main: February 2008 Archives
Joe has raised an interesting issue--one that I would love to do further research on. In fact, I'd love to find a graduate student willing to do some in-depth quantitative research about theater as a career in flyover communities.
For a long time, all I ever heard was that if you wanted to make money in theater, you had to go to Chicago or New York. Lately, I've been wondering if that still holds true. Granted, you're unlikely to become rich or famous working in Michigan. Yet, there has been plenty of interesting anecdotal evidence in which people are moving back to Michigan to pursue theater and arts-related careers because this is where they want to live.
This despite the fact that we've had some pretty rough years as far as arts funding from the government goes. In fact, "pretty rough" is an understatement.
That said, in the past few years, two new Equity houses have opened in the state and I've talked to many performers who are choosing to stay here to make their living. Most of those people are those who can also teach--either at schools or in studio settings. They're also people who are versatile and willing to do commercial and industrial work.
My curiosity is aroused now: What does it take to make a livable career in theater and what sacrifices to you make to do so?
It is with great excitement and delight, I must say, that I'm grateful to be able to join the fray of my fellow flyovers and contribute here at ArtsJournal. I have to admit that a recent show just opened at Duke University's Nasher Museum - "Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool" - brings a much needed cosmopolitan jolt to the Triangle art scene and almost has me feeling like I'm in a non-Flyover location at present. Well, almost.... The fact Barkley has his very own Superman painting in there makes me especially interested to check it out... will report back with further superheroic gallery-going adventures ASAP
Now that Ashley Lindstrom has broken the ice as the newest Flyover blogger, please allow me to bow in. I'm Rich Copley, culture writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader, primarily covering performing arts and film.
That is a gig I am proud to say, as of March 9, I will have had for 10 years. Like a lot of young writers, when I took the job, I thought we'd be here three-to-five years and then off to a bigger town with bigger theaters, orchestras and all that. But, in the intervening time, my wife and I had a second child, we settled into jobs and schools, and we are now buying our second house in Lexington. We've stayed. And that hasn't been hard to do. The Bluegrass is one of the most beautiful regions of the country, and Lexington is a place where you can kind of set your pace. It's a small city or a big town, depending on how you look at it, and there are lots of ways to look at it.
Professionally, this job continues to be intriguing and exciting.
About a month ago, Orange County Register blogger Paul Hodgins wrote a post about his conversations with various theater professionals around the Los Angeles area.
His findings are no real surprise:
Those who bemoan the state of American theater should consider this sobering fact: even for its most successful playwrights and directors, it's a world without money or security.
Of course, Hodgins bases what he says on the anecdotal evidence he sees around Orange County and L.A.
Which makes me wonder: Is it better, or worse, in smaller cities around the country? My gut tells me worse; there's certainly no-one in my town of Missoula making a living as a freelance theater professional. In fact, even here -- more than 1,000 miles from Los Angeles -- the only folks I know making a living by writing scripts or acting do pretty much all their business in Hollywood.
But I also know that life in Missoula is a lot less expensive than in L.A. (just ask the scads of transplants who come here every year to get away from the big city, pushing up local housing prices....Not that I'm BITTER or anything...grrrr).
And as a journalist, I had an eye-opening conversation with a senior Chicago Tribune reporter a year ago in which it became clear that my standard of living here is actually no worse and in some ways infinitely better than his.
Journalists aren't theatricals, of course. But I do wonder, can people make a decent living acting, directing, and/or writing plays outside the major metro hubs in America?
Yesterday afternoon, I saw a production of Miss Evers' Boys.
It was one of those plays that gives you a lot to think about afterward. One of the things that most struck me was this: While the play portrayed Miss Evers in a highly sympathetic manner and helped me to understand why should would make the choices that she made, it didn't change my feeling that her choices were wrong.
In many ways, this was the beauty of the play. It provided all the shadings of gray to help us see beyond the easy outrage that gives people easy deniability ("I would never do such a thing!"). However, even while offering an explanation, it didn't try to justify. Yes, there were lots of shades of gray, but using people as guinea pigs and denying them access to the penicillin that would cure them is still wrong.
I'm Ashley Lindstrom, associate editor at San Antonio's alt-weekly newspaper The Current, and newly recruited Flyover blogger. I'm totally psyched to be "holding down the southern front," to quote Mr. Nickell, the person kind enough to invite me to join the ranks after we met at this year's NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater.
A little about me: I've been criticizing theater and film at The Current for just over two years (and other things for, I don't know, ages). Although SA is the seventh-largest city in the US -- with an incredible basketball team, ahem -- it's got a small-town attitude. This characteristic has its pros and cons: Folks are plenty warm and friendly, but we're still working on becoming a hotspot for creative-types. I cover about four to five theaters regularly, and film is another beast entirely: We're always the last market to get those limited releases. And press junkets? Fughetaboutit.
Once a year, though, Central Texas crawls with filmmakers of a slightly more national reputation. (Yes, even more national than SA-born Robert Rodriguez.) And flyover folks like myself finally get to talk to them about their work. That time is rolling around: The South by Southwest Film Festival begins on March 7. OK, so I'll have to drive to Austin for it ... and my inbox will be crammed with messages from promoters ... and I'll be virtually begging for passes for contributors. But is it worth it? In a word: Yes.
More on the wonderful world of Central Texas arts to come ... I've got a screening to catch ...
I'm standing in a crease between two towering folds of brushed stainless steel, looking up. A wall of glass fills the seam, partially reflecting the cold glint of metal and city lights outside, simultaneously revealing the warm glow of welcoming light and blond wood inside the building. Rooted in my tracks, gawking, I know I look like a tourist, and I just don't care.
I'm supposed to do this, of course - supposed to be overwhelmed with awe as I walk through the doors of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the most audacious work of architecture in the extravagant history of Los Angeles and the most paradigm-busting concert hall built anywhere in the world during the past generation. A few minutes later, standing inside the lobby, I watch through the glass as a well-dressed couple stops outside the front door and repeats my heavenward gaze.
Can you see what I see, feel what I feel? No, of course; you can't. To twist a familiar truism, writing about architecture is like dancing about music. Words can't create the experience itself - especially when the experience involves Disney Hall. Great architecture, like a great concert performance, demands first-hand engagement for real appreciation.
Typically, I'm a fairly quick writer. Once the research for my column is done and I've done my pre-writing thinking, I'll spend about a half hour to 45 minutes writing the piece.
However, I've lately felt like I'd fallen into a rut, so I've been taking my Sunday evenings and trying to spend more time with each story.
This past Sunday night, I'd worked on the one half of my column for a couple of hours, writing and rewriting until I finally had something that I was happy with. My husband came downstairs from a nap and I proudly read my lead aloud to him and asked for his opinion.
His reply was short: "It's turgid and heavy handed."
I sighed, re-read it and had to agree that he was right. I thought back to Dominic Papatola's admonition at last year's Institute that if we're in love with a sentence, then we need to cut it because we're too captivated with our own voice.
So back I went and rewrote some more. By the time I finished, the copy was much cleaner and far more focused on the dance concert rather than on how cleverly I could turn a phrase.
It made me realize how fortunate I was to have in my home a critic who would be honest with me rather than simply telling me what I wanted to hear. He said what needed to be said for me to improve my craft rather than to stroke my ego.
Isn't that what we do as critics as well? Don't we serve a far better purpose for theater (or any other art) when we are painfully honest rather than gently reassuring? It's something I have to remind myself of frequently.
Is it really any wonder that Alan Hopper, the executive director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, announced he was leaving?
The news comes a month after his administration led a nine-week lockout of the orchestra's musicians, a lockout that was clearly intended to force musicians to accept a series of pay cuts over the next five years.
Hopper is leaving no doubt because the whole thing was a mess, a debacle, a publicity nightmare. When the musicians wanted to negotiate, he said no. When they wanted to perform, he said no. When he, the board, and the musicians were just shy of an agreement in December, he was at the head of a charge to cut off health-care for the musicians just when everybody else was feeling the holiday spirit.
Of course, Hopper isn't alone. Obviously, the person he answers to is also accountable in this mess. But no one is going to ask Jim Van Vleck to step down as the chair of the board of directors. He's one of the most active fund-raisers and a go-to guy in Jacksonville's old boy network.
Van Vleck's job in raising funds was more much more difficult with a mess like the lockout on his hands. What philanthropist in his or her right mind would like to be seen as someone abetting the cancellation of other people's health-care (during Christmas, for Chissakes!) or being involved a labor contract battle that might be illegal?
At the same time, the mayor, as a member ex-officio of the board of directors, got tangled in the quagmire. That was thanks to Van Vleck, not Hopper. The board chair sent a letter to Mayor John Peyton explaining that the orchestra had $3 million of debt that needed to be addressed and the only way to do that was for the musicians to take a pay cut.
Of course, Van Vleck failed to tell His Honor, and His Honor failed to remind Van Vleck publicly, that it's the job of board members and their administrations (i.e., Hopper), to raise whatever money is needed to maintain operations.
In other words, it's the not the job of musicians to worry about budgets.
On top of all this, there was speculation that the $3 million deficit continually cited in the Christmas Lockout didn't exist.
Some in the industry called for an independent audit of the orchestra's books to verify the administration's claims.
Someone's head had to roll and that someone was Hopper. No surprise there.
Unfortunately, changing leadership might fix the symptoms, but not the illness.
How to rebuild an economically languishing community's identity around the arts? Well, here's one solution: Build a place for artists to live and work.
The city of Ventura, Calif. has apparently sunk millions into the project, which will combine "54 affordable housing units for artists and their families, 15 'supportive' apartments for people facing severe poverty and trying to end their homelessness, and 13 ocean-facing, market-rate condominiums likely to fetch upwards of $850,000," plus "a gallery-theater, park and arts-related commercial space."
Reminds me of the old joke....
Q: What do you call a drummer without a girlfriend?
...unless, of course, he lives in Ventura!
Yes, it's contest season for us daily newspaper reporters, the time of year when we break out the glue-sticks and tape to assemble our personal best-of work from the past year, in hopes that someone, somewhere, will give us the thanks and recognition that we so rarely get from our own employers.
Do I sound cynical? Well, I guess I am a bit cranky about the whole thing. After all, as an arts journalist, my chances of winning an award are slim to none. While some might assert that that's a function of my lousy writing, I find myself stuck at the starting line.
While my personal e-mail account is blissfully free of spam, my work one is not. Today, this little nugget appeared with the perky subject line "Greetings!":
America is die! Read tihs!!!
Um, thanks, but no.
(And yes, I realize this post has nothing to do with the arts, but I couldn't help myself.)
The big media news in Madison over the past week was one of those shocks that's not really a shock: the Capital Times, an afternoon paper that is one of two local dailies, will cease daily publication on April 26. Beginning April 30, the paper will publish two tabloid-format editions a week: a news and opinion section on Wednesdays and an arts and entertainment section on Thursdays. The paper also claims that it will significantly increase its Web presence.
The two weekly tabloids will be distributed to subscribers already getting Madison's morning paper, the Wisconsin State Journal, and also made available free in racks.
While the Cap Times trumpets its "increased circulation" to over 80,000 under this new plan, that seems largely due to its being distributed with the State Journal and given away. The Cap Times' subscriber base is currently just north of 17,000--and this in a metro area estimated at 550,000 (Madison itself is about 225,000).
While this seems like a gain for State Journal readers since they'll be getting content from an additional paper for (presumably) no extra cost, I'm guessing faithful Cap Times readers are not pleased. But it is doubtful that the Cap Times, in some form, will go away completely due to the terms of a rather confusing Joint Operating Agreement governing Madison's two papers.
And in other local news... it appears Wisconsin's primary on Feb. 19 might actually matter, since the race is not yet sewn up. Barack Obama is headed here for an appearance on Tuesday, mere blocks from where I work. Though I will likely vote for him, I'm hoping to hightail it away from work before the crowds build up... I never miss an election, but large crowds are not my thing. Last week, AJ blogger Tyler Green offered up some thoughts on presidential candidates and the arts - with a useful link to policy statements on the Americans for the Arts Action Fund site.
P.S. As I write this on a Sunday night, it's -6 degrees here (and no, that's not the windchill). Oof.
The Wisconsin Arts Board recently unveiled a new logo and is now using the tagline "Creativity. Culture. Community. Commerce." All good stuff, and that last bit could be taken as a nod to the fact that, here in the Dairy State, our arts board falls under the department of tourism. As we've discussed previously on Flyover, economic development is increasingly advanced as a rationale for arts support.
Arts Wisconsin, an advocacy organization that partners with the Wisconsin Arts Board on a number of fronts (including professional development workshops for artists), is helping to lead a push to increase state tax support for the Arts Board. Currently, per capita support here is an anemic 44 cents, and Arts Wisconsin would like to see it increase to an even dollar. Meanwhile in Minnesota, our neighbors to the west, per capita support is nearly quadruple ours at $1.67. The disparity is especially hard to fathom when you consider how similar our states are in other respects: we're both northern states with few big cities, fairly progressive reputations and similar demographics. Why, then, do Minnesotans put so much more support towards the arts? How has this been politically feasible? (And I'm asking this seriously, not rhetorically--we here in Wisconsin would do well to emulate Minnesota in this regard.)
On another note, Visit Milwaukee (Milwaukee's convention and visitors' bureau) has announced that sufficient funds ($85,000) have been raised to pay for the "Bronze Fonz" it wishes to erect along Milwaukee's Riverwalk. Although I haven't followed this story closely (because I live nearly two hours west), it does strike me as a disappointment that Milwaukee is going with a relic of a fictitious past rather than installing some forward-thinking contemporary art by a local artist. Of course, there are a number of these TV-themed sculptures in various cities, but I can't see that it is going to add much to Milwaukee. It also seems a deadly dull commission for an artist, with little creative leeway. To my knowledge, Visit Milwaukee has not chosen an artist yet.
A young Milwaukee gallery owner, Mike Brenner, has taken considerable flak for his public opposition to this sculpture. In fact, he's now closing his gallery to focus on other projects. Brenner writes: "I cannot see running a contemporary art gallery in a city whose 'leadership' is so eager to invest its limited resources in garbage instead of fostering its burgeoning arts community... I want the world to see what I see... a city full of warmhearted, hardworking, creative individuals who deserve to be defined by so much more than beer, brats, cheese and Arthur Fonzarelli." Brenner linked to this TV news story on his gallery's Web site; it quickly sums things up for those unfamiliar with the project:
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writer Jim Stingl alludes not-so-subtly to Brenner's gallery closing in his column. Stingl also writes: "Irritating the snobby arbiters of serious art is not the only good reason to erect a Fonzie statue downtown" and closes with "I know it breaks the rule that art is best when it's hard to understand, but it doesn't doom our chances of being a first-class city." (I guess Stingl hasn't seen any of the whimsical, accessible yet contemporary stuff in Minneapolis' sculpture garden, like Claes Oldenburg's "Spoonbridge and Cherry;" love it or hate it, it's easy to grasp and is definitely identified with Minneapolis.)
Sadly, Stingl seems to buy into the mindset that wanting to support new, local work or something less literal than a lifesize bronze of a TV character is snobbery (pardon me while I adjust my beret). The "contemporary art = inscrutable" attitude is a well-worn cliché. I agree with Stingl only in that one statue doesn't have the power to wreck the city of Milwaukee, a city for which I have a lot of fondness even though I have never lived there. (My family moved away just before I was born, but my grandparents were Milwaukee residents for over 60 years.)
I guess the whole Visit Milwaukee / Bronze Fonz controversy points up the conflict between needing to market a city to tourists via familiar icons (though Fonz defender Stingl concedes that a lot of whippersnappers don't even know who the Fonz is; let's face it, "Happy Days" ended its run 24 years ago and was viewed by aging Gen X-ers like myself) and supporting a city's indigenous culture via artists and artwork that don't have instant recognizability.