Save the Violists! Promoting a Healthy Ecology of the Arts

Sep 5, 2015

Now that I’ve turned 50 (on August 7), I have begun to reflect tentatively on mortality and legacy and all those things that hit you when your first AARP membership invitation arrives in the mail. But I admit I had not given much thought to whether my grandchildren will be able to attend a symphony concert. Now I can start worrying about that, because I’ve just read Michael M. Kaiser’s new book Curtains: The Future of the Arts in America.

Kaiser is an extraordinary figure, educated at Brandeis and MIT and known as a “turnaround agent” for arts organizations. He rescued—not too dramatic a word—the Kansas City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the American Ballet Theater, and the Royal Opera House of London. Then he took the already stable Kennedy Center and renewed its mission, turning it into an international beacon of hope for arts organizations around the world. He’s also written a number of books, and this one is a remarkably straightforward, concise assessment of what’s going on in the arts world, what’s at risk, and what can be done to create a thriving American arts culture in the 21st century.

Kaiser’s tone throughout is frank but also gracious. He opens the book by describing the childhood moment when he fell in love with the arts—during a performance of The Music Man—and then offers a brief historical sketch of the burgeoning performing arts scene in America since World War II. His history of the growth and flourishing of symphony, opera, ballet, dance, and theater organizations, both national and regional, doubles as a gesture of gratitude for the rich art experiences in his own life.

I, too, have always been mindful that not everyone is blessed with the kind of arts opportunities I’ve enjoyed, from school art and music education kindergarten through college, to a thriving symphony orchestra in my hometown, to opportunities to study music and play everywhere I’ve lived, to a whole lifetime (so far!) of memorable and excellent concerts and performances. I hadn’t realized before reading Kaiser, however, that all this was made possible by a host of factors that created an “arts explosion” in the U.S. after World War II.

Kaiser ends chapter 1 with the sentence: “We were indeed blessed.” Were? Exactly. Things are tougher now, and in the rest of the book Kaiser offers a sharply focused analysis of the challenges that nonprofit arts organizations now face. It’s not just a matter of economic downturns, but—again—a host of related factors. The cost of putting on an opera or a ballet season only goes up with inflation. Huge competition for our entertainment attention and sophisticated electronic “consumption” technologies allow people to devalue live performances and expect inexpensive access to the best performers on their own living room screens (or phones!), whenever they wish. The lack of arts education in schools means young people are not exposed to the arts and thus do not become practitioners, audiences, or donors as adults. Meanwhile, the aging profile of big donors means the main source of financial support for the arts is getting harder to develop and sustain. And, curiously, the downfall of newspapers contributes as well, because this has led to the demise of arts criticism (especially of regional performances) aimed at a wide audience.

Most problematic of all, Kaiser argues, is bad management of arts organizations. This is also the single factor that will make the most difference going forward, separating the organizations that survive from those who have already or will soon experience a precipitous demise. The biggest mistake, it seems, is treating nonprofit arts organizations like regular businesses, usually by bringing in business executives to the board who don’t understand the particular economics of the arts and who try to use solutions from other sectors to balance the books. If we can push down the musicians’ salaries, we’ll “cut labor costs”! If we do only the popular works, more people will “buy our product”! If we can reduce the number of performances for each show and shorten the season, we can “adjust to the market”! These solutions might “work” for a moment, but they are all self-defeating and end up choking the organization to death.

The fact is, the arts are different. The classical performing arts, in their traditional forms as well as on their innovative edges, will always be expensive, and they will always require major support beyond their revenues. Kaiser takes for granted that people will always make art, no matter what. It’s our nature, we are creative, we must do it. What most troubles him is the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to magnificent, professional, exciting dance, opera, ballet, music, and visual arts. Will attendance at live performances become a luxury only for the most elite in the big cities? Will avant-garde artists and artists of color and other less established groups have an even harder time doing their work and finding an audience? Will artists in all fields become scarcer?

Unfortunately, all that is already happening. “The arts world is changing,” Kaiser flatly observes, “and the children of my children will simply not have the same opportunities for inspiration and education.”

What to do? Kaiser’s recommendations eschew nostalgia and seek to leverage new realities toward a hopeful future. The number one requirement for survival, of course, is to create “exciting art.” “Moral arguments” about art—claiming that it’s “good for us” so we should have it—simply don’t work. Even though all arts lovers believe that, that assertion alone will not get people into theater seats or into the museum. However, if something exciting is happening, people will go to a lot of trouble and expense to see it live. We know this from sports and from pop-culture musical acts.

The need to create exciting art is probably obvious, but Kaiser’s equally emphatic contention is the absolute necessity of entrepreneurial arts managers. This was not exactly a commonly suggested career path for young people in my generation, but it’s a growing field today, one that Kaiser has helped professionalize with the Kennedy Center Arts Management Institute and other initiatives. Equally important to the future of the arts are the donors (especially younger ones), amateur practitioners, and audience members who make up the loyal “family” of supporters for a given organization. Arts managers and boards need to cultivate this family in a way analogous to the way sports organizations cultivate loyal fans. People need to feel they’re a part of something wonderful and important.

I suppose one could argue that the world would keep spinning if ballet and opera companies and symphony orchestras all died out. Some people claim they’re already irrelevant or too elitist. (People are less willing to give up modern dance and art museums, apparently). However, Kaiser’s book, and indeed his whole career, is a sobering lesson in the cultural ecology of the arts. Everything is interrelated; everything thrives when many entities work in synchrony—or falls when they don’t. Big, spectacular arts organizations can be the engine of smaller, more avant-garde organizations and of a whole culture of artists, teachers, programs, and public enthusiasm for the arts that results in giving everyone access. Access is key: Kaiser does not want the classical arts to be available only to the yacht-and-penthouse set.

I think gratefully of all the arts entities that I will enjoy in my town this month alone. Yesterday, my son had a saxophone lesson with a professional jazz musician who can get enough playing and teaching gigs here to make a living. On Sunday, we’ll go hear live jazz at the SpeakEZ Lounge, which every week features local jazz pros and even encourages young players like my son to sit in. Next week, I’ll begin rehearsals with the Calvin Community Symphony, an orchestra of amateur musicians; our concerts are free. I’ve just received my season tickets to the Grand Rapids Symphony, one of the few healthy regional orchestras in the nation. My son has also just joined a city-wide youth chorus that performs on their own and with the symphony. Later this month, the three-week ArtPrize phenomenon will take over the city’s downtown for the seventh year. This town is full of professional artists, dedicated amateurs, and eager audiences.

I am indeed blessed. After reading Kaiser’s book, I am even more energized to support the artists and arts organizations in this town with my dollars and my advocacy. I want my own and everyone else’s grandchildren to be just as blessed in the future.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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