Some new ideas for helping struggling arts groups

Are we just going to hang on and hope the economy revives? Better is to get creative, and fast.
Crosscut archive image.

Detail from Da Vinci's "Portrait of a Musician."

Are we just going to hang on and hope the economy revives? Better is to get creative, and fast.

Are we going to do anything to save our struggling arts groups? So far, the reaction has been to keep quiet about troubles lest donors be discouraged, cut public funding, and whistle past graveyards that tune of standard Seattle complacency ("Won't happen here"). Eventually, some of the larger institutions will invoke the "too big to fail" doctrine, to be rescued by public funds and emergency fund drives.

Or not. Terry Teachout recently argued that it now makes sense to let some struggling, second-tier-city orchestras simply die. He notes the dire state of the Pasadena Symphony as one example, now leaderless and $1.2 million in debt. You reach the point where cutting rehearsal time and staff or programming popular fare no longer can do the trick. Why persist? Teachout (who devoutly loves western classical music) writes:

If I lived in a city with such an orchestra, would I attend its concerts? A century ago I would have said yes, because live performances were the only way to hear music you didn't make yourself. But downloading and the iPod have made it possible to hear great music whenever and wherever you want. Is there any point in going to hear a pretty good live performance of a chestnut like Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Elgar's "Enigma" Variations" or the Schumann Piano Concerto, all of which figure prominently on Pasadena's five subscription programs for the 2010-11 season? For a fast-growing number of Americans, the answer is no.

And where is help going to come from? Public funding for the arts at the local government level, where Seattle has always been way back in the pack, has dropped for the past two years, going from $860 million in 2008 to $765 million last year, according the Americans for the Arts. State appropriations, now at $297 million nationwide, are down a third from their high in 2001. (Again, Washington state is one of the stingiest.) The National Endowment for the Arts has enjoyed some stimulus money but is down by a third from its level of two decades ago. Foundations are shifting to urgent social needs, and the "new philanthropy" is notable for its lack of interest in culture. (The Allen Foundation is the notable local exception.)

So what to do? The old hymnbook isn't working well, so let me suggest a few new approaches that might fire the public imagination and reflect the current economic realities.

Lots of free tickets for people under 26. This is an idea borrowed from England, called "A Night Less Ordinary." It gives out thousands of free theater tickets to people under 26. Alas, it's turned into a huge political fight, and it's being cut back as the country deals with its huge financial problems. So do it with pooled foundation funds, all across the state (or Puget Sound).

Fill up empty storefronts. Another idea from England, which encourages landlords with empty shops to enliven the streets by temporary deals with theaters, art galleries, and art workers. Among the incentives: It could be a way a developer can extend a building permit that might otherwise lapse, or gain tax breaks and building bonuses.

Multi-culture. Cross-disciplinary behavior is the hallmark of new online journalism (called "coopetition") as well as research universities and much of contemporary arts. In a sense, this kind of eclectic, pluralistic, multi-racial blending is a peculiar Seattle brand. (It lurks in the name Crosscut, too.) In the arts, it's very hard to pull off, usually because of board "ownership" issues. One of the few recent examples is the blended season of Early Music Guild and Seattle Baroque Orchestra, starting this year.

So why not provide real financial incentives for these long and short-term "multicultural" linkages? Some foundations might pool and target money that rewards such programming and informal joint productions. Arts districts, which will have several different disciplines in the zone, provide another way to market this diversity and build stages for shared work. It seems a particularly good formula for some of the urban neighborhoods like Ballard and Capitol Hill to deploy, where real estate costs are lower, audiences are more adventuresome, and cool, nontraditional venues like the Tractor Tavern stand waiting.


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