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Saturday, January 18, 2003

Some Empathy For Arts Groups Who Aren't Lincoln Center?

By Kit Baker

In a recent letter to the Washington Post, Reynold Levy haughtily dismisses
an assertion by Michael Kaiser, published in the same newspaper a week
before, that "the world of the performing arts is sick."  But the way he
does so strikes me as evidence of the very ills Mr. Kaiser is warning us
about.  Mr. Levy's chief argument seems to rest on the financial prowess of
a select group of big arts organizations who are in various stages of moving
into new buildings with price tags mostly in the  $100-million plus range.
Mr. Levy's chosen ones collectively make up a virtual snapshot of the cartel
of large mainstream organizations whose dominance, Mr. Kaiser argues, is
pushing smaller arts groups to the brink of extinction.

I agree with Mr. Kaiser, and imagine that the many arts leaders who
participated in the 2001 report "Culture Counts," which details an extreme
funding bias in New York City towards large organizations such as Mr. Levyıs
Lincoln Center, would agree too.  So might Bloomberg's cultural affairs
commissioner Kate Levin, who is currently preparing sweeping reforms
intended to right this imbalance.  So might Lower Manhattan Councilmember
Alan Gerson, who is leading the charge to create a new Municipal Arts
Policy.  Are not these people recognizing that something's wrong, and taking
the kind of rapid action Mr. Kaiser advocates to right it?  Yet Mr. Levy
seems to want us to think that we'll be just fine with the status quo.

"Money is attracted to merit," declares Mr. Levy in the kind of
unsubstantiated sweeping statement he accuses Mr. Kaiser of abusing.
Artistic merit, or some other kind? Merit as judged from whose perspective?
When I worked for Lincoln Center in the pre-Levy era, it was the  merits of
Beverly Sills as one of the greatest arts fundraisers of our time that
attracted the big dollars, coupled with the sheer power of Lincoln Center as
a hallowed New York City institution.  The merits of what transpired onstage
in the here and now sometimes seemed to be a matter of secondary

All credit to Ms. Sills, she is one of this countryıs great champions of the
arts, and remains an inspiration.  Yet even she could not change the fact
that the money flowing to Lincoln Center comes from a very narrow
demographic.  The only Lincoln Center programs that come anywhere near to
reflecting the demographics of New York City are Lincoln Center Out of Doors
and Midsummer Night Swing, and these are the only programs that can be
experienced for free, or if you want to dance on the Swing stage a little
more than the cost of a movie.  The considerable expense of attending events
in the Lincoln Center flagship programs - Great Performers, Mostly Mozart,
and the Festival - is one of the primary reasons that this diversity does
not extend to those who go indoors and buy tickets.  The result is that
those attaching merit to Lincoln Center by spending their money there are
overwhelmingly affluent and white.

Mr. Levy also pays no attention to smaller arts organizations in his home
city of New York, choosing for some reason to laud the Off-Loop scene in
Chicago instead. The Kaiser point under attack here was that the struggles
of smaller, ethnically diverse organizations - and, in too many cases, their
demise - is a serious undermining factor in the health of the arts world as
a whole.   I  work for a smaller NYC arts organization, and can certainly
vouch for the daunting challenges facing many emerging companies of merit,
which given the way the arts are currently supported aren't in a strong
position at all to attract the kind of money needed to maintain good health.
In addition, given our arduous recent search for a new Executive Director, I
can vouch for the shortage of trained entrepreneurial arts managers that Mr.
Kaiser refers to.   I also work for an orchestra that is offering excellent
custom-made education programs to local schools, but more often than not the
teachers and administrators do not have the capacity to accommodate these
programs in their already overheated workload.  Call it sick, call it what
you will, but I ask you, Mr. Levy, do not situations such as these merit
attention, leadership and swift action?

Kit Baker
Brooklyn, NY

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