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Smashing the iron rice bowl of arts

CHINA'S state-supported performing arts troupes are now directed to undertake market reforms and smart management and to support themselves as much as possible. That's hard for many traditional companies. Xu Wei reports.

These are challenging times, a period of transition, for many state-subsidized performance companies accustomed to a steady stream of funding from the central government, which traditionally guarantees operational costs and salaries.

The market reforms sweeping China, from industry to agriculture to medical care, have also impacted the cultural sector where profit has not been demanded for many years.

Ever since 2003, China has stepped up efforts to boost the reform of the cultural sector, which hasn't always been comfortable shifting to higher gear. To date around 123 state-owned art troupes, a drop in the ocean of the country's thousands of troupes, have become market-oriented companies, no longer supported by an iron rice bowl, according to the Culture Ministry. Some are entirely self-sufficient, some partially self-sustaining, needing less of a helping hand. Many are more creative and attuned to what their audience wants.

The reform push is to intensify in the next five years.

But for traditional art troupes - the intangible culture opera troupes, for example, with a small, aging fan base and few resources - turning a profit poses a huge challenge, if not a mission impossible. Many were traditionally led by celebrity actors with no business experience.

Marketing class

For Dong Dafa, the past 28 days have been "enlightening and refreshing," if also tough-going. The 30-something culture official from Chongqing Municipality has been attending the first market training course hosted by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

"It's been rewarding and will help me better adapt to a market-driven system," said the official from Chongqing's Administration of Culture, Radio Broadcasting, Film and TV.

He and around 40 other full-time art troupe staff from Chongqing learned about planning, promotion, stage management and funding of a performance, among other things.

"Although many performing troupes are being shifted to market-oriented systems, it takes time for us to adjust to a more competitive market and respond quickly to market conditions," Dong said.

In the past, the troupe leaders were usually celebrity actors who knew nothing about the market or management. They're like dinosaurs.

"Today what matters is whether troupes can leverage their talent pool to sustain the competitive advantage and maximize returns from the market," Dong said.

"The classes have helped change students' old notions of getting equal pay, regardless of their work, which is very common at state-sponsored performing art troupes," said Associate Professor Huang Yun-chin of the Arts Administration Department of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

"Some students are accustomed to applying for state subsidies before the performance project starts," Huang says. "We want to teach them how to make good use of their current resources, select and segment the market, and build long-term brand value."

Culture Minister Cai Wu has said that by 2012 all state-owned art troupes across the country should complete the market-based reform as China needs not only economic power, but cultural power as well.

In Shanghai, the market transformation is also under way in the Shanghai Media and Entertainment Group, according to Xu Xiaoming, president of SMEG Performing Arts Group. The actual status is difficult to gauge, however.

The group includes the Dramatic Arts Center, Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, Shanghai Farce Troupe, Shanghai Puppet Theater, Shanghai Light Music Orchestra and Shanghai Acrobatics Troupe.

"Without good marketing sense and efficient operations, state-sponsored theaters experienced hard times, particularly in the 1990s," Wu said. "We used to count audience members on one hand. This situation spurred us to come up with market strategies to bring people back to the theater."

With regular but not large government subsidies, the formerly state-owned troupes were limping along, not innovating or appealing to changing tastes. The new system is expected to give a shot in the arm to some old art forms.


Take the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe as an example. According to director Yu Yigang, in 2008 the 28 performers were encouraged to become shareholders in their newly created entertainment company. Their salaries were then closely connected with box office revenues.

"The performers who used to be passively waiting for an assignment started to think big," Yu said. "They spontaneously did market research, cost accounting and created new plays on their own. The new system has really increased their enthusiasm and creativity."

In 2007 the market-oriented troupe was already focusing on how to innovate in traditional theater.

The troupe tried a few experiments and created new acrobatic plays such as "Happy Circus" and "Huangpu Sensation." Unlike earlier performances, these have complete and clear marketing plans. "Happy Circus" transplants European and American clown comedy to China; the regular show is aimed at local children. "Huangpu Sensation," created in 2008, is aimed at tourists from China and abroad, it features romantic scenes from old Shanghai and water towns.

In the future the troupe plans to open magic clubs where contracted foreign and domestic conjurers can stage comedy and magic shows.

Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe now presents more than 800 performances a year, four times the number before the reform. Later this month it will present the multimedia show "Kaleido," sequel to the long-running "Era" at the renovated Shanghai Great World entertainment center.

Opera challenge

It may have been easier for acrobats to turn a profit since everyone likes a thrilling and fast-moving show. But for China's slower-moving arts, like traditional stylized, drawn-out operas - in which aging aficionados love the nuances - transformation has been laborious.

Since they were directed to focus on the market, they have been trying to nurture a large fan base - no mean feat when so many people want pop culture and "fast-food" entertainment. They don't want to spend a leisurely few hours in the theater.

Since 2007, Shanghai Peking Opera House and Kunqu Opera House have been hosting regular four-month "Follow Me" courses featuring lectures and demonstrations of performing skills by famous artists. More than 200 young enthusiasts have taken the course, a tiny number.

Both opera houses give young artists more freedom and encourage them to innovate. They seek opportunities outside the theater to showcase opera.

Still, there's no rush to see opera. Shanghai Peking Opera House and Shanghai Kunqu Opera House will continue to receive full state subsidies and support because they are considered important forms of intangible cultural heritage, according to their officials.

However, a market transfer for the Shanghai Yueju Opera House and Shanghai Huju Opera House has not yet been decided. Officials of the two troupes said they are not certain if they will continue to be state supported or urged to turn a profit.

They are worried that these regional art forms without big fan bases and financial support cannot sustain themselves in a market economy.

In recent years, Zhang Jun, the "Prince of Kunqu Opera," has spared no effort to revive the opera among young people and expats. Zhang quit as an official of the opera house last year and set up a private Kunqu Opera arts center, hoping to promote and experiment more freely.

He stages small, elegant operas in intimate settings to retain the original performing style in private homes or small court settings.

Zhang's wife, Pang Jie, says that when he quit many of their friends thought he was taking a big financial risk since he would not be guaranteed a stable salary.

"Nevertheless, he pursued his art dream, and in the past year we have gained a lot of experience in funding and market-oriented operations," Pang said. "We believe only the combination of business and traditional theater can lead to our final success."

Pan is optimistic they can make ends meet this year.

Zhang is not the only artist to strike out on his own to promote his art.

The "Prince of Yueju Opera," Zhao Zhigang, is leaving the Shanghai Yueju Opera House and opening an independent studio in Shanghai's neighboring Hangzhou City. He hopes to develop another audience base outside the city and give more young artists opportunities to perform.


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