Thursday, January 20, 2005

Is There An Arts Crisis?

In the political front, the Republicans have put the Reform of Social Security as an immediate and urgent concern of their current administration, and the Democrats, at least a groundswell of them, have launched a multi-pronged attack at refuting the idea that there is any type of crisis in Social Security.

The Arts, more specifically the performing arts, have been suffering quite a bit in recent years. This has led to a slight polarization of attitudes in arts journalism. A conservative faction that frames the argument in the terms of "there is no real crisis," and the liberal faction which would have you believe the sky is falling.

In Boston we are fortunate in that we are going through somewhat of boon in new performing spaces opening. But just in case we see those as any sure sign of healthier days on the way, just peruse some articles on the web concerning places like the ACT in Seattle, or TheatreVirginia. The blessings of new spaces often result in nightmarish Twilight Zone-Monkey’s Paw scenarios for the organizations christening them.

A couple of recent articles show how even seeming supporters of the Arts are asking tough questions. Seattle Weekly’s Roger Downey has a scathing, Corporate Capitalist screed about how letting Arts institutions fail is actually healthy for the arts themselves. Downey is harsh, and the following quote makes you flinch with either indignation or self-realization:

"We've forgotten, or been taught to forget, that whatever its social or spiritual value, art is a business like any other. When a fine restaurant closes its doors, we may regret its passing, but we don't try to set up an endowment to keep it open; when a plumber goes out of business, we assume the plumber must have
ignored the bottom line and hit the Yellow Pages to look for another. Even individual artists are expected to live by the economic rules that govern all the rest of us…"

Downey outlines some of the methods which Art’s organizations are turning towards in order to stay alive, including corporate partnerships and mergers. He rightly sees though, in these seemingly shrewd alliances, that these methods may only succeed in a watering down and dissipation of Art itself:

"Whether you happen to think these developments were inevitable or not, they have taken place, and they have consequences, not all of them economic. Organizations do not create art. Artists create art, and with the best will on both sides, it often turns out that the organizational machinery meant to support and foster creativity ends up stifling it. After a while, gilded mediocrity begins to seem the best to be expected."

True as that may be, Mr. Downey, however, leaves little other choice for the organizations. He certainly doesn’t see Arts Organizations as entitled to any sort of public money. In boxing in the options of Arts Organizations of he is supplanting his original thesis laid out in his earlier examples. I mean, a plumber may go out of business, but Downey, being the good Corporate Darwinist he is, would surely not fault the man for trying to use every means possible to stay in business. Though I am positive he was rabidly against it, could Downey really fault the masterstroke of the Airlines in getting a government bailout?

The article gets incredibly wry at the end, with a sneering little series of jibes:

"How long can the game continue? As long as someone's willing to pay the bills, as long as art is allowed a privileged status, as long as people continue to believe supporting the United Way and supporting Seattle Opera or Pacific Northwest Ballet are equivalent activities."

And when he asks the reader to consider the worst case scenario—(For Bostonians the Equivalent of the BSO or the ART or Huntington folding,) like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, he tries to dispel us of our pipe-dreams:

"But beyond red faces, how much would it matter? A great deal to a few, most of all the artists newly unemployed; to many more, a regrettable reduction in the agreeable routine of middle-class life; and to a great many, very nearly nothing at all."

What is his solution? Resignation? What is his argument? And to whom is he directing it? Does he mean to convince people that if they feel that the arts are important enough to society to warrant government funding, they are foolish?

Deep in his heart, I believe he is of the mind that in the end, it is healthier for artists to be starving:

"Art continues to be made, perhaps in a quite different form, by quite a different kind of artist; to be made without subsidy from anyone but the artists themselves, who can no more stop making it than a spider can stop spinning webs."
This is the familiar battle cry of, "Artist’s must suffer to create great art." You may recognize its conjoined corporate twin, the whisper of "when lean and mean, organizations get more creative." Even worse, we hear echoes of it in Donald Rumsfeld’s unfortunate response to a soldier’s question as to why they have to pick through trash heaps to armor vehicles. "You go to war with the army you have!"
Well, Fast Company magazine had an article a couple of months ago that dispelled some of the myths of creativity, and one of the biggest is that people are more creative under pressure, fear, or during and after downsizing.

Now, the Opinion Journal gives a positive picture of the arts thriving in Suburbia. Nope, nothing wrong here!
"’What's happening is that the power base is shifting to the suburbs--they have the political and economic power to get what they want,’ observes Neal Cuthbert, arts program manager for the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation. He points to a ‘quiet arts revolution’ taking place in the region's hinterlands, including major arts developments in Anoka, Hopkins and Minnetonka, as well as a new $7.2 million arts project in suburban Bloomington, home to the massive Mall of America."

Although, I have often thought that the suburbs may be the solution to starting a theatre revolution, I can’t help shaking The Stepford Wives Syndrome that sends chills up and down my spine when I consider it. However, one can’t deny the eroding of the myth that the urban folk represent the consumer base of art anymore.

A recent marketing study of the Broadway theatre scene, recapped in Backstage, showed that most of the people who go to see shows are out-of-towners. The survey also shows, disturbingly, that though the overall ticket revenue is up on the Great White way is up, the statistics show that, "In a sign of just how difficult it has become to mount plays on Broadway, 10.02 million people saw a musical last season, a new record, versus the 1.57 million who saw a play, the lowest figure in almost a decade."

I wish there were some Off-Broadway numbers to peruse as well. But is it possible that the generally accepted idea of urban dwellers as being the primary performing arts audience is crumbling? And as city streets get harder and harder to negotiate and parking fees rise higher and higher , will a critical mass be reached. Would a civic arts center placed at say the junction of I95 and I93 or I93 and I495 be more profitable for touring productions of Wicked or Phantom of the Opera, or even Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker? However, would it be good for the Art?

Lastly, a recent article by Michael Billington of the Guardian heralds that the solution is "Who Dares Wins!"

The companies that are succeeding, in Billington’s estimation, are the ones who take the most risks, and present new work. He lauds the track record of Chichester Festival Theatre. However, just as you find yourself getting inspired, Billington slips in, (almost subliminally,) the enraging line, "It's an approach made possible only by subsidy, and Chichester currently gets £1.8m from the Arts Council and local authorities."

So this little triumvirate of articles comes full circle back to subsidy, and we start over again with the Downey principle of starve them into creativity.

So, is there a crisis? Value has been a popular word in Ben Cameron’s editorials in the front pages of American Theatre over the last few years. But what exactly does it mean?

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