Article by Huizhong Wu (left) and Yufan Zheng (right). Huizhong is a first-year student in the MAAA at SPEA. Yufan is a second-year student in the MAAA-MPA program at SPEA and currently works as the International Student Services Graduate Assistant for the MAAA program.
Tianjin, or Tientsin, is a “metropolis in northern coastal Mainland China and one of the four national central cities of the country”. Tianjin Grand Theater costs 1.533 billion RMB ($230million ) to build and was completed and put into use in 2012. Tianjin government then held a bidding to contract out Tianjin Grand Theater. Qudong Culture Communication Co.Ltd won the bid and got 5-year rights to manage this theater. Besides Tianjin Grand Theater, it also runs Haerbin Grand Theater and Tianjin Music Hall. Cheng Qian is the CEO of this company. However, in this year’s second bidding, Qudong didn’t win. Tianjin Grand Theater will be run by another company – Poly Theatre Management Co.Ltd for the next 5 years.
Tianjin Grand Theatre:
Poly Theatre Management Co., Ltd.:
Grand Ambitions for Tianjin’s Grand Theater
In my opinion, Tianjin Grand Theater sticks to top-notch performances of various genres, yet sometimes, it gives people the impression that certain plays are only there to serve a minority of audience or a certain group of them. If the Theater were in Beijing, it might sustain with the current development model. After all, Beijing has a more established audience base. The problem is, the theater is located in Tianjin, a city close to Beijing yet it can be more or less called a “performing art desert”. The production of Tosca in 2013 was the first opera performed in Tianjin since 1978. With a weak audience base, it takes time for Tianjin to engage more audience.
Now let’s take a look at the positioning of Tianjin Grand Theater: “To keep pace with the latest trend of world art”, and let the Grand Theater be a window connecting the theater lovers with the world. In its operation plan for the second term, the aspiration is to “become China’s Lincoln Center and Metropolitan Opera and to make Tianjin a city of high art like Avignon and Edinburgh” is mentioned. All of the above sounds exciting and is filled with the operator’s genuine love for theater, and yet the reality is not that optimistic. For example, in May 2016, 60 to 70% of the audience that watched the Lithuanian play Heldenplatz were out-of-towners, meaning that there was not enough local audience. There are mainly two reasons that attract out-of-towners to the Theater: The first is that many performances are only available in Tianjin Grand Theater; The second is that since 2013, the Tianjin Municipal Government would provide 15 million RMB annually to subsidize arts and cultural programs as means to directly give the audience discounts for tickets.
If the operator of Tianjin Grand Theater has been running it as a high-end boutique over the past 5 years, then Poly Group will make it one of its chain stores. The two operators have vastly different models. Now that Poly Group has won the bid, the biggest concern now is whether Poly, a theater chain company, will bring more homogenous performances to the Theater than its predecessor. Once non-local audiences, especially those from Beijing realize that they can watch the same performances in their home cities, they will not bother coming to Tianjin. The loss of non-local audience is going to have a significant impact on the Theater. According to an interview with an audience member from Beijing, “During major events such as Cao Yu International Festival and Lin Zhaohua Theater Arts Festival, the seats can be filled. However, when there are no festivals, few people come to the main theater, not to mention other smaller ones.” Furthermore, as a theater run by a private enterprise, it might be difficult for Tianjin Grand Theater to develop into an organization like Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera. That’s because the two American performing arts centers are non-profit organizations, and their funding mechanism and operation model is quite different from that of Tianjin Grand Theater.
The tragedy of Tianjin Grand Theater is the tragedy of idealists. The operator does love the theater very much and he really wants to bring something fresh and different to the theater world in Tianjin and China at large. He plans to serve the public with outstanding performances and generate economic benefits through social benefits. However, the current model is only throwing money away in the name of love and it won’t work in the long run.
Admittedly, Tianjin Grand Theater is an ambitious theater, however, it is almost impossible for this performing arts organization to operate only from the box-office revenue. They usually cannot be responsible for their own profit and loss. In the past 5 years, even with the Tianjin government’s strong support, Tianjin Grand Theatre still had deficits under Qudong’s management. It is admirable that Qudong, as a for-profit company, tried to fulfill the mission that was supposed to be taken care by nonprofit organizations, but it also needs to be criticized.
It is the arts administrator’s job to balance artistic choices and making a profit. Qudong did well in the former part, but had some insufficiency in the latter part. Most of the programs that Cheng Qian, the CEO of Qudong, presented in these years had high artistic value, and the goal of Tianjin Grand Theater was also to be the leading performing arts venue in China. This goal is full of ambitions, but not realistic. Generally, the performances in Tianjin Grand Theater didn’t have high attendance, and many of the audience are theatergoers from Beijing rather than Tianjin. In addition, it’s important to know that Tianjin Grand Theater cost 1.5 billion yuan (230 million dollars) to build, and each year it received more than 10 million yuan (1.5 million dollars) from the government. These subsidies were directly reflected in the ticket price, so most audiences only pay 50% of the “original price”. However, under such circumstances, Tianjin Grand Theater still faced deficits. As the result, it is not surprising that Qudong didn’t win in the government’s bidding this year.
One of the important reasons that Tianjin Grand Theater had low attendance was that its programming does not quite match the demand of Tianjin citizens. Most of them don’t appreciate such kind of western arts. However, this venue was built and supported by the Tianjin government to serve local residents. Therefore, is it acceptable that Tianjin Grand Theater focuses only on pursuing high Western art rather than the local residents’ interests?
Assuming that this is a non-profit organization, the Tianjin Grand Theater has failed to serve its community. However, as a for-profit company, it also failed to maximize its profit. In contrast, Poly presented 6800 performances in 2016, and the attendance exceeded 7.5 million people. Obviously, Poly has a more complete operation model. The shows presented by its 54 theaters across the country may not have the highest quality, but they are more popular. In addition, Poly also adjusted its programs for different consumer groups and places, in order to fit in different local culture. Generally speaking, it is undeniable that Poly has played an important role in enriching people’s cultural life and encouraging the development of arts industry in China. Therefore, it is not necessarily a bad thing that Tianjin Grand Theater will be run by Poly the next year.
Cheng Qian might be a good artistic director, but not a great CEO. His spirit of self-sacrifice — using his own money to maintain the operation of the theater –might be worth for one organization, but will do more harm than good to the entire industry. In the long-term, the development of the arts industry requires the cultivation for the audience about the value and significance of the arts, which will eventually get more people to care about and donate in the arts. Encouraging for-profit companies that rely on government funding to present performances that are not widely appreciated by the public is not the best development model. However, while non-profit organizations just started emerging in China, it is reasonable to let a well-developed company operate the theaters. All in all, with the strong support of the government and the constant experimental operation model and organization structure that conducted by various companies, I believe it will eventually yield the best way to promote and present arts in China.
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