A mis-matched message on the arts

Standing O's at the ArtsFund annual luncheon, and then some sobering up.
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Michael Kaiser: Don't be boring!

Standing O's at the ArtsFund annual luncheon, and then some sobering up.

One of the gotta-show-up rituals in Seattle civic life is the annual lunch of ArtsFund, the organization that channels corporate contributions to 70 local arts organizations. The 22nd convening of the ritual was held Wednesday at the Westin, with about 1,000 local worthies in attendance.

The spirit is always one of arts boosterism, with effusive praise of donors, arts pillars, and Seattle's supposedly stellar reputation as an arts city. This year the lifetime achievement award went to Gerard Schwarz, for 26 years music director of the Seattle Symphony. It had been an especially awkward year for the Symphony, one of many, with departures all through the top staff and a near-strike from the deeply disaffected musicians, but the reception was warm, Schwarz's son Julian played his cello (quite well), and a Standing O naturally followed Schwarz's graceful remarks.

The elephant in the room was hard times and all the cuts the arts organizations are quietly making. The difficulties of corporate funding were hinted at with the announcement that ArtsFund's annual drive, a goal of $3 million this year, is at 61 percent of goal with only one month to go. We learned that an audience survey showed numbers holding up well, while revenue is down — a clear sign that audiences are shopping for discounts. I thought it would have been appropriate to have a listing of the groups that died on the battlefield this year, but this is an upbeat occasion, meant to loosen corporate wallets and make arts groups feel better about all they do for the community, for jobs, for tourism, for schools (and even for the cause of art).

The highlight of the lunch was a speech by Michael Kaiser, currently running the Kennedy Center in D.C. and a specialist in turning around ailing arts institutions. Kaiser has been touring the nation with his message: Don't cut back in tough times but instead do more exciting programs, well promoted, that stir up new audiences and donors. "Don't hide, shrink, or become boring," he exhorted, perhaps aware that this was pretty much what Seattle arts groups have been doing for the past two years. Standing O, of course.

I found Kaiser's speech, honed as it is from his visits to dozens of other cities, very strange. I can't imagine that many board members took it seriously, given the red ink, the lack of public funding (killed again in the legislature), and the fearfulness of most arts organizations. Walking out with one executive director, I asked him what he thought of Kaisers go-for-it message. His group was trying just that, he said ruefully, with the result of a much deeper deficit. Another board member thought that Kaiser's nostrums might work for major institutions with powerful connections and media opportunities, but not for the little guys and the little cities.

The real talk among arts groups and funders is about how to retrench well: winnowing out some oversupply, going easier on capital campaigns (like the still-stalled Performing Arts Center Eastside), exploring mergers, raising ticket prices (which Kaiser explicitly deplored), picking safer artistic directors, sticking with conventional programming, aiming at tourists. Seattle desperately needs a new formula, matching its artistic ambitions with the local level of support and the city's new-economy audiences and donors (much less oriented to classical and fine arts). Kaiser's bet-the-company advice isn't the ticket, even though it felt good to think so for a few minutes.


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