August 2009 Archives

Good for NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman for calling out the homophobia that undergirds opposition to federal funding for the arts. "The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay," he tells Robin Pogrebin in today's New York Times.

The straight-shooting Landesman won't earn many points for diplomacy in that interview, particularly with the ill-considered slap, "I don't know if there's a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman." That remark is bound to alienate whole flocks of legislators as well as artists outside major cities. Nonetheless, the point he's trying to make about democratizing arts grants -- "I don't know that we have to be everywhere if the only reason for supporting an institution is its geography" -- is perfectly valid, and his new NEA slogan, "Art Works," is beautifully attuned to the zeitgeist.

Meanwhile, however debatable Richard Florida's "Creative Class" gospel may be, Landesman's tacit embrace of it with "a program that he called 'Our Town,' which would provide home equity loans and rent subsidies for living and working spaces to encourage artists to move to downtown areas," is something Congress surely can understand and perhaps even rally around.

It's a sharply different approach from that taken by Landesman's ostentatiously populist predecessor, Dana Gioia, who placated conservatives suspicious of contemporary art and artists by focusing on the classics (Shakespeare) and America's artistic heritage (jazz). Yet in taking that tack, Gioia might have made some lasting progress for the agency, whose natural opponents have been forced to concede, at least to a degree, that there is value to the arts. If Landesman, a Broadway producer, uses creative-class theory to hang a dollar sign on that value and explain the dividends investment in the arts would pay, he may be speaking lawmakers' language.

But back to the homophobia, about which Landesman is dead right. The idea that the arts are gay, and therefore dismissable, is closely related to another notion about the arts: that they are inherently girly. Leaving aside the abundant irony in that assumption, let's consider for a moment what John Stuart Mill -- a feminist way ahead of his time, who believed women should "have the power of gaining their own livelihood" -- had to say on the subject back in 1832: "The only difference between the employments of women and those of men will be, that those which partake most of the beautiful, or which require delicacy & taste rather than muscular exertion, will naturally fall to the share of women: all branches of the fine arts in particular."

In our perception of the arts, we haven't advanced terribly far from that mindset in the past 177 years. The arts are widely viewed as a milieu best suited to women, and to men with an affinity for beauty, delicacy and taste and an aversion to muscular exertion (read: gay -- and, no, I am not endorsing the stereotype, merely articulating it).

As a nation, we tend not to scrape together public funding if we believe it would benefit people like that. Unless, maybe, we can be convinced that it's in our economic interest to do so.

So let the culture-class argument begin.
August 8, 2009 2:05 PM | | Comments (1)
I can only imagine the mortification Milwaukee felt at having its dirty laundry hung out in The New York Times this week for all to see -- but, having grown up there, I can imagine it pretty well. In a city where Santiago Calatrava's soaring 2001 addition to the art museum still buoys local pride, people care deeply about their cultural institutions, and about the way the rest of the country perceives them.

So it must have been embarrassing to read Daniel J. Wakin's comprehensive Times story on the Skylight Opera Theatre debacle, and it must be something of a relief that the Skylight drama, which began in June, appears now to be drawing to a close. From today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Embattled Skylight Opera Theatre managing director Eric Dillner has resigned, ending a standoff that pitted company management and its board of directors against the artists who have regularly worked for the troupe.

Former managing director Colin Cabot, a major figure in the Skylight's past, will become interim artistic director, and another former managing director, Joan Lounsbery, will assume day-to-day management until a successor to Dillner has been identified.

William Theisen, whose dismissal on June 16 began the strife at the Skylight, will not return as artistic director, but he will direct four of the five shows he originally planned to stage for the 2009-'10 season - the company's 50th.

Theisen was tossed out when the company, which has a budget of about $3 million, absurdly eliminated his position in a cost-cutting move -- as if the post of artistic director were a frill that could be done without -- and assigned his duties to Dillner. So it's great news not only that the ham-handed Dillner is out but that the Skylight board, whose president resigned her post late last month, seems to grasp the elementary principle that having an artistic director is a nonnegotiable condition for properly running their theater.

Let's hope it does. But if the board hasn't learned any more than that, there's trouble ahead -- though it probably couldn't be much worse than what the company has been through lately. As Wakin recapped, the Skylight "has suffered demonstrations, petitions, mass resignations of performers, subscriber revolt and Facebook vitriol interpreted by management as violent threats." A key factor was "an insider-outsider rift that pitted a new managing director and fresh board members against Milwaukeeans with a proprietary feeling for the little theater that could," he wrote. "The fracas has led two dozen people -- singers, actors, directors and designers -- to withdraw from performances next season, the 50th, and has cost the company at least a dozen subscribers and a handful of donors."

Wakin's story is straightforward reporting, not opinion, and yet its appearance Monday on amounted to a public shaming: The Skylight had spun so far out of control that it merited a big story in The New York Times. Almost nothing that happens in Milwaukee, ever, accomplishes that -- not even in the deadly slow news month of August. (The Times is so unfamiliar with Milwaukee that it allowed a "Fargo" joke into Wakin's copy. Uh, wrong state. That's Minnesota, not Wisconsin. Common mistake on the coasts.)

It shouldn't have taken that level of unwanted attention in order for the Skylight to backtrack on its egregiously wrongheaded decisions. But it did, and in the meantime the installation of Dillner stood -- because he had the support of his board of directors. (The interim board president called Dillner's resignation "a career decision Eric made" and said he had not been asked to resign.) Dillner never could or would have absorbed the duties of artistic director into his own job if board members hadn't had his back. If he's a villain in this narrative, he's far from the only one. He worked for the board, not the other way around.

Which is precisely why his resignation won't be nearly change enough if the Skylight board hasn't seen the error of its ways. In eliminating the position of artistic director, it ripped out a vital organ. The ignorance and arrogance it took to do that cannot be overstated. Even more alarming is the obstinacy with which the board refused for seven weeks to change course, despite abundant evidence that it was imperiling the institution it's charged to protect.

The board refused to give credence to its artists and its audience, and it failed to see the connection between high-quality art, healthy relationships, a positive reputation and the bottom line that evidently was its overriding, if not sole, concern. It would be difficult to be more obtuse than that.

Though, if it's any comfort to Milwaukee, the Skylight board is hardly the first to bludgeon an institution by basing its actions on a fundamental misunderstanding of its own role, the role of artistic director in general, and the irreplaceable creative and personal contributions of a particular artistic director. That, sadly, is not a rare thing at all.


Speaking of irreplaceable: From mid-June through the end of July, I followed the Skylight drama through the reporting of Tom Strini in the Journal Sentinel. It was a huge story on his beat. So it was strange, and poignant, to read Strini's articles and blog posts knowing (from his blog) that he had taken a buyout and would leave the paper at the end of July. The news continues, no matter who is or isn't there to cover it; in that sense, journalists inevitably leave mid-tale. Still, to have the storyteller walk away in the middle of such a ripping good yarn -- somehow it just didn't feel right.

But Strini's longtime colleague, Damien Jaques, who also took the buyout and is now freelancing for the Journal Sentinel, spins the latest installment of the saga like the total pro he is.
August 6, 2009 3:19 PM | | Comments (4)

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