Oregon arts are in big trouble. The Covid crisis has, as in many parts of our society, exposed critical flaws in the ways Oregon supports its performing arts. Former Portland Opera Managing Director Christopher Mattaliano lays out some of the primary causes in his ArtsWatch story Will Portland Protect its ‘Big 5’?
I think that’s the wrong question. The right question is: in the new reality shaped by declining support for big performing institutions, likely new restrictions on big crowds, and a long overdue need for greater diversity, equity and inclusion in the arts, how should Portland and Oregon support the arts? Rather than squander energy futilely trying to “protect” a doomed, dated, unsustainable set of 19th century institutions from 21st century reality, we should use this crisis as a chance to radically transform a model that, as Mattaliano noted, wasn’t working all that great before the virus struck. And we want Oregon ArtsWatch to be the place where we discuss that transformation. I’ll touch it off with a proposal that looks for salvation — or at least evolution — in an entirely different direction than what we might call the old MAGA (Make Art Great Again) model: more decentralized, more democratic, more equitable and inclusive, and, I hope, less susceptible to viral outbreaks.
Mattaliano and others are right that even Oregon’s — really, America’s — arts funding model was broken long before that virus jumped over to our species.
The art costs too much. Mattaliano — and every fundraising letter from every major arts organization — notes that ticket revenues cover only a fraction (the number varies for different companies) of the costs of a production. “This financial reality – that arts organizations actually lose money every time they produce an exhibit, performance, etc – is often bewildering,” to non-insiders, Mattaliano wrote. “It must seem like such a terrible business model!”
It is. But that just begs the real question: why are companies producing art that can’t pay for itself? Either its costs are too high or its audience appeal is too low. Apparently, Mega MAGA art isn’t worth it to the existing audience. “The subscription model, which has been the life-blood of so many arts organizations, was already faltering and on life support,” he wrote. “Consumers simply are not purchasing season subscriptions as they once did.”
Why? Other kinds of music, like any Oregon hip hop or indie rock band, seem to survive without subscriptions just fine. That doesn’t mean that opera or orchestral music or high end paintings shouldn’t exist. It’s merely to acknowledge that, at least as currently constituted, they cost more than other art forms, and, unless ways can be found to reduce those costs (see below) or expand their audiences, then somebody has to pay that difference, either the users or somebody else.
The solution to this disconnect between what the old guard wants to perform and what audiences are willing to pay to hear has hitherto been to rely on deep-pocketed enablers — other funding sources to fill the gap. And as Mattaliano notes, these days, “somebody elses” — donors, taxpayers, foundations, audiences — are no longer enough. Previously reliable funding pillars, private (foundations and wealthy donors) and public (government), Mattaliano notes, have pulled back support, or provided relatively little to begin with. Oregon’s cozy pool of generous arts donors is either tapped out (“donor fatigue”) or aging out — no realistic prospect of increased funding from there.
As for public support, we can debate whether institutions overwhelmingly devoted to recycling decade or centuries old creations from Europe merit the same public support as actual public goods like schools, universities, libraries (where much of the art of the past can be experienced virtually, through books or recordings), not to mention predatory police and our imperialistic military industrial complex. Regardless, as Mattaliano explains, it seems unlikely that significant relief will be coming from those quarters.
Why the lack of support? Mattaliano addresses this too. “What type of arts organization is the community willing to support?” he asks. Great question! Increasingly, he and Portland Opera found, it wasn’t what the old model offered.
Mattaliano accurately attributes some of this lack of support to what he calls “the ‘anti-big’ sentiment that exists in Portland – from some foundations, government arts agencies, and even individuals. I’ve never quite understood it,” Mattaliano wrote. “In most mid-sized American cities, the sentiment is: ‘If we’re going to be a great city, of course we need a great museum, theater company, etc. – they’re a source of pride for the community and deserving of our support.”
One problem is that our arts palaces lock in comparably palatial costs. In this grave new world, bigness, in fact, is actually a bug, not a feature. “The immense and costly apparatus of culture — theaters, opera houses, and orchestra halls — have become a liability, ill-suited to the COVID-19 age,” writes one of America’s finest critics, New York magazine’s Justin Davidson. Producing in mega-venues like Portland5 or the Hult Center is so expensive that they discourage artistic risk as well as affordable tickets. The unviability of the centralized, large-scale approach will be exacerbated by the new virus-imposed restrictions coming down the pike if this crisis proves to be more than a one-time aberration. If we’re to rethink future performance, lowering costs (and therefore risks, and barriers to entry by local artists) has to be a big part of it, possibly including tech-like streaming.
Still, venue and company size — what we might call the Godzilla Test — aren’t the only reasons why the community isn’t willing to support Big 5 style productions in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. Portlanders, and Oregonians in general, aren’t necessarily against big entertainment institutions because of their size or ticket prices, as any Trail Blazers game or major rock show at venues like the Moda Center and Memorial Coliseum reveals.
Yet in Portland arts, at least, “big” doesn’t always equal “great.” When it comes to size, in the words of the old R&B song, “It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion,” and despite changes in demographics, technology, and culture, those big old companies haven’t moved very far from the old European-tradition models of what constitutes greatness. Even in the classical music tradition, Oregon’s chamber music groups and organizations, which require far less subsidy than operas or orchestras, display far greater cultural relevance than the big companies, which are forced by their very size to fill the seats in those giant venues. So why keep feeding the white elephants?
Importing Cultural Cred
The “bigger is better” mentality wasn’t the old MAGA model’s only shortcoming. What also keeps operas and orchestra concerts from paying for themselves, or attracting donations and ticket sales sufficient to pay for them, is the outdated notion that civic “greatness” stems from 19th century European institutions like opera companies and symphony orchestras. Why should “greatness” equate to “old” and European?
Mattaliano is right that in the 20th century, upwardly mobile metropolitan leaders pursued cultural credibility by looking to the signifiers of major European and East Coast metropoli. If London, Paris, New York all had big opera companies on the European model, so the thinking went, if we get one and imitate them, then ipso facto, we’re great too! Instant elite-certified cultural cred, without those annoying, carbon Bigfootprint flights to New York or San Francisco.
But even if you accept the notion that greatness comes from outside rather than being homegrown, then why is cultural cred conferred by only some (white) traditional culture? Who says that an opera company performing the racist century-old Italian tragedy Madame Butterfly for the umpteenth time is “greater” than, say, the equally long tradition of Indian music (extremely relevant to much of the population in the part of Oregon where I live) or West African or Japanese taiko or Indonesian gamelan percussion ensembles or new music by Portland composers, or by rappers or rockers, both of whom work in a musical tradition with African roots? Yet which of these traditions — none born in the USA — absorbs a disproportionate share of subsidies and ‘cultural’ space, literally and otherwise? And if the answer is, well, more Americans come out to hear Puccini than Pak Cokro, then we’re judging by numbers, and by that standard, we should be subsidizing Springsteen and Beyonce instead. And even with, say, Verdi, how many would find that expensive art worth buying a ticket for if they weren’t subsidized?
I’m a fan of European classical music and have spent a good portion of my career writing about it and hearing it live. (I’m listening to glorious Mozart as I type this.) But I don’t believe my personal cultural preference deserves taxpayer subsidy (whether directly to companies or indirectly through tax-deductible contributions or venue funding) more than other robust art forms. I’m all for subsidizing the arts — but which arts? Not just those considered ‘great’ by a certain class and mostly, let’s face it, race. If people like me want to see art in the classical European tradition, then we should pay for it — not other people, not unless other, homegrown, culturally diverse institutions get their appropriate share of the taxpayer pie. I’d be happy if our society would continue to dole out taxpayer money (through indirect or direct subsidy, like the venues) to orchestras and opera companies at pre-Covid rates. But only if it also gives equal weight to other arts traditions and forms.
Jettison the Middle Man
This isn’t to deny the value that (as Mattaliano rightly cites) the Big 5 add to Portland’s arts scene (or Eugene’s, or Oregon’s in general) as “anchors” for smaller spinoff organizations, educational opportunities, etc. For example, many members of ensembles like 45th Parallel have day jobs in the Oregon Symphony.
But like any anchor, by soaking up so much support, the funding that those mostly backward-looking big organizations garner from public and private sources also prevents the vessel from moving forward. And forward motion is essential in a time when evolving demographics and social distancing and other changes threaten to swamp the lovely old relic. Why should taxpayers and donors have to support a 19th century arts model like Portland Opera or Oregon Symphony in order for a fraction of those benefits to trickle down to, say, FearNoMusic? If we want to support socially responsive homegrown contemporary music like that worthy organization and others provide, why not just fund them directly, and cut out the middle man that devotes the vast bulk of its programming to old music made elsewhere? Pay those musicians a living wage through direct support, and they won’t need to treat them as side gigs. I’ve certainly seen plenty of performances of smaller-scale works by non-opera or non-symphony musicians that are better played — orchestral and chamber playing are very different skills — and more rehearsed than those moonlighting from their day jobs.
It’s about at this point that some other defenders of the so-called high arts, including some who’ve never before evinced much tangible concern about people of color, suddenly notice that those audiences are often overwhelmingly white. They righteously demand ticket subsidies— not to protect their jobs and cultural preferences, of course, but for the noble cause of enlightening the poor. Mattaliano correctly notes that subsidies, whether private or public, benefit not the rich — who can afford to pay full freight — but the 99 percent, or maybe 88 percent, who can’t.
Of course, plenty of poor people and the rest of the 99% like me do want to hear operas and symphonies, just as plenty of moguls headbang to low-fi metal. But restoring the dwindling subsidies to 19th century cultural institutions is hardly the most efficient, let alone democratic way to help the poor — and in our unequal society, that disproportionately means people of color. It essentially lets the high-culture establishment — not the poor — paternalistically dictate what art gets subsidized. And that tends to be the retro, imported art that the mostly white, mostly well-off establishment deems worthy, not necessarily what the people they say they want to help actually want to hear.
This isn’t to say that if you like Bach, you’re perforce a white supremacist or racist, of course. It’s not the music itself that’s the problem, but the funding priorities (whether in venue or organizational subsidies) that support it. By privileging support for a certain kind of art — one born in a white, European tradition and still predominantly consisting of repertoire by white composers — over other art forms, including African American originated music like jazz or hip hop, on the grounds of its cultural superiority, the MAGA funding model looks a whole lot like white cultural supremacy manifested in concert halls, even if those playing and enjoying the music would never call themselves white supremacists. As Eugene Symphony music director Francesco Lecce-Chong recently wrote, “The fact is that our collective programming across the U.S. has failed on every level to bring diversity into the concert hall – living composers, women composers, Black composers, Latinx composers, Asian composers, even American composers are all woefully underrepresented on stage.”
If we want to make sure poor people can experience art — great, then again, let’s cut out the middle man: Subsidize those Oregonians — not elite cultural institutions — directly, through a universal basic income or other taxpayer-financed payments, and let them choose what to spend their entertainment dollars on. If they choose to spend it on the symphony, how cool would that be? If they don’t, well, maybe opera companies and orchestras can start earning their support, asking them what they want to hear — and providing it. Unless of course they think they know better than the people they purport to serve.
Many institutions are pondering how to respond to this spring’s crisis. As Christopher Mattaliano put it: “I remain hopeful that the current time will be a period of deep creative thinking and possible solutions. Perhaps Portland can become a leader in reimagining how its local arts groups, large and small, can serve and lead their community – but based on what’s realistic economically and on what the community has demonstrated it is willing to support.”
Exactly. Instead of trying to protect what we had before, let’s promote what we want and need now. In Oregon arts, I think it’s time for a Deep Reset, defined by writer Cal Newport: “like Odysseus, we can allow the disruption — painful as it is — to spark the resolve needed to find our way out of the underworld, fight to get our affairs back in order, and then, when the time comes, with a mix of humility and purpose: transform our lives into something deeper …. The best response to deep disruption, in other words, is often a deep reset.”
Decisions about community support for the arts — or anything else — should be guided by community values. Here are the principles I think should guide Oregon’s art support reset.
• Homegrown. I challenge the whole idea that in a great city, greatness comes from importing ideas from outside. I think greatness — in the arts or anything else — comes from within. Oregon’s art supporters, public and private, should prioritize nurturing our own creative artists, not old art created by non-Oregonians. “Composers are better positioned to save our culture than traditional music is,” Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Lang told New York magazine, “because if you’re designing a new piece and a new experience you can try to make the situation seem as normal as possible.”
• Equitable and inclusive. Like the rest of our public policy, Oregon’s art support has neglected artists of color in favor of cultural supremacist notions that art created by white Europeans deserves support more than that created by black and brown Oregon artists, many of whom are creating innovative, powerful music in non-classical traditions. Our public art should support their creativity, including supplying venues all over the state that are right-sized and right-priced to allow as broad a segment of the community as possible to create and enjoy them.
• Creative, not passive. Instead of the old, big, top-down approach that encourages Oregonians to sit back and passively consume Great Art (as defined by 19th century European criteria) created ages ago and worlds away, a reset arts policy should support the creative work of Oregon artists (and might-be artists in schools) through grants, interest-free loans and accessible performance venues. Let presenters — not just backscratching artists — in on the decisions about what art gets funded. After all, they’re the ones who have skin in the game — a market incentive to make sure the art actually appeals to an audience greater than the creators themselves.
• Decentralized, Distributed, Democratic, Diverse. Let those who want to enjoy those elephantine Euro-experiences, as well as touring Broadway shows and concerts by non-Oregonians, have them — as long as they (we, because I count myself a fan too) pay for them. If they can’t, either sell off costly venues that no longer respond to the artistic needs of vast parts of our multicultural 21st century state, or refurbish/refashion them to support homegrown creativity. When it comes to support, ditch the edifice complex and instead pay existing venues — concert halls, churches, theaters, community centers — to refurbish themselves to fit the art today’s Oregonians are making. Work with local architects and designers. Ensure that affordable, flexible, right-sized venues exist throughout the state, including in underserved areas, not just big-city downtowns. Pay the venues what it takes, up to a reasonable limit, to price tickets affordably, like $10, on a sliding scale.
How would those principles operate in practice? Chamber ensembles and even chamber orchestras (which would allow musicians to maintain safe distance from each other) will continue to exist and perform, though maybe not in Schnitzer-sized venues. Think Portland Columbia Symphony, Oregon Mozart Players, and community orchestras. After all, Haydn did pretty well with a compact orchestra at Esterhazy, and the Louisville Orchestra earned a worldwide
reputation for its mid-20th century commissions of new music by American composers from Duke Ellington to Lou Harrison. As we’re all constantly reminded these days, there are always YouTube and other online options if you want to stream Great Orchestras playing hoary classics. Personally, I’ll miss the Big 5 experience, even as I understand that it might not be sustainable in the 21st century.
“If we can’t import talent, which is what our whole industry thrives on, we lose a lot of profound experiences,” the superb new music flutist and entrepreneur Claire Chase told Davidson. “But look at what we gain. An institution that has never paid much attention to new work or local artists all of a sudden has to pay attention to them.”
Instead of funding MAGA art made elsewhere and elsewhen, let’s devote taxpayer dollars to programs and places that nurture Oregon’s own art, analogous to the way some New Deal programs paid for made-in-America art and artists we still venerate. Take the money that now goes to fly in European artists and spend it on organizations like Cascadia Composers, Creative Music Guild, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, and other locavore institutions that encourage Oregonians to create their own music — including hip hop, electronica, rock and whatever those crazy kids these days are listening to .
Of course a few — or rather, a few thousand — details need to be worked out. I’m a journalist, Jim, not an architect or policy wonk. And clearly they’ll depend on the timing and shape of the economy’s recovery, whenever and however that happens. But the general principles — homegrown vs. import, actively creative vs. passively receptive, human-scale vs. Bigfoot or Godzilla — can guide us. A strategy like this would gain the public support that Mattaliano rightly says the old model can’t any longer, because it appeals to Oregon’s anti-big values, our taste for locally grown products from beer to food, and our Western reluctance to mindlessly follow the elitist dictates of East Coast tastemakers.
What would that Oregon art scene look like? It might not have its own Great Orchestra or Opera presenting the last two centuries’ classics for elite audiences to passively imbibe. Socially distant performances will become the norm, possibly even after a vaccine arrives. Audiences might number in the dozens or scores rather than thousands — better for virus transmission prevention — and in smaller venues. (It might look something like this. Or maybe this.)
But there’d be more performances, of more kinds, in more places all over towns, not just a few mega-palaces. And the new arts scene would instead have thousands of newly empowered creative artists, representing a much wider demographic swath of Oregonians, making far more diverse art that speaks to Oregonians here and now. A state that invests in the creativity of all its citizens rather than the passive experience of other times and places sounds pretty Great to me.
How do you think Oregon arts support should look when the great restart finally happens? I hope we can use this summer of enforced introspection for a radical rethinking of what art Oregon supports, publicly and privately. ArtsWatch is the ideal venue for that discussion. We invite readers and arts leaders to reimagine where that public money would go in a new era if we don’t have to keep feeding the white elephant that’s been faltering for years now. Let’s envision ways our arts scene could be more responsive to local needs (both audiences and creative artists), more accessible and appealing to diverse Oregonians, and more compatible with how performance will work post pandemic. Leave your brief thoughts in the comments section below, and then email your more extensive ideas to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll consider running some of them here on ArtsWatch.
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