Artists in every country face funding challenges, so what is 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 and few government 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, many arts venues and festivals seek productions they feel will appeal to their existing audiences, and hesitate to take financial risks on unknown artists or art forms. Conservative programming in China, therefore, often results not from government censorship, but from a conservative bottom line.
Venues and festivals rely heavily on international governments to subsidize the performance tours of international artists in China. Due to China’s increasing importance on the world stage, many foreign Ministries of Culture have been more than happy to underwrite their country’s dance, theatre, and orchestra tours in China. The exception to this rule is the United States, which does not have a Ministry of Culture, and therefore sends far fewer performing arts groups to China than its European, Asian and Australian 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 must rely on their own fundraising for tours like these, as fees from local venues are not typically able to cover the costs.
In 2014 and 2016, we produced the China tours of Oscar-winner Tim Robbins and his theatre troupe The Actors’ Gang, who performed 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 of these tours.
Although international groups touring China face considerable financial hurdles, in fact China’s own contemporary performance troupes must tackle far greater challenges when it comes to the economics of survival. While the government has reduced its support for large state-funded troupes, it is still in the process of developing alternative funding mechanisms for smaller independent ones.
Since 2009, Ping Pong Productions has been touring independent Chinese dance and theater groups internationally, including the modern dance troupe TAO Dance Theater and theater director Wang Chong. We have toured performances in more than 50 countries on five continents, and secured commissioning funds for the artists to create new productions from festivals and venues in Sweden, the UK, Singapore, Australia, Korea, and more.
These tours and commissioned works represent more than mere feathers in the proverbial cap; they are a necessity for survival. Independent companies in China have few options for financial support, and local presenters often charge Chinese artists rental fees as high as USD 50,000-plus to perform in their venues.
In spite of these sometimes crippling) financial challenges, new developments in recent years already are addressing the situation and working to foster a healthier and more diverse arts ecology in China.
In 2012, the China Shanghai Performing Arts Fair, China’s oldest and largest government-run performing arts industry conference, launched the “Rising Artists Works (RAW)” Program, which commissions new works-in-progress by young and emerging independent dance, theater, music and multi-media performing artists. Now entering its fifth year, the RAW Program provides financial support as well as opportunities for the young artists to perform at the annual Shanghai International Arts Festival each October.
Although China’s Ministry of Culture does not yet have mechanisms to support operating costs for independent artists and arts groups within China, the Ministry does support travel costs for these groups to tour abroad. Many international festivals are hesitant to invite Chinese artists due to the prohibitive travel and shipping costs; therefore, Ministry travel support has allowed young independent artists opportunities to tour abroad they otherwise never would have had. TAO Dance Theater’s 2012 performances at Lincoln Center Festival in NYC, as well as subsequent tours including in Central and Eastern Europe, the India Attakkalari Biennial, Helsinki Festival, and the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival all were made possible thanks to significant travel support from the Ministry of Culture.
In 2016, the Israel Festival in Jerusalem presented the first Chinese theater company in the festival’s 55-year history. The multi-media production “Thunderstorm 2.0” directed by Wang Chong was supported by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture which covered 20 airfares and a large shipping container of the play’s set. Israel Festival’s director Eyal Sher had attempted to present this production since 2013 but always had to cancel due to budget constraints. Thanks to the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture’s support in 2016, he was finally able to bring the production to Israel after three years of attempts.
It’s important to note these tours are not by large government troupes entirely underwritten by the Chinese government. These are small and mid-size independent groups that have been selected and invited by international arts festivals. Very often, the government had not heard of the artists until the international festivals inquired about travel support. A positive cycle is now developing where greater international demand for contemporary independent Chinese performing groups has led to increased awareness within China of the need to support these groups, which means more resources are being channeled to support them, allowing more to tour abroad, and therefore more awareness abroad about China’s increasingly diverse arts ecology.
In the past three years, both national and local arts institutions in China have set up ‘creation grants’ to commission short new works by younger choreographers, directors and composers. In December 2013, then-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.
In 2016, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture established the Beijing Arts and Culture Fund. This fund operates similarly to arts foundations in the US, where panels of experts in the designated arts discipline (theater, dance, music, visual arts etc.) review applications and make recommendations. In the inaugural year, it funded more than 80 different projects across all disciplines, including creation of new works in China as well as tours domestically and abroad.
The diversified support for China’s developing performing arts market is in response not only to international demand but more so to demand from China’s own local audiences and ticket-buyers. China’s audiences are open, intelligent, and eager. After all eleven performances last year, 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 lasted nearly an hour, until the venues had to kick everybody out to close up.
Audience demographics in China are younger than in the U.S., with most audiences aged between 20-40 years old. If tickets are not overly expensive, many students and young professionals will see performances once if not twice per week. There is tremendous openness to and demand for diverse programming in China. More diverse arts funding will contribute to more diverse artistic innovation, fostering a more diverse arts ecosystem for audiences at home and abroad.