Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mutilating the majors: A quick recap and step forward

By Barry Johnson

For the past couple of days, we've been describing and re-describing the condition of the major performing arts groups in Portland. First, I took exception to David Stabler's account in The Oregonian, which seemed to equate the balanced budgets of the majors with overall health.  I summoned forth the provocative (and some might say, imperial) Michael Kaiser to take issue with that equation.

Several of you jumped into the conversation in the comments section of the original Mutilating the Majors post and on Twitter, correcting the record and doing some important describing of your own. I liked hearing from both Mighty Toy Cannon and TPancio, for example, both arts adminstrators at large theater companies (two of the three largest, in fact) that the major arts organizations were taking Kaiser's prescription seriously (though I have heard some conflicting information on this, I must add).

And I found the description of our recent history by Jeff Hawthorne of the Regional Arts & Culture Council quite helpful: "... coming out of our most recent period of economic growth of the mid 2000s, several arts organizations grew their budgets yet failed to build their audiences and donors. Not sustainable. Some groups funded what growth they could muster by raising their ticket prices faster than inflation, contributing to community disenfranchisement. Some grew to unsustainable proportions and now must right-size their organizations to give them another day and a new baseline from which to build upon."

My original point (and I think Kaiser might agree) was that budget-cutting in and of itself doesn't solve the essential problem of arts organizations, and it probably make them worse in the long run, especially if it happens over several years. 

A balanced budget isn't a sign of success in these circumstances, and it can mask temporarily the ongoing problem that arts organizations face.

I wasn't clear about what that problem was until I talked to Carl Herko of the Oregon Symphony the other day. He put it succinctly, in terms of his own organization. The problem the symphony has, he said, is making classical music central to the lives of more people in the community.

Let's simply extend that: The problem the major arts organizations have is making the arts more central to the lives of more people in the community.  If they have fewer resources devoted to reaching new audiences, then they are in worse condition than they were.  If they have fewer resources devoted to figuring out ways to encourage deeper participation in their activities by their audiences, then they are in worse condition than they were. Finally, if they have fewer resources devoted to creating great art experiences, then they are worse off than they were, because great art attracts and animates their audiences.

The major arts organizations in Portland have small cash reserves and relatively small endowments, especially compared to orchestras, museums and ballet companies in older, larger, wealthier cities. To survive, they must run break even or nearly so. A balanced budget is important. But it tells us little about the underlying health of the organism, except that it isn't dead. Which is a beginning, I suppose.

Looking forward, I'm worried about two things. The first is that we as a community will think that the arts are "fine" when we hear that the budgets of the majors are balanced. And thinking they are fine, we will not do the things we need to do -- as individuals and as a community -- to make sure they succeed in delivering art experiences (the best and most pertinent they can devise) to more and more of us.

The second is that in the demoralizing struggle to cut their budgets, the arts groups will not have sufficient time, resources and energy to reconsider how they operate. The climate arts groups face has changed and is changing more as I type, the economic and social and media climate. Most of those changes have made it more difficult for them to survive, let alone project themselves more aggressively into the culture.  They need space and time to figure out how to change themselves to survive in these new circumstance.

That's what we need them to do, too, project more aggressively -- to help us recreate a sense of social cohesion in our community, to give us zones of contemplation and escape, to provide us with the experiences of other times and places that have relevance to our own. For our own sanity.

In subsequent posts and discussions we'll be talking about more specific solutions to the problem. And as the situation evolves, we'll need better and better descriptions of it.

Right now,  for example, I'm reading Christopher Alexander's "The Oregon Experiment" for some advice. Alexander is best known for his collaborative book "A Pattern Language," which sought to provide a source book for "regular" people as they contemplated problems in architecture and design. "The Oregon Experiment," which details his practical experience designing the campus at the University of Oregon, has applications far beyond architecture and urban planning, I think. It crucially and democratically places users at the center of all design decisions, and I'm starting to imagine an approach to the cultural landscape that does the same thing.

Mentions of Mutilating the Majors on other sites:

Charles Noble of the Oregon Symphony talks about Kaiser and cutting after previously re-capping the discussion himself.

Noble's fellow violist Sam Bergman of the Minnesota Orchestra dealt with Kaiser and Oregon, too.

David Stabler posted a blog item on an email exchange we had yesterday (he left out all my best jokes!).


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It'll be possible once I get a blog roll together, and if your site is arts-related.

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