Things Are The Same All Over

Two articles shared the same webpage over a Artsjournal.com today. The first is one talking about Pittsburgh Ballet’s decision to perform to recorded music to save money. The decision was made to preserve the ballet’s budget. They aren’t the first ballet company to go this route and according to the article, they probably won’t be the last.

The move has Drew McManus worried that this is not only a harbinger of the rise of recorded accompaniment, but that mission statements will be used to justify gutting artistic value for economic reasons.

Which leads me to the second article I mentioned earlier. It seems our brethern in Australia are also facing the necessity of making A Better Case for the Arts, as discussed on Artsjournal.com earlier this year in response to a recent Rand report. (I have discussed this before.)

An excerpt from a speech Prof. David Throsby made in the last couple days was printed in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Throsby’s speech sounds much the same as the discussion on Artsjournal.com and the points the Rand report makes:

More and more do arts organisations feel they have to demonstrate their financial rather than their artistic prowess as a means of obtaining funds to support their existence. Arts festivals big and small commission economic impact studies to trumpet their success in creating employment, raising local incomes and encouraging tourism; understanding their cultural impacts often seems to take second place.

Actually, he cites the Rand report right after he cites a similar report made by a British policy group, Demos, titled Capturing Cultural Value.

…John Holden, takes up these arguments, writing that “the value of culture cannot be expressed only with statistics. Audience numbers give us a poor picture of how culture enriches us.” He goes on to argue for a reshaping of the way in which public funding of culture is undertaken. He suggests the need for a language capable of reflecting, recognising and capturing the full range of values expressed through culture, drawing on ideas from anthropology, environmentalism and the debate about “public value” in the field of public sector management.

I wouldn’t be surprised if similar articles started to appear in Germany, France, Spain, et.al. (Or perhaps it is the English speakers’ epidemic.) Looks like everyone is facing the same dilemmia about how to resolve artistic sensibilities with capitalist ones at about the same time.

Strange Funding Methods

There is a really fascinating article in the Gotham Gazette this month (It came to my attention via Artsjournal.com)about the arts funding process in NYC.

What makes it fascinating is the history of politics that must be behind the process to have it turn out the way it does.

There are 34 institutions that are guaranteed to share 80% of the funding year after year (ranging from $750,000 to $2 mil). Then there are 175 line item organizations that appear year after year by name that get a smaller piece of the money ($22,000 to $115,000 at this point).

Then there are about 200 groups chosen by city council members to receive money this year with no promise of money next year.

Whatever money remains is available via the Cultural Development Fund. Organizations must fill out a 25 page form that is subject to a peer review panel.

What is really strange though is who are the haves and who are the have nots. The Metropolitian Museum is among the 34 who are guaranteed large amounts of funding ($22 mil this year), the Metropolitian Opera, with a similar budget and high regard, is not (they get $134,000).

The Bronx County Historical Society is among the 34 guaranteed. The historical societies of the other boroughs are not. The Vivian Beaumont in Lincoln Center has as many visitors in a week as the Bronx Historical Society has in a year and the society gets $200,000 to the Beaumont’s $17,000.

The answers to many of these puzzles is politics. According to one commentator, the difference in the classifications is that someone lobbied 25 years ago to be numbered among the 34 and others did not.

There are other elements that come together in this situation that I haven’t mentioned and there are attempts by some to overhaul the system (apparently some defunct groups were awarded money because they were on the automatic funding list).

The whole article is worth reading. I can’t imagine that New York City is alone in this sort of arrangement. It may be educational for people to realize the power of politicking, as demeaning and smarmy as it may feel, could yield funding for life.

Cultural Literacy

Back in the late 80s, early 90s I read Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E.D. Hirsch. While I felt his list was a little on the conservative side politically and basically ignored or glossed over important figures and events in our history, I have come to feel he did have a point.

Though I haven’t read the book in at least 15 years, I clearly remember that he wrote that at one time, he could use the phrase “There is a tide” and business associates would know exactly how things stood without explanation. (The quote is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.)

He bemoaned the fact that he could not do that in the 1980s because of the way students were being educated and the lack of emphasis by families that children be exposed to culturally important things. But times change and old cultural touchstones give way to new.

Just recently I found myself similarly mourning the loss of channels of common culture. Or more precisely, the literal increase in the number of channels. When I was a boy, television was comprised of seven stations the three networks, PBS, two independent stations that 20 odd years later become Fox, WB affiliates and the original WWOR. Because there were so few stations, chances were you were watching the same shows as your neighbors and had something in common to talk about.

When I was in 5th or 6th grade, West Side Story was on Sunday afternoon. The next day at recess, my friends and I had a rumble and I got my first black eye. (Matt Mays ducked when James Barry and I were trying to grab him and I hit my face on James’ head). The inspiration of violence aside, there was no need for explanations about how to conduct ourselves because we all saw the musical the night before. (Well, actually, the dancing was beyond us so we skipped that part and went straight to rumble.)

I have noted the problems advertisers face these days reaching audiences (here and here) because there are so many television channels as opposed to the handful back in the old days.

While cable television and the internet allow more people to become familiar with new ideas than would have been possible when a handful of stations dictated what we knew, the weakness of this system is that now only a comparative handful of people can become familiar with a particular new idea. A smaller segment of the population witnessed the fall of Bo Bice on American Idolthan watched Roots.

Even worse, with more channels competing for eyeballs, the programming is even more mainstream and pitched to appeal to the widest audience possible so even fewer new ideas are being introduced to the country. Though granted, A&E, the History Channel, Discovery Channel, TLC, etc do give me an opportunity to learn about more than that single PBS station I watched — but even they have repositioned themselves to appeal to the most people since they arrived on the cable line up. Their stuff is interesting, but doesn’t challenge general attitudes and thinking.

Honestly, I am a little confounded by the recent brouhaha over Corporation for Public Broadcasting Chair, Kenneth Tomlinson, attempting to scuttle PBS. Or rather, I am confused by the actual attempt. With so many fewer people watching PBS these days than in Nixon’s days when he attempted to interfere with the network of stations, I have to imagine PBS is pretty much preaching to the converted and bringing few new people over to whatever way of thinking he feels is unbalanced.

With all the attention the attempted makeover of PBS is getting, I think more people may start thinking that maybe there is something on the stations that they should be watching. It is that old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity. It might have been better to leave well enough alone and let the station be continually overshadowed by competitors rather than give people a reason to yank it into the light, dust it off and examine a lost treasure more closely.

I am not suggesting that cultural values and knowledge be standardized and everyone learn them because you quickly fall into the argument about who decides what is important. I know that the NEA’s Shakespeare in American Communities is controversial for this reason. The same is true with the programs where everyone in a city reads the same book over the summer. If you are picking one artist or one book, you are excluding so many others whose equal value can be argued.

At the same time, these program fill a desire in our lives to touch upon the time that humans lived in close knit communities where we found joy in our shared values, stories and traditions. Yes, times change and we have to face that inevitability.

But there is also something noble about thinking back to things like the family traditions of our childhood and wanting to share and create similar memories for others. Comfort and security can be found in these type of practices. The mistake comes when we grasp on these things as the only true ways to find comfort and security and insist on the same to others.

I don’t know where and how this common base can be built or found. I don’t believe the Shakespeare initiative and all Chicagoans reading A Raisin in the Sun was intended as a declaration of the true things citizens should know about the exclusion of all others. I am not as sure about Hirsch’s book, though there are certainly things in there worth knowing. With so many options for entertainment and information, I don’t know that any of these programs could have a wide enough an influence to create a common base.

It would sure be nice if we had some stronger common cultural ties beyond reality TV these days though.

Theatre Buildings By The Bushel

Having never lived in a place that had such a vibrant arts community that theatre companies were clamoring to carve out new spaces, I read this article on the licensing of new spaces in Chicago with some interest.

(Have to credit the Improvisation blog Making It Up As I Go for bringing it to my attention. Author linked to me, I followed it back and read some entries.)

The League of Chicago Theatres and City of Chicago announced a new set of guidelines for establishing licensed Off-Loop Theatres (Loop Theatres are located downtown in the area encircled by, the “L”, elevated train system.) The League had hoped to have the licenses approved by now but the hurdle they face is the city’s resistance to “the theatre industry’s request for zoning modifications that would allow certain types of theatrical community centers ‘i.e., Off-Loop theatres’ to open for business in neighborhoods not currently zoned for them.”

The new license will only apply to venues with fewer than 300 seats that don’t serve alcohol. According to the article, to be licensed, “a company must supply legal, financial and organizational documentation and then must pass a comprehensive inspection of the facility. Standards for public safety-code regulations will not change under the new PAV.” The changes manifest themselves mostly in the simplified application process-9 pages rather than the 23 under the previous system. Requirements for background checks and length of lease have also been relaxed.

The licenses will be administered out of the newly formed Dept. of Buildings rather than Dept of Revenue. The department will do pre-inspections of buildings for theatre groups to apprise them of the severity of any existing code violations they may have to address if they sign a lease. Also, Freedom of Information Act information on violations, liens, court proceedings on the buildings is available for people to do due diligence searches.

The new department head announced the office phone number and promised that his office would end the incessant passing off of calls and conflicting answers people got from City Hall.

The whole article was very interesting to me since I have never had to deal with some of these issues in my own experience. It was also encouraging to see that Chicago was making efforts to help theatre groups find proper facilities and make informed decisions.

The one caveat in the article though was that now that the city was facilitating the process and loosening restrictions, everyone would be expected to be licensed. The practice of enforcers looking the other way and theatres hoping to fly under the radar would be coming to an end.

To go off a little tangentially. The website that featured the story, PerformInk Online, (It “provides a wide range of news and information for professionals in the Chicago theatre industry”), has recently stated that in the near future, they will only accept press releases online and only at a specific email address. Everything else sees the physical and virtual trashcans.

Added to the stronger requirement of licenses, this is another sign of how theatre folks gotta get their operations disciplined and in order.