A Public Conversation Among People Who Care
March 10, 2005Looking For Solid Ground
Many good strands here. Bob lays out a clear map of the constituencies to which one must make a case for the arts and frames the languages they speak. Bill pulls the current situation into perspective by taking us back to the cultural landscape of 40 years ago, enumerating the challenges, and pointing to the solutions created then to address them.
And Adrian touches on the perhaps skewed balances between supply and demand after a heady decade of arts building and four decades of attempting to "spread culture across the land."
Creative industries of all types - whether commercial or non-profit - are currently seeing the ground under them shift and their business models needing to be reinvented. Mass culture is disolving before our eyes, and aggregated audiences seem to be declining across the board for TV, music, movies, books, sports... Some ventures, like the recording industry, cling desperately to their traditional model, evolving only when forced. Others are trying to grow new models, sensing opportunity in change. It's not that there are fewer people consuming culture, it's that their access to more things has expanded exponentially. In this context, the arts seem to be doing very well indeed at holding their own when compared to popular culture.
Are there any such opportunities in change for "the arts"? Much of this conversation has been about the language we use to "make a case". I guess I'm wondering if (moving beyond the language) anyone has practical ideas or strategies? Something solid to take away from this at the end?
We seem to be agreed that instrumental arguments aren't convincing for the potential arts audience (though they may be for the politicians and business leaders). We seem to be agreed that the supply of arts is ample (if not overly so). So is the problem in building demand? (that seems a hard case to make on a busy day at the Met or MoMA). Do we need more outreach? Earlier exposure to the arts so as to build better arts consumers? Are we simply looking for more bodies, or should we care more about the kinds of bodies that come through the door?
And finally - what, exactly is our definition of success? Is it to get more people through the doors each year? To keep on building more museums, theatres and concert halls? I gotta say - there are plenty of times when I wish there were fewer people in the museum or theatre while I'm there.
And if things are so bad, where are the wide-scale failures? Where are the orchestras and theatre and museums going out of business? Oh, there have been a few, and stories about clinging to the edge of the raft abound, but as I look around I see a lot more companies that seem to have lost their artistic reason for being and get by year after year than I do actual going-out-of-business signs. Maybe that's the real sign of distress - that we'd rather allow persistent artistic declines than some honorable deaths.
Posted by mclennan at March 10, 2005 01:39 AM
In his summary of yesterday’s comments, Doug asks, “And if things are so bad, where are the wide-scale failures? Where are the orchestras and theatre and museums going out of business?” And he adds, “Maybe that's the real sign of distress - that we'd rather allow persistent artistic declines than an honorable death.”
Of course we want to maintain high standards, but we hardly have an over-supply of genuinely professional orchestras and opera companies. And I think it is absolutely ridiculous how many of our best orchestras have had to go out of business, only to regroup and start over after having lost many of their best musicians and base public. A few recent examples have been the San Diego Symphony, The Florida Philharmonic, and the Kansas City Symphony.
We only have about 20 orchestras that have genuinely full-time, year-round seasons and with salaries that musicians can actually live from. International comparisons show this is an extremely low per capita ratio. (As I mentioned earlier, the ratio in Germany is 23 times higher.) Bill Ivey mentions that we now have 350 orchestras, but what he doesn’t tell us is that about 250 of them are part-time community orchestras that do not even approach professional standards.
Let’s look at a mid-range example. The New Mexico Symphony is a fairly good orchestra. Even though it is based in Albuquerque, which has a metropolitan population of 500,000, and serves the whole state with a population of about 1.2 million, the base pay for musicians is around 15 thousand a year. The tutti string players often receive considerably less, which means that the sections, to put if frankly, are often actually filled with amateurs and semi-professionals. The orchestra can’t even have daytime rehearsals because most of the musicians have to have day jobs to support themselves. And touring is a problem, because it means many of the musicians have to leave their “real” jobs for a few days. The orchestra has had recurrent financial problems, and the musicians have had to go through long periods without being paid at all. The New Mexico Symphony is hardly an exception. In fact, this abysmal situation defines the norm for many, if not most regional US orchestras. Naturally, the artistic standards are deeply affected, even though these orchestras serve a very large part of our population.
And even many of our better orchestras often have grotesquely low pay scales. Her are some examples.
Kansas City $33,675
New Jersey $38,772
San Antonio $33,150
San Diego $25,750
How are musicians in San Diego, one of the world’s richest cities, supposed live on $25,000 a year with California’s real estate prices? Why do all of these musicians worry for their job security because the bankruptcy of the orchestra is always a real possibility? Why do we take our most gifted artists, who are graduates of our most elite music schools such as Curtis, Juilliard, New England and Eastman, and pay them salaries that not even a car mechanic or truck driver would accept? All of these orchestras serve very wealthy metropolitan areas of millions of people and have tax bases that could easily pay decent salaries.
This situation is ridiculous and shameful, and yet even here among the people who are supposed to be representing us, we are told we need to go through yet another period of “contraction.” Are you telling us that the San Diego, Florida and Kansas City Symphonies went bankrupt because they were mediocre? These are top-tier orchestras with our best-trained and most gifted musicians that draw excellent conductors and famous soloists.
And let’s not even begin with our lack of opera. Even cities like Philadelphia with a population of 4 million, or Los Angeles with a metro population close to 15 million, have operas with only about 6 week seasons. And in other large metropolitan areas like Phoenix, Toledo, or Knoxville, the best we can hope for is an occasional slap-dash production with pick-up musicians in a rental facility. Compared to Europe, it is so hokey it boggles the mind. Every European city with even half the populations of Philadelphia and Los Angeles has a full-time opera house.
This lack of work and respect is why American musicians, as a matter of course, look abroad as a possibility for employment. American orchestra musicians even turn to countries like Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, and Venezuela to find work. There is not another industrial country in the world that treats its classical musicians this way – not even Canada, the UK, South Africa, Spain or Greece.
Maybe it’s time we realize how low our overall standards really are, and how badly we treat our artists. I guess that will take some time, when even the members of this panel seem not to understand.
But I don’t want to be entirely negative. I’ve been watching the activities of Americans for the Arts fairly closely. I loved their ad campaign and the merger with the Arts & Business Council seems promising. I think their ideas and long-term strategies are excellent, especially in the public sector. I wish them all good success, even if it will take a long time to reach their ultimate goals.
Posted by: William Osborne at March 10, 2005 06:44 AM
The total of available arts events *is* ample. Even in the hinterlands, the issue of availability has been vastly improved by forty years of grassroots-oriented national arts policy. The question is what arts and for whom. While all generalizations are inherently false, the bulk of the arts about which we are speaking here have their roots in a social and economic environment that are foreign to most residents of the U.S. They do not connect with people because of the cultural language barriers that must be overcome to appreciate them. (Yes, of course the connections can—and should—be made, but the expenditure of time and money to do so is considerable.)
What there is a lack of is reflective art—a term of my own devising, think “art that feeds the soul” (see www.nfpv.com/artsarticles/reflectivevisceral.html)—specifically designed to speak to the person on the street. Much wonderful work is being done—see www.communityarts.net for examples. Americans for the Arts is bravely advocating for more community-based arts activity. However, our arts infrastructure and funding mechanisms are tightly tied to “establishment arts” of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. If our arts are not sufficiently speaking to the American public perhaps we should stop blaming the victim—the public—and consider what we might be doing differently.
Posted by: Doug Borwick at March 10, 2005 06:55 AM
Change will come and this forum is part of the solution. What were the chances that an artist from a suburb in America could join a discussion with national leaders in the arts ten years ago?
Going to museums and concerts one gets lost in the crowd, if you had a friend in high places you might be seen. While the internet has transformed our world it will still be years before we feel the impact. Shopping patterns have changed and news reading has changed. How will the new medium change the way the Arts connects with audiences? GPCA in Phila. started offering discount tickets on their web site. Has it made a difference?
The museums have cut back staff and numbers of shows. Is that a failure? With the widening gap between wealth and poor where is the middle ground. Cities and suburbs, red and blue are we not divided by the hold on to the past? The cities want to maintain their cultural center while the suburbanites spend their nights watching HDTV.
When I was in elementary school there was a program that brought paintings to the school. Good but not great art. I remember going to the museum once or twice, thats all. I did have a great aunt who was an artist who taught me how to draw. It seems that all things important happen on a very personal level.
My suggestion: help artists make art, trust that some good will come of it. Have faith that people will find something to love if given the chance. A Creative Capital Fund would be nice.
Today I'll be sanding and finishing an old salt box to pay my bills.
Posted by: Charles Hankin at March 10, 2005 07:41 AM
There are a couple problems with the logic of Doug’s argument.
1. We give people no opportunity to hear live classical music, and then blame them for not appreciating it. The fact is, Europeans would also not bother with orchestras and operas if they did not have an educational and cultural system that supports these forms. People appreciate the arts when they are a living part of their communities and educational systems.
2. I am all for newer, more modern, more American, and more relevant art forms. (I am, after all, a composer devoted to experimentation.) But I have noticed that the societies that support the most innovations in the arts, are also the societies that invest most strongly in traditional forms. Innovation is best supported when it comes from an infrastructure that supports the arts as a whole, both new and old.
The best alternatives to opera, for example, are coming from the countries that most support traditional arts, because they have funding structures that also finance artistic innovation. A good example is the Munich Biennale for Music Theater.
Posted by: William Osborne at March 10, 2005 07:58 AM
William, thank you for representing working artists so articulately in your postings here this week. Given that Douglas McLennan knew of your scholarly and advocacy work (if not your creative musical work), I was surprised to learn, when I found out about this conversation on Tuesday, that you weren't included by Mr McLennan as a prime, rather than as a secondary, participant of this American foundation sponsored discussion. Your voice, as is Midori's voice, is exceptionally relevant here. Maybe Mr McLennan felt that having twelve prime participants would have been too many, and that one working artist and thinker was enough.
I too was struck by Douglas McLennan's comment about how "Maybe ... we'd rather allow persistent artistic declines than some honorable deaths." I wonder whether he is referring to the "honorable deaths" of some American artists, as well as the "honorable deaths" of some American non-profit orchestras, opera companies, public radio stations, ballet companies, regional theater companies, and "multi-cultural arts centers". (Weren't American Broadway houses and opera companies, historically, "multi-cultural arts centers"?) I hope that we do not read about a rash of "honorable deaths" of American artists commencing with the completion of this discussion.
Thank you for pointing out that working, often impoverished, American artists do not appreciate American policy leaders, at the highest levels, first taking away fellowships to individual American artists (but not to individual American scholars or scientists), then using scarce American foundation money to plot the "contraction" of the American arts "industry", and then musing on, from their ivory towers, persistent artistic decline of, and honorable deaths within, American culture.
I wonder whether Mr McLennan considers the Metropolitan Opera to be in persistent artistic decline, or the National Symphony Orchestra (in Washington, D.C.) to be in persistent artistic decline, or the national public television and radio systems to be in persistent artistic decline?
[A Metropolitan Opera Biennale for New Music Theater? Now there is an idea that you don't hear talked about in the New York foundation-world, or by the NEA!
And I agree with Charles Hankin that a Creative Capital Fund would be nice, and might prevent the "honorable deaths" of American individual artists.
["I am certain that after the dusk of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics..."]
Posted by: Garth Trinkl at March 10, 2005 09:43 AM
From the trenches; Taking a break from preparing legislative profiles to contribute two cents. Legislative profiles, incidentally, are something we do to provide a summary of awards and funded projects, by legislative district, so that our legislators can see the direct impact of arts funding on their constituents. Each profile is a slim folder which includes some nice photographs and a featured project or two with an indexed history of awards in their district.
To hand one of these to a unfamiliar legislator is to see, more often than not, a dramatic change of demeanor and an enthusiastic request for MORE. We greet each of our new council representatives with such a packet. Not only is this important information to share with our leadership, it has served to win us advocates in every corner of the county (our world). If we are speaking about public support of the arts, then we are speaking about winning over our elected officials one by one, and working proactively with their community to stimulate cultural involvement.
We have reached out in every way we know how, through education programs, community arts initiatives, a touring network, a local arts agency consortium, coalition building in all geographic areas of our county, involving our councilmembers whenever possible, engaging their interest and participation. We don't expect every councilmember to be an advocate. We do try to move each along the relative scale of awareness so that at least the oppositionists are comfortable deferring to their advocate colleagues.
We have found that our most effective advocates always make their strongest case when speaking from their personal experience with art, always. It is hard to argue against informed passion.
Posted by: Charlie Rathbun at March 10, 2005 11:22 AM
Ask An Artist
As a professional artist (and stakeholder), I am profoundly concerned with how the issues facing artists and the arts community are tackled. Clearly, it will take more than generous funding and earnest, methodical, well-intended scholars to unravel and pose solutions to the problem of the arts in America.
Rand Research in the Arts’ “Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts,” exposes the challenge all text-biased scholars face as they attempt to translate and interpret visual and visceral concepts into words and numbers. Art is a unique language, and requires the translation skills of native speakers (artists). And, I resent the fact that artists – even within the arts community itself – are not valued enough to be considered “experts” and consulted on such critically important issues.
For me the Missing Element in the acknowledgements and bibliography are the intuitive visual thinkers able to read between the lines of the literature. A snap survey of actual artists would quickly disprove the hypotheses that submersion in the arts results in higher test scores. And looking for better (or worse) behavior, physical and/or mental health, and/or economic or community benefit is just as lame.
Ask an artist, if the uniquely compelling power of art is transmitted through brief, passive and/or virtual encounters? Yes, performers and their audiences – be it baseball or violin – grow out of consistent, sustained, early exposure, with lots of “hands-on” practice. But to be fully engaged (some say “hooked”) at the deepest level – the level of art –requires that it spark creativity through as many senses as possible, and quench the insatiable human need to make sense of oneself. Without that visceral “high” there will be no buy in and no repeat customers.
Bill Ivey refers to arts advocates as “missionaries.” Indeed, the notion that a case can be made for the arts without asking professional artists (the aborigines)– is colonial. Let’s stop wasting precious time and money churning up the same old words. Let’s all put our minds together to solve this once and for all.
I can think of countless very measurable benefits in fostering a visually, artistically, and mechanically literate society.
We all know in our gut that it is of urgent national importance, and essential for the health and well being of this country. Everyone benefits when healthcare workers can see subtlety in x-rays, and ultrasounds, companies design to compete internationally, soldiers redesign armored vehicles, and policy makers see their way out of a box. Each of us benefits, when all citizens, are trained to see what’s there – and trust their instincts about what’s not there.
Our children instinctively demonstrate that linking our minds, our eyes, our hands and our hearts is a basic human drive, and essential survival skill. The arts, craft, and design are powerful tools for peace, prosperity, diplomacy and an enliven democracy that belong in every American home.
- Jan Yager lives in Philadelphia, PA. Her work was recognized with a solo show at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and numerous grants and awards including a Pew Fellowship in the Arts.
Posted by: Jan Yager at March 10, 2005 11:50 AM
My latest post on Arts Journal — "Cases and Effects" on
Pixel Points — has been inspired by this conversation. The profession of architecture isn't really part of the non-profit arts community (although a lot of firms are de facto non-profits), but it's certainly been confronting the question of whether to make "intrinsic" or "instrumental" arguments for the value of the work. The "Bilbao Effect" — which has insidiously underscored the idea that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim is valuable less for its architectural achievements than for the tourism it generates — is a good (or bad) instance of an instrumental argument for a building. As such it's also, I think, a symptom of the extent to which market culture has become the pervasive culture of our era. But to get to the point here: I agree wholeheartedly with what many of the conversation participants have been saying: that the strongest and most convincing arguments for the arts concentrate on their intrinsic benefits.
Posted by: Nancy Levinson at March 10, 2005 01:03 PM
As I believe was mentioned earlier in the week by one of the panelists, I think one of the strongest solutions presented for the arts is a serious marketing effort, working to shape and/or shift perceptions of the arts. Even if the arts had significantly greater funding levels and support, and there was a symphony, theater, opera company, and museum in every major city in the U.S.; I cannot be convinced that we would see more people in the theater, concert hall, at the museums, or even involved with the arts at all. Availability is one thing, Involvement is another.
It seems the American public is responding to that which is flashy, hip, modern, new, unique and different (the next big thing), after all modernization has been part of the forefront of the evolution of the United States. And the majority of the entertainment industry is providing exactly that. The traditional arts, in a society that pushes modernization, has quite a challenge. So, do we want to have more support and participation from the public? If we do, we must be aware of the not just our own views of the arts, but societal perceptions and the messages our competitors in the entertainment and other nonprofit industries are sending to the public about the traditional arts as well. Recently I saw an MTV ad on television that, to me, portrayed the arts as the opposite of "cool" and hip, and extremely formal and snooty. Is this the way we want youth to see the arts?
I've noticed I haven't yet addressed Doug's question about suggestions/strategies regarding the arguments we make. All I know, is that the easiest way to make the case is to try to think like those to whom we are making the case; learn what their reservations are about the arts, what arguments are being crafted against the arts, who is influencing the gatekeepers and what do these influencers think and what arguments do they use about the arts. If we can't identify arguments being used against the arts, and focus on overcoming them, the only way we'll get anywhere is if someone accidentally stumbles on the answer; and that will obviously not provide a long-term solution. The success and proliferation of the arts depends not only on our ability to be creative and express ourselves through art, but just as importantly, on our ability to listen and be proactive.
Let's question ourselves and our logic, find potential holes in our arguments and work to fill them before we make the case. A strong case upfront will have more impact than a one needing a major second, third, or fourth revision.
Posted by: Derek at March 10, 2005 01:19 PM