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February 2, 2008

TT: When lowbrows subsidize highbrows

My "Sightings" column in today's Wall Street Journal is about the Atlanta Symphony's decision to build a 12,000-seat suburban outdoor amphitheatre--in which classical music will rarely be performed. Instead the orchestra plans to book rock acts and Broadway shows into the new facility, then use the proceeds to underwrite its regular concerts and pay off its accumulated debt. Is that up-to-the-minute thinking for a post-highbrow age, or a decision the members of the Atlanta Symphony will live to regret?

Here's a sample:

By opting to acknowledge long-term demographic trends and follow its patrons to the suburbs, the Atlanta Opera helped to chart a course for what may well be the future of the arts in America. The Atlanta Symphony, by contrast, is acknowledging another, less encouraging aspect of that future, which is that fewer and fewer Americans seem to care for the fine arts. That's not true across the board--opera is drawing bigger crowds than ever before--but studies like the National Endowment for the Arts' recent "To Read or Not to Read" survey point to an overall decline in public interest in high culture....

That's why the ASO is opening Encore Park. If you can't make ends meet by selling tickets to classical concerts, why not sell tickets to rock concerts and use the proceeds to underwrite the classical end of your business? It makes sense on paper, and it's worked before. That's how the classical-recording business operated a half-century ago, when a label like Columbia would use part of the profits from its pop releases to cover the losses of its Masterworks classical division. The assumption was that great recordings of the classics by artists like Leonard Bernstein and Rudolf Serkin would sell enough copies over the long haul to pay for themselves--and that's just what happened. But then the major record labels were swallowed up by multinational corporations and had to justify the low short-term profits of their classical releases to their investors. That's when crossover was born, followed shortly thereafter by the decimation of the classical recording industry.

Might the same thing happen to fine-arts institutions like the ASO that seek to pay for their highbrow activities by getting into the pop-culture business? The answer is that it's already happening. Regional symphony orchestras and theater companies are increasingly finding themselves squeezed off the stages of performing-arts centers by high-grossing Broadway road shows....

Read the whole thing here.

Posted February 2, 2008 12:00 AM

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