The success of Opera Theatre of Yale College’s “Magic Flute” production and Yale World Music’s two recent events, as well as other ambitious and multifaceted musical endeavors on campus, point to the performance scene of Yale as a case-study reflecting potential developments of cultural economics at large. Yale’s innovative learning environment in the performing arts offers key insights regarding the industry as a whole. In this regard, and further developments of collaboration between student organizations, as well as stronger coordination with Yale faculty, are to be hoped for.
Cultural economics is a branch of economics that started in the 1970s with William Baumol’s “cost disease” principle, and which is now defined as the economics of the performing arts. Essentially, Baumol’s theory questions the viability of the performing arts industries given inevitably increasing costs due to the lesser growth of productivity within the industry. If the performing arts’ supply is threatened, its survival then depends increasingly on the growth of leisure time and general economic demand.
Today, universities can and should play a key role in spurring the performing arts industries. Notably, universities can help create a long-run demand that Baumol does not seem to have sufficiently emphasized in his “cost disease” studies. Indeed, further inter-disciplinary research on the paramount role of education for the performing arts should be emphasized, notably at a place like Yale, where artistic, psychological and economic studies can cultivate one another. Given Yale’s penchant for the arts, it is my opinion that the Department of Economics should offer a course on cultural economics at this institution. Although Emeritus Professor Michael Montias used to offer a seminar on the economics of the arts, art is now no longer represented in Yale’s economics curriculum. Yet, such a field is of growing economic importance given today’s rising share of leisure time; moreover, our growing need for global trading and defining of human “cultural exchanges” becomes increasingly clear as the model of our international market for pure goods evolves. Yale might therefore reconsider providing cultural economic awareness to a broader body of Yale students, or at least offering more courses in behavioral economics as complements of pure theoretical economics.
Some improvements for cultural economics and its demand could also be facilitated in extra-curricular as well as academic life at Yale. Indeed, Yale students’ extra-curricular initiatives could model the future of cultural economics, since our university can offer free productions based on a nonprofit policy. Interestingly, Baumol predicted the progressive importance of less costly amateur productions, such as OTYC’s, for the performance industry at large. In a multi-disciplinary context like Yale’s, extra-curricular organizations can exist strategically to influence general demand for the performing arts and attract new audiences. On top of the incentives of peer pressure to encourage attendance of new performance types for one’s friends, a university campus might have weaker artistic substitutes such as television and cinema. In addition to my own experience at Yale of starting singing opera as a freshman and now intending to make a career out of it, I have also encountered numerous cases of euphoric individuals expressing their “eye-opened” excitement after the discovery of a new musical style, or musical culture at Yale performances. These examples mirror some economists’ statistical proofs of the weight of initial consumption, which have highlighted the pivotal need for educating not just through performance attendance, but also through participation. Universities such as Yale have the resources and mobility for bringing about this key education through participation. Given Yale’s immediate availability of writers, performers, composers and technicians who are all in close proximity, who is to say what the limits of creative endeavors might be? One might conceive of a student-composed opera with a story-line relevant to current issues of international development and with a ballet of African dancing, all performed by Yalies. Furthered coordination and collaboration between Yalies might indeed promote more cross-stylistic, cross-cultural, and cross-industrial initiatives. And in the midst of this, with financial support that facilitates free performances, humanitarian donations might be allied to performances, to underline the goal of human sharing that lies behind artistic and cultural performances.
Depending on the scale and scope of such undertakings, it is my strong conviction that certain undergraduate organizations at Yale must benefit from stronger faculty involvement. In some cases such as the Opera Theatre of Yale College, further developments will necessitate the full-time appointment and devotion of a faculty member who can help coordinate, structure and monitor the organization’s vision with a professional outlook. A faculty advisor who is paid to oversee an undergraduate organization, similarly to the situation in the Yale Glee Club and Yale Symphony Orchestra, could not only bring developments and increased credibility for professional exchanges, but also avoid problems of neglected transparency and monopolistic controls. For instance, a professional, with more time and experience, could promote more prudent vocal development and recruitment. For the first time in its history, OTYC provided some professional coaching assistance for its recent production of “The Magic Flute,” but further developments in this direction are pivotal, and a professional could coordinate further collaboration with members outside of the Yale community, as well as from the School of Music. Additionally, an experienced faculty member could better weigh the balance needed between providing students with important learning experiences and preparing productions that must impress an audience. Finally, this faculty member could also promote professional learning experience for undergraduates, without unnecessary social and time-consuming requirements.
In sum, universities such as Yale should continue to strongly support the performing arts industry, both at an academic level and by offering significant incentives for extra-curricular activities, so as to increase demand and learning opportunities aimed at semi-professional levels of achievement. With all its artistic inclinations, Yale should lead the way by offering a more structured outlook for developing the performing arts scene.
Claire Owen is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.