “results point to a deficit of theatrical activity in Richmond” or that they have seen figures in other areas related to “vitality” that are more than 3 times higher than Richmond’s, I am more likely to take that information at face value than if it was a survey done by the Richmond Chamber, for instance.
Here are some of my concerns:
It is easy to pooh-pooh the less than 10% “vital activity” number for live theater. But what concerns me is that when you look at the detail breakdown (pg. 37), the number isn’t just “less than 10%” – the highest percentage for any theater related activity is just 7% and it goes down from there.
What really surprised me was then comparing that number to the “visiting art museums or galleries” number, which is 14%. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some galleries and museums – but in my mind there is no comparison in terms of the importance to the community. That the “vitality” percentage would be TWICE as high as the highest theater number is just shocking to me.
Also telling is that the attendance figures (pg. 14) between museums, galleries and performing arts venues were all nearly the same and yet there is still this discrepancy in the perceived “vitality.” So it seems to me this is saying that even if people attend theater as often as other arts activities, they don’t perceive it as vital to the community.
Finally, I think it is easy to get defensive on behalf of Richmond theater based on the findings of this report. I remember the many defensive reactions I heard earlier this year when Mary B and I did our “Arts Report Cards” on theater for Style. As understandable as that reaction may be, in this case, it serves no purpose. The survey, after all, isn’t going to try to defend itself; it is what it is.
While I don’t expect anyone to run around like Chicken Little saying that the sky is falling, what I would love to see is people in the theater community take these results to heart and try to tackle the problems they point to. How can we make Richmonders care more about theater? How can we raise the level of investment – emotional as well as financial – in theater? How can Richmond theater reach out to new audiences? What innovative methods can be employed to raise the profile of theater in town?
Even if the Cultural Census is misrepresentative in some ways – and I don’t think it is to any significant extent – I think it can be used to help organize thinking about bolstering local theater, which would be a good thing for all of us.