I don't begrudge NYCB for wanting to attract large donors to the gala by giving them the potential opportunity to interact with a celebrity (in this case, a fashion celebrity). NYCB raised an enormous amount of money from rich donors by having Paul and Stella McCartney as the central figures of last year's fall gala. Ocean's Kingdom was not an artistic success, in my opinion. However, I think it was a box office success in terms of ticket sales. Clever marketing becomes important in tough economic times.
I don't begrudge them their galas either. Art takes money. In the best of all possible worlds, people with money would pay for art with no inducement other than the joy of seeing art happen. But we don't live in that world. So yeah, if it takes a swag bag and proximity to celebrities and the machers du jour to get the wealthy to pull out their checkbooks, then bring on the celebrities and the swag. (As long as the net take is sufficiently in the black, I hasten to add. There are plenty of charities for whom the return on development efforts, including galas, is trivial at best and a genuine drain on the organization at worst.) The real leaders in the philanthropic community are those who fund worthy endeavors because it's the right thing to do, and who, by their example, encourage others to do the same. But if we can't have those leaders, I'll take the machers.
And I certainly don't begrudge using the gala as a showcase for new work. New ballets need to be made, and if the company can wring some buzz and bucks out of a gala unveiling, go for it.
Ditto with "marketing" in the sense of figuring out how to get butts in seats. You better believe that if I were on the NYCB marketing team I'd be milking the fact that Justin Peck's new ballet is set to Sufjan Stevens' music for all that it was worth. And as long as Peck chose Stevens' music because he liked it and it moved him to make a dance, that's fine.
What's not fine is making artistic choices solely for the purpose of generating one-time gala buzz or appealing to some shiny demographic. For one thing, it's a version of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." For another, as Sandik points out, it traps the organization on the fundraising equivalent of the hedonic treadmill. Worst of all, it saddles the company with white elephants like "Ocean's Kingdom" or "The Seven Deadly Sins." Whatever box-office success they may have had initially based on their headliners (the McCartneys and Patti Lupone, respectively) it's hard to imagine that either will live long in the rep. That's not the kind of long-term investment the company should be making in its art, its audience, and its patrons.
Clever marketing is
important -- even if the world were flush with cash, the company would still have to cut through an awful lot of noise across an awful lot of channels just to be heard. And audience building is important, too. But reverse-engineering the art to grab an audience is a lousy tactic (well, lousy for the art at least). The trick is figuring out how to tell someone you already have what they want -- heck, what they need
-- but that they just don't know it yet.
I'll know the odometer has turned over, by the way, when Lena Dunham replaces Sarah Jessica Parker as the gala chair ...