Recently in Arts Issues for Artists & Presenters Category
While there were many points that could be isolated for further discussion, one crucial theme was the need for arts organization to think big and not play it safe with their programming, despite the dismal economic climate. "If we all do Phantom of the Opera and Cats, it will be incredibly boring," Kaiser chuckled.
In that vein, I was interested in what an online commenter had to say in response to Lindsay Christians' 77 Square story about the event. (I encourage you to hop over there and read it, since I don't want to risk breaching online etiquette by re-running the whole thing here.) This nugget in particular (from the commenter "Woody") leapt out at me: "Ballet companies have succeeded in teaching their audiences that The Nutcracker is the only ballet in the repertoire and thus that ballet is only meant for kids."
This speaks to a larger issue: when is something a beloved local tradition and therefore valuable, and when has it become stale?
On the positive side, you could see this--especially where kids are concerned--as a natural, easy introduction to the world of the performing arts. One might hope that families that have a good time at Nutcracker or Carol will seek out other performances on the season schedule.
In fact, the 77 Square commenter makes the somewhat contradictory point that Nutcracker winds up subsidizing the rest of a company's season. So which is it: Nutcracker drives people away with its mind-numbing repetition, or it's a popular, commercial success that helps companies remain stable enough to offer less familiar fare during the rest of the season?
What's your take? Is there a place for an annual production of something as a beloved tradition? Or is that regularity, that "oh-here-it-is-again" quality stultifying?
I come at the arts primarily from a visual-art background, where this issue doesn't crop up in the same way (yes, you have Biennials, Triennials, etc., but you're not literally showing the same art each time). In the performing arts, do you feel that tradition is in conflict with innovation, or can they co-exist peacefully?
Nobody need wonder why, in Washington, the arts have become something of an embarrassment. The city--and the country--have never really recovered from the controversies that exploded around the NEA beginning in the late 1980s, when some Republicans decided to save the world from Robert Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit photographs and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, works which many liberals, while determined to defend the NEA, did not particularly care for, either. If there is any lesson to be learned from those hideous debates, it is that the danger when we talk about the relationship between the arts and the nation is that everybody all too rapidly descends into parochialism. There are the utilitarians, who are convinced that art education is important because it improves children's more general cognitive skills; there are the populists, who think that government is best off supporting bluegrass music and quilting; there are the cultural leftists, who believe that the government should embrace individual artists because they are society's renegades and outcasts; and there are the traditionalists, who want to give money to museums and symphony orchestras and thereby uphold canonical values. The main trouble with all these viewpoints is that they deny the inner integrity of the arts, which in truth are neither populist nor elitist, neither progressive nor conservative, but are in some mysterious way a part of the fabric of the nation.
A few weeks ago I took a look at the front page of Arts + Life, our Sunday features section in the Lexington Herald-Leader. There was a story about a double bill of plays by University of Kentucky Theatre, a piece about UK soprano Afton Battle in the national semifinal round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and, inside, a story about a new UK musical and operetta club.
A few nights later, I was in UK's Singletary Center to hear the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, and I noted that concertmaster Daniel Mason directs UK's string program, principal violist Joseph Baber teaches composition at UK, principal ... well, you get the idea.
Even when you're not dealing with a UK organization, there's a good chance there will be a tie to the university.
That is not to diminish the efforts of artists from other area schools. I'm reminded of folks such as Stephanie Pistello, a Transylvania University theater graduate who now directs the New Mummer Group in New York; John Ellison Conlee, who graduated from Centre College's theater program and went on to a Tony Award nomination for his performance in The Full Monty; and singers such as Corey Crider and Norman Reinhardt, who got their starts at Morehead State University and Asbury College, respectively, before filtering through grad school at UK on their way to burgeoning opera careers. We have a wealth of colleges and universities in Central Kentucky with substantial arts programs. And covering UK arts extensively is not a subversive effort at boosterism (my dirty secret: I was born and raised a Duke fan -- one of UK's mortal enemies in basketball).
There's something to be said for having a major land-grant university in your city. It elevates the possibilities for what you can do and what your community demands.
Michael Friedman, Jim Lewis and Steven Cosson (L-R) discuss This Beautiful City, the play they created about the evangelical community in Colorado Springs, Colo., which is part of 32nd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actor's Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Maggie Huber | Lexington Herald-Leader and LexGo.com.
Last week, I saw a performance of Lee Blessing's new play, Great Falls. It was an excellent piece of theater that belied the bells and whistles of so many shows today by focusing on two terrific, well-traveled actors under the guidance of a first-rate director.
And I was nowhere near New York City. Not even Chicago or San Francisco. I was in Louisville, a town most people only think about the first Saturday in May. But every year, somewhere around the last weekend in March, the Derby City becomes the center of the theater world with critics and theater professionals flocking in for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
The festival, which has launched critically acclaimed plays such as Crimes of the Heart, is now into its fourth decade. It has had its up years and down years, but with recent hits such as Dinner with Friends and Omnium Gatherum, people still come to Humana hoping to be among the first to discover the next great thing.
Nowadays, when people describe Humana, it's often compared to the Sundance Film Festival, another major arts (yes, it attracts glitterati, but most of its offerings are geared to the art houses) event that thrives outside of major mets. Look south to Charleston, S.C. (John, are you ready?) and we have Spoleto, a major arts festival with a schedule that will make you da-rool, da-rool.
Chatting with Jim Clark, the president and CEO of LexArts, the United Arts Fund here in Lexington, he pointed out that one of the common denominators of these and other major arts happenings outside of the cultural capitals of America is that they didn't have great infrastructure to launch. What they had was a great vision that serious and substantial work could be done right where they were. It's the kind of success that should make you look around and wonder what could happen, wherever you are.
This past week I've spent a lot of time researching for two books I'm working on. Both are college textbooks, one on hospitality housekeeping management and the other on the world of spas.
Turns out they're married and have kids and are pushing 40. So even though they remain high on style and don't know where (let alone how) to draw the line between business and leisure, they've settled down and are looking to nest wherever they travel. That drive reflects the times they came of age, when many of their Boomer parents divorced and many of their Boomer dads lost their jobs. No wonder they value community, connection and connectivity. No wonder it's de rigueur to appeal to their need for the total experience. No wonder product-driven marketing is so 2000."
Community, connection, and connectivity. And they're talking about business marketing and not art?
Later, the article says:
Hospitality marketing rarely addresses Gen X's complicated approach, Rach suggests. It also doesn't take into account this demographic's fine-tuned, ironic sense of humor. "They don't want advertising that tries to fool them or promises things that can't come from that product," she says, calling a recent campaign for Sprite that ordered, Obey your thirst, a successful marketing effort. "The idea was that if you were thirsty you needed to drink something, not that by drinking it you would become something.
Marketing in this industry tends to be extraordinarily product-focused, when what this generation is looking for is an experience based upon relationships," she says.
As one of those Gen X members who is pushing 40, this resonated. I have a finely tuned bullshit radar. Marketing that lies simply doesn't work. My generation grew up on commercials and learned early on that our toys didn't live up to the hype. What we look for really is about connection and community. We want to belong and we want to have meaningful, authentic relationships.
Authenticity is a word they don't address, but I would add to the list. Neither art nor advertising is an excuse for lies. If you're not real, if you're not authentic, then you're not likely to get our ear for very long. Once we figure out you're fake, you're done.
We have had several new theater groups spring up in the past ten years in Lansing, most of them founded by members of Generation X or those on the border. The ones that have succeeded are those that are committed to the ideas of connection and authenticity.
This past season I was wowed by a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch done by a relatively new group called Peppermint Creek Theatre Company. Later, when I was talking to someone about the show, they expressed the opinion that there was a generational difference in those who liked the show. I'm starting to come around to the view.
In many ways, it comes down to the idea of connections. Why would I, a Midwestern, white, middle-aged mom who grew up in the suburbs feel such a deep, strong connection to a character like Hedwig? Perhaps it is because I ignored the character's self-created hype and looked at the heart of the person being portrayed. Sure, I've never had a botched sex change operation, but I (and every other person on this planet) have struggled with issues of identity and self-definition. I've taken extreme actions to escape what seemed to be an inescapable situation only to learn that a little patience would have mitigated the problem. I've been disappointed that others don't see me the way I see me. These are the things that Hedwig is about far more than the bitterness a transgendered performer feels about having been left with a mutilated penis.
Hedwig is a powerful musical because it makes those connections with individuals. It doesn't arrogantly preach to the audience telling them that they're too obtuse to get it. If you don't like us, don't ask us to join in the experience of your art.
The show's director and artistic director have a deep respect for their audience, a respect that shows in every production they do. They're not preaching to an audience they think is hateful and stupid. They're inviting people they respect to engage in a dialogue about the world we live in.
It's not about the product. It's about the relationship.
Take a look at their season last year. They did The Pillowman, The Goat or Who is Sylvia, 9 Parts of Desire, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The plays include the torture of children, bestiality, war in Iraq, transgender issues, and theology.
It could have been disastrous. Had they been preaching from a pulpit in a contemptuously dismissive attitude, it would have been a failure. The audience would have soon figured it out and stayed away. Instead, Peppermint Creek begins with respect, a respect that is obvious in every interaction with them. They trust their audience to handle challenging topics and don't try to make a controversy out of every brave choice they make.
The result is that their houses were packed last year and they reaped multiple awards from everyone who gave them out. Despite the subject matter of their plays, I was never shocked at what I saw. I was engaged. I saw things that mattered to me and that stayed with me long after the play was over.
Theater has much to offer that Generation X wants. So why aren't they coming to the theater? Perhaps there needs to be a change in marketing focus for the arts world as well. Quit hyping the product. Tell us about your true value--the connections that we will make with each other and with the art form. Don't tell us what we'll get out of theater, because you have no way of knowing. Tell us instead, that there will be a unique experience every night because we will be a part of the creation. Invite us to come engage our brains and hearts in our community and trust us.
Theater is unique in what it offers. If it can find a way to focus on these connections rather than the product, who knows what revitalization it might find?
It's a topic for another blog entry, but a case might even be made that this is why there is such a ground swelling of theater throughout the country even while it stagnates in its traditional homes. Could it be because theater that is local is communicating the message of connection and community rather than the really great product that they're selling on their stage?
Last fall, my husband and I began playing a game with several diverse groups of friends. We tried to find five books that everyone in the group had read cover to cover (skimming didn't count)--and children's books were included. Most of the time, we couldn't do it.
One particular instance stood out to me. We were at a wedding reception and all of the people at the table were well-read, highly educated people who were involved in one way or another with the artistic community. Many of them had liberal arts degrees, a few were teachers. There was an age range of about 15 years, touching upon different generations but still close enough to expect that we would have similar cultural experiences. We were able to come up with only four books--most of them children's books though, oddly, the relatively obscure Maus was the one adult choice. (The others were "Tom Sawyer," "Green Eggs and Ham," and "Charlotte's Web.")
When my husband and I played the game alone, the list stretched longer that we were able to mentally keep track of. Part of what contributes to the strength of our marriage is that we have a huge foundation of shared ideas. We've spent most of our lifetime engaged in critical discussion about those ideas. This has given us a common vocabulary, a vocabulary that lets us share humor at life's events and to work intuitively together in times of crisis.
What's true for a marriage can be true for the wider society. It's part of the role that art plays. It gives us a common language to speak so that we can appreciate the admirable qualities of those we live with and enable us to work together when challenges are laid before the community.
I'd also venture an argument that it is why mass media has been so compelling. It brings people together and helps them form a commonality in experience and language. People easily slip into conversations about "Lost" or "American Idol" because they make the presumption that the people they are speaking to has seen it.
It's also the appeal of the Web because people can start a conversation by sending the link. It's far easier than buying someone a book, waiting for them to read it, and then having the discussion. It's even easier than listening to the radio, going to the movies, or watching television.
Art has struggled in recent years in part because it doesn't reach the masses of audiences that popular culture does nor does it have the easy accessibility of Web offerings. However, within its communities, it forms a far tighter bond because the experience tends to be of greater intensity. It also ties them more directly to people whose faces and voice they recognize.
Several years ago I attended an outdoor production of Shakespeare's Richard III at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. The scenes where Richard and Richmond extort their troops was done on opposite sides of the stage, switching back and forth between them. On this particular night, there had been a storm raging in and out. However, the audience stayed despite the pouring rain so the actors continued to perform. During that scene, while Richard talked of bad omens, the wind picked up and whipped his banner off its stick, blowing it away into a pile of water while Richmond's continued to wave proudly. Later, lightning cracked the sky above Richmond's troops as they marched in from the voms to the final, fatal battle. It was special effects by God that night.
Years later, anyone who was in that audience has an immediate connection to all others who were there. We may not know each other's names, but we talk about our shared experience with a passionate "remember when" that would rival any family reunion.
Also, those who hear the stories about live productions also get the chance to share in the experience and when the story is compelling and memorable enough, it becomes part of the shared culture that ties them to their neighbors.
It's one reason that I hesitate to measure art by the numbers. What happens with high art is important--even if it is not directly experienced by the masses or creating a profit that rivals other businesses or forms of entertainment. Art must be able to sustain itself because it, in turn, sustains the community and the people who live in it.
Our readers often inspire me as much as our colleagues. Something that resonated with me this week was Steve Durbin's comment on Joe Nickell's post. He said that "people work for their passions, as well as for money." I'd have to agree with him. I'm not sure there is anything other than passion worth spending one's life blood and precious time for. I know that one of the reasons I do corporate writing is to subsidize the type of writing that I want to do--including arts writing.
Someone whose work has long resonated with me is Dorothy Sayers. She once wrote a play dealing with the topic of work and why we do it. Given that she considered art to be her work, I find it particularly germane to the discussion that has been going on here. She argued that we need to "estimate work not by the money it brings to the producer, but by the worth of the thing that is made."
Certainly artists and journalists alike will often say that they are called to a higher purpose than simply a bottom line. I need to make enough money writing so that I can continue to write--which means feeding my family and paying my bills. I'm not writing so that I can get rich (I wouldn't complain if that were to happen, but that would be a pleasant side effect, not the end goal).
Many artists would tell you the same thing. They're not creating so that they can become filthy rich, they're creating because they have to. To not create would be to psychically damage themselves. There is economic necessity that must be met, but as Sayers promotes, payment should be that which allows people to continue doing the work that they're doing.
This is often at odds with the capitalist society we live in. It's certainly at odds with the exaltation of acquisition above all else. It's perhaps where art often suffers the most as it is difficult to "possess" a performance.
When I was very young, my father was careful to ensure that I could distinguish between political and economic systems--and, because it was in the midst of the Cold War and we attended what I later learned to be a very conservative church--that none of them were good or evil; they were just ways of doing things.
However, our culture doesn't always draw such fine distinctions and we often try to apply our economic system to our politics and our politics to our culture. Rather than allowing them to influence each other as part of an ecosystem, there is a tendency to force one system's philosophy upon the other, to believe that what works for one will work for all.
Art suffers when we force upon it the same economic model that businesses operate under. If their goal must be the making of money rather than the making of art, they're going to fail. This doesn't mean that artists can be oblivious to economic factors or lack in all business sense, but it does mean they must choose their model carefully. How they manage their finances will say something about who they are and whether their art will be sustainable.
Art has traditionally relied much on government support and money from individual and corporate donors. There is an understanding that not all art will be commercially viable and succeed only through the price paid by those who consume it. We've accepted this because there is a societal value that far outweighs the burden of cost that any individual can afford to bear.
Indeed, like education, society reaps the benefit of art even when it is not the direct consumer. My life is made better when my neighbor goes to the symphony, even if I do not. As a member of my community, I want to see our communal dollars support what benefits all of us. I want to live in a society where people share a commitment to creation and to connection. Those are things that will spill over into politics and economics. Those are the things that will bring about a better world.
At the NEA Institute last winter, Ben Cameron talked about how theaters make communities a healthier place. He quoted a study that said high school students who have been in a single play are 42 percent less likely to support racist behavior than those who have not.
If arts were to operate on a purely capitalist model that encourages greater consumerism, it would miss out on its higher calling and the calling that makes it truly relevant and of value to the community.
The money has to be there, but it can't be the reason or the goal. Rather it is the set piece which makes the play possible, not the story itself.
It's been going on since at least the 1980s and, judging from responses to a post I wrote last Monday, the debate rages on: Will new venues bring new art -- and new money -- to cities that currently suffer from outdated theaters and concert halls?
John Stoehr mentioned the controversy about plans in Savannah to spend $80 million in public money to build a new event arena. Deirdre Hanna mentioned the various capital improvement projects that city leaders in Toronto have been pushing, in hopes of making Toronto more of an architectural and artistic destination.
Here in Missoula, a group is pushing for an 1,800-seat multipurpose performing arts center smack in the middle of downtown. If completed, it would cost more than the last five major civic projects combined. Backers hope to convince taxpayers to fund this in part with a $20 million county bond.
As the arts reporter here in Missoula, I've followed the local story for several years. Heck, when I first started covering it, the people pushing the idea were saying they hoped to have the thing built by early 2007. But at this point, the group is facing an August deadline from the City Council (which has reserved one of the prime pieces of remaining downtown real estate for the project) to simply show that there is the potential to raise the money needed for the project. The group hasn't announced any actual, significant fundraising success to date.
The local performing arts center proposal has its own problems and challenges, some of which are unique to this place, some of which are unique to these people, and some of which are all too common for projects such as these.
But from what I can see, chief among the problems the backers face is that they haven't convinced anyone around here that a fancy new hall will really be supported, either by the ticketbuying public or by an increased quantity or quality of artistic presentations.
Missoula is still a long ways from nowhere. That creates a double-whammy for venues and promoters: It's hard to get shows here; and it's hard to get people to attend those shows. Unlike most American cities the size of Missoula, the population of the surrounding region is practically insignificant. My old haunt of Bloomington, Ind., may be about the same size as Missoula; but part of the reason it can attract a large number of major touring shows is that Indianapolis is just a hop down the highway.
I don't mean to get this conversation mired in the particulars of our local situation. But I do think Missoula is a somewhat extreme example of how the whole concept of "build it and they will come" is questionable in the world of the arts -- especially considering that, by the time we complete our "state of the art" performing arts center, some other community will be busy one-upping our achievement. In fact, groups in several Montana cities are engaged in the early stages of projects essentially identical to this one.
The whole thing begins to smell of an elaborate and expensive game of tail-chasing.
This past week, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra named its new music director after a two-year search that included a full season of auditions by five finalists for the position. Although commonplace among most American orchestras today, the search process was probably quite bizarre to locals, who had never before seen a full-time conductor vetted in such a way for the orchestra. (The last time a conductor was hired -- more than 20 years ago -- the job was still part of the duties of a professor at the University of Montana, who was hired through more traditional academic processes.)
The new conductor, Darko Butorac, is at 29 years old less than half the age of the previous conductor, Joseph Henry. He's also less than half the age of some of the members of the orchestra. The 6'4" conductor proudly notes he can dunk a basketball, and is a big fan of the Phoenix Suns.
This is, needless to say, a sea-change for the orchestra (the previous conductor once admitted to having heard OF the Rolling Stones, but was unable to name any of their songs).
There has been much attendant excitement throughout the interviewing and audition process, with good attendance at concerts and much media coverage. The orchestra has sounded markedly better, playing with an intensity and unity that wasn't previously the norm.
On Thursday, I attended an event welcoming our new conductor to the community. The mayor passed him a "baton" to the city, more than 100 people showed up (pretty good for a midweek morning in this small town), and the sense of a New Era for Missoula was palpable.
After the welcoming event, I walked to a nearby coffeeshop with a friend who plays in the orchestra. As we chatted, it emerged that he was preoccupied with a question that has likely crossed the minds of many in this town: What is the real potential for change, now that this new conductor is here?
Ostensibly, theoretically, the sky is the limit. But more realistically, there are issues both practical and philosophical that limit the local orchestra's ability to rise to world-class artistic status.
Like every small-town orchestra today, the first of these issues is the size of the orchestra's budget. Though I've never heard a member of the MSO complain seriously about the pay they receive -- which, in most cases, is less than minimum wage -- it's clear enough that the orchestra is unable to attract professional musicians to this town based on its compensation package; it must instead rely on the charity of whatever players are available and willing. Fortunately, the the University of Montana has a strong music faculty, stacked with pro-level players who are willing to play in the orchestra simply for the experience. However, that faculty can't fill an entire string section -- or even a flute section.
The bigger issue, however, is philosophical. The MSO remains fundamentally a community orchestra, meaning that part of its goal is to provide members of the community with an opportunity to play orchestral music. There are players in the orchestra who likely could pass no professional audition; but they are provided with the priceless opportunity to participate in the glorious experience of playing great classics of the repertoire through their participation in the MSO. These are our doctors and receptionists, our busboys and businesswomen. Some make up in extra effort and preparation what they lack in professional training and experience; but some simply can't.
Thus it's safe to say that, in the foreseeable future, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra will not rival the Berlin Philharmonic on purely artistic standards.
My friend in the orchestra wasn't frustrated by this limited potential of the orchestra. Rather, he seemed more worried about the unrealistic expectations of members of the community who might suddenly lose sight of what the orchestra is really about. He worried that a coinciding push for a new, multimillion-dollar performing arts center in Missoula might further feed the fervor.
He has a point. The value and success of this orchestra to this city cannot -- SHOULD not -- be gauged solely on its ability to play music flawlessly. Rather, its most important role is to engage the community in great music, draw it into interaction with the artistic process, and provide a forum for townspeople to share as actors and audience in the sacred social ritual of performance.
The Missoula Symphony Orchestra has a new leader. I just hope that boosters of the orchestra don't allow the buzz to obscure the true value of this band to this town.
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