The arts out here? More complicated than you think
I was a poor graduate student studying Shakespeare's comedies, sitting in a muggy apartment in Cincinnati, and probably smoking an "ultra light" cigarette, when I got the call. "It's so beautiful here," she said. "You would love it, John. They have seashells in the sidewalks."
My future wife, Gretchen, had just won an audition with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra. Now, flushed with that post-audition glow, she was falling in love with this old port city's 18th-century architecture, stately squares, live oaks, Spanish moss and penchant for decorating concrete with oyster shells. Like many old cities in the South, it was all about the charm.
Over the next year, we would end up living in two different cities, but we felt it was worth it. The disproportion of the number of orchestral musicians in the U.S. to the number of jobs for them is huge. When you win one, you don't turn it down, no matter how meager, which this was. Besides, Savannah, situated on a bluff on Georgia's subtropical coastal plain, and affectionately nicknamed the Hostess City, was 20 minutes from the beach.
Three years later, facing a $1 million-plus deficit, the management for the Savannah Symphony Orchestra stopped operations. Within days, there was talk of Chapter 7 bankruptcy, meaning complete liquidation of assets. A month later, there were pleas to the "community," meaning the city's "patron class," to give $450,000 to bail out the SSO. By April, it was over.
The SSO's collapse was one of six orchestra bankruptcies in 2003, many resulting from shockwaves still reverberating through the post-September 11 marketplace. San Jose, San Antonio, Tulsa, Colorado Springs and South Florida all saw their orchestras fall apart. All, however, have reformed in one way or another. All, that is, except the Savannah Symphony.
Such is the life of art in the American Outback, the area of the country between the Boston-New York-Philly-D.C. megalopolis and the cities along the West Coast. As the arts and culture reporter for the Savannah Morning News, I have witnessed numerous occasions when artists pour their hearts into something just to see it misunderstood, undervalued or taken away.
But a life in the arts here -- whether doing it, observing it or consuming it -- is not all tragedy. There are enough TV news anchors lamenting the decline of high culture to last a long, long time. Here in "Flyover," we don't do that. Instead, we look at the arts in the American Outback as they really are, and what they really are is far more complicated than you'd think.
You see, even without an orchestra, classical music is alive in Savannah. Orchestras from Atlanta, New York, Charleston, Jacksonville and Hilton Head Island (a golf resort off South Carolina's coast) performed here regularly. We have two chamber ensembles, one even employing former SSO members. We have a wonderful music festival every year that brings to town the likes of the Beaux Arts Trio, Frederica Van Stade and the Emerson String Quartet.
So while the Savannah Symphony Orchestra may gone, the art isn't. If the nearly 50-year-old institution had survived, it would have meant channeling loads of cash, time, man-power and good will into a $3 million-per-year operation with a dismal track record of illness and near-death when that $3 million could have been spent in ways far more beneficial to classical music.
The SSO suffered from just about every symptom you can imagine -- a weak administration, poor financial planning, an aging audience, impotent fundraising and a kind of clubby air among a bloated board of directors (more than 40, not including auxiliary groups) that you'd more likely expect to see in the myriad retirement communities around here. Add to that an attitude among board members toward musicians that verged on, as a veteran consultant familiar with the SSO's problems told me, a "plantation mentality."
"It was the worst management-labor relationship I have ever seen," he said.
If the SSO were able to come back, it would be an example, I think, of what researchers at the Rand Corporation recommended against in their controversial 2005 study, "Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts." They argue for less supply-side thinking in the arts -- putting on, say, yet one more season of hit tunes by Beethoven in a huge, expensive, intimidating-to-the-average-joe concert hall -- and more demand-side thinking in which a taste for classical music is cultivated individually in schools and community centers.
Savannah, like most cities in the Outback, has only so many arts benefactors to go around. Most of Savannah's major power-brokers who were also symphony supporters have now pledged their allegiance to the local art museum, the Telfair Museum of Art. Since the SSO bankruptcy, they have raised $25 million for a new building designed by starchitect Moshe Safdie and another $13 million for the museum's endowment.
That's because the Telfair is run by a staff of professional administrators, it has a strict budget and it generally knows what it's doing. It also has some of the most aggressive arts education and outreach programming in the city, just what the Rand report suggests is the best thing arts groups can do for themselves: namely, encouraging people while they are young to value art.
Though the SSO's death wasn't good for musicians, including my wife, perhaps it will in the final analysis be good for the arts, even if it's not necessary classical music. The SSO couldn't nurture a new audience, but the Telfair seems to be demonstrating an ability to do just that. What's better? An orchestra or people who have access to and appreciation of the arts?
These are the challenging questions we face as journalists working in the American Outback.
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program