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.

June 13, 2007 9:00 AM | | Comments (3)

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3 Comments

It strikes me now, Mike, that I missed the heart of your comment, which was about leadership and organization: "Who is taking the lead in making sure that the $3 million no longer flowing to the perhaps deservedly defunct SSO is now finding its way to some more promising local effort(s) to regroup, rebuild, learn from past mistakes and provide a strong local focal point for classical music?" My answer is that there is no leader and there are no promising groups. In other words, there is no one person or group of people to ensure money previously spent on the SSO goes to some other worthy group. The SSO's adminstration disbanded and mostly left town. Board members have become involved in other pursuits, one being a charitable music education group. Most of the SSO's former audience base now simply goes out of town to see concerts or tries to bring regional orchestras to town (that's how the Jacksonville Symphony got here). It's cheaper in their eyes than paying millions to maintain an institution. I've written about this kind of "outsourcing." Go to my personal blog at johnstoehr.wordpress.com and search for "outsourcing." What's missing on the part of these folks is a sense of civic obligation, a sense that an orchestra is good for the city and its people. Somewhere in the midst of the SSO being a social occasion, the orchestra board forget about that notion. If they had that sense, there might be more hope for a re-formed orchestra. The worst blow, however, is that most of the 38 orchestral musicians are gone. They found work and lives elsewhere. The talent pool is now so shallow that even the admirable efforts of the Savannah Sinfonietta suffer from being padded with amateurs or college students. Only an influx of cash and a renewed organization infrastructure would entice quality musicians to relocate to Savannah. As painful as it is for me to say, I doubt that will happen any time soon.

I don't know where the $3 million went, because it came mostly from private sources. My guess is that a lot of it went to the Telfair Museum of Art and the Savannah Music Festival, two organizations that have made the case that they are worth investing in. Money that did come from public sources was redirected into other classical music organizations, especially the one I mentioned in my post. It's called the Savannah Sinfonietta and it's about as close to a new orchetral-type group as we've gotten. But is not, thus far anyway, a replacement for the institutional gravitas of the SSO. I think your distinction is exactly right. Touring groups come, but then they're gone, with no lingering impact on the local community. No one here is waiting for an outside group to make classical music healthy again. My point was that the art itself is doing OK (audience are buying tickets; children are still being bussed in to hear concerts). Even without the touring groups, classical music is still alive, though hardly thriving, because it's still being taught in the local colleges and still being taught in the local public schools (at least in this county; others are not as fortunate).

Art won't flourish long in a community if artists in all genres aren't at least surviving and being given a platform to emerge as leaders and recognized talents. You need good local examples to foster and inspire creativity, as well as the community pride that inspires arts patronage. You need people who are there every day and not just touring big city groups dropping in, earning their fees, and moving on to the next stop. If the local arts scene is ailing, for whatever reason, sitting back and waiting for it to be provided from the outside makes you the equivalent of a chaotic Third World country relying on sacks of foreign aid grain. You may not starve, but you will lack dignity and you will not have a chance to progress. Who is taking the lead in making sure that the $3 million no longer flowing to the perhaps deservedly defunct SSO is now finding its way to some more promising local effort(s) to regroup, rebuild, learn from past mistakes and provide a strong local focal point for classical music?

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