Is capitalism harming the arts in China?

A fear of the bottom line, not government censorship, is leading to conservative arts programming in China, says Alison Friedman

Artists in every country face funding challenges, so what’s unique about China’s situation? One word: change. As China moves from a planned to a market economy, it is converting not just government-run factories to private enterprises, but government-run theatres and performance troupes as well, completely restructuring funding for the arts. Since 2006 and the 11th Five-Year Plan, the government has been systematically reducing the levels of subsidy for performing arts troupes and venues, in an effort to encourage them to rely on the market.

The challenge, however, is that there is not yet a developed market with diverse income streams on which to rely. With no independent foundations for the performing arts, limited corporate sponsorship, and individual donors few and far between, venues and festivals are overly reliant on ticket sales. As a result, the majority of arts venues and festivals seek productions they feel will appeal to their existing audiences, and they hesitate to take financial risks on unknown artists or art forms. Conservative programming in China, therefore, now results not from a fear of government censorship, but from a fear of the bottom line.

Venues and festivals rely heavily on international governments to subsidise the performance tours of international artists in China. Due to China’s increasing importance on the world stage, many foreign Ministries of Culture are more than happy to underwrite their country’s dance, theatre, and orchestra tours in China. The exception to this rule is America, which does not have a Ministry of Culture, and therefore sends far fewer performing arts groups to China than its European and Asian counterparts.

Beijing’s prestigious National Centre for the Performing Arts presented its first American theatre company as late as 2013, when my company, Ping Pong Productions, brought L.A. Theatre Works to tour six cities in China. American groups are forced to rely on their own fundraising for tours like these, as fees from local venues are insufficient to cover the costs.

The Actors' Gang © Gao Shang
The Actors’ Gang on tour in China © Gao Shang

In June 2014, we produced the China tour of Oscar-winner Tim Robbins and his theatre troupe The Actors’ Gang, who performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream to sold-out audiences in Beijing and Shanghai. In November 2014, we produced a second China tour for Mark Morris Dance Group. Both companies had to engage in significant fundraising efforts back at home in order to cover the costs.

Although international groups touring China do face considerable financial hurdles, in fact China’s own contemporary performance troupes must tackle far more threatening challenges when it comes to the economics of survival. While the government has reduced its support for large state-funded troupes, it has not yet developed alternative funding mechanisms for smaller independent ones.

In 2014, Ping Pong Productions produced a fourth global tour for independent Chinese dance group TAO Dance Theater. We brought them to 20 cities in 12 countries, over five continents and 42 shows, including world premieres commissioned by NorrlandsOperan (Sweden), Adelaide Festival Centre in Australia and the UK’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre. In 2015, we’ll tour them in Central and Eastern Europe, among other regions, as well as diong another commissioned world premiere at the new Asian Arts Theatre in Gwangju, Korea.

These tours represent more than mere feathers in the proverbial cap; they are a necessity for survival. Independent companies in China have nowhere to turn for financial subsidies, and local presenters like the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing even charge Chinese artists fees as high as USD50,000-plus (€40,000) to perform.

However, in spite of these (sometimes crippling) financial challenges, China’s rapid rate of change means that new developments are already in the works to address the situation and foster a healthier arts ecology. Although the Ministry of Culture of China does not offer overhead support to independent groups within the country, they do cover their international airfares, which facilitates companies to tour abroad. TAO Dance Theater’s 2015 Central and Eastern European tour, as well as its performances at the India Attakkalari Biennial and Helsinki Festival, are made possible thanks to significant travel support from the Ministry of Culture.

In the past three years, both national and local government arts institutions have set up ‘creation grants’, in order to commission short new works by younger choreographers, directors and composers. In December 2013 the Minister of Culture, Cai Wu, announced the establishment of the China National Arts Foundation (CNAF), funded primarily by the central government in addition to public donations. CNAF is the first government entity in China to offer funding directly to individual performing artists and unregistered collectives.

Alison Friedman and Tim Robbins © Gao Shang
Alison Friedman and Tim Robbins © Gao Shang

Just because presenters in China are necessarily risk averse, this does not mean audiences here are too: China’s audiences are open, intelligent, and eager. After each performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tim Robbins and the cast came on stage for a post-show talk with the crowd. Nearly 70 per cent of the houses stayed each night, and the resulting discussions tended to last 40 minutes or more, until the venues had to kick everybody out.

Audience demographics tend to be focussed around the age of 20-40 years old. If tickets are not overly expensive, many students and young professionals will see performances once if not twice per week. The challenges here are not about audiences, nor the arts: they’re about the infrastructure connecting the two. We look forward to tracking how changes made in 2013-14 affect China’s performing arts landscape in 2015.

Friedman is founding director of Ping Pong Productions, a producing and consulting organisation headquartered in Beijing with a mission of cultural diplomacy.