Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Nice to see Michael Kaiser coming out against those who would blame arts organizations' travails on unions and be done with it:
It is absolutely true that when income falls precipitously, as it has for many arts organizations, costs must be realigned. And it is also true that unions, in protecting their workers, fight tooth and nail to maintain their members' standard of living and work environment. That is why there are unions in the first place.

But the key issue is: why has revenue fallen so far for so many arts organizations?

It is not the fault of union members that we are selling fewer tickets or raising less funds. We can blame a terrible economy, lack of arts education in our schools, substantially lower government grants at every level and new forms of entertainment that compete for the time and resources of our audiences for much of the reduction in resources available for arts organizations. A recent study, for example, found that contributions for the arts fell much farther during the recession than had previously been expected.
There sure has been a disturbing amount of union-bashing in the last year or so. Not that one isn't allowed to disagree with specific unions' actions or policies, mind you--these are fallible institutions seeking their constituents' interests like any other, and any specific case will have multiple perspectives. What's distressing are the kneejerk suggestions that have nothing to do with a specific case but just generally assume collective bargaining practices are incompatible with economic reality.
The implication here is that union workers have been able to extract, and refuse to give up, salaries so unreasonable that they are a major impediment to institutions' financial health. Hence all the unseemly public dissection of middle and upper-middle class incomes and pundit handwringing over whether some other citizen "deserves" their morsel, a frequent note in the debate around public employees in Wisconsin as well as the orchestra performers in Detroit.
But this is just acquiescing to what anti-labor conservatives would have us believe: that workers are are entitled to no more than how the "market" prices their labor. This may sound good in econ 101, but in the real world negotiations do a much better job of ensuring workers get their fair share. Amidst capricious labor markets, stagnant wages, and persistent unemployment, its a bit alarming that so many are ready to believe unions have outlived their usefulness.
Update: Lisa Hirsch drops some truth bombs about some of the classical institution crises du jour in this post right here. Also see today's podcast from Andrew Patner.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

More Liberals and the Arts

CAP's Alyssa Rosenberg delves into the issue of whether the arts should do more to align themselves with progressive politics (and by extension the Democratic party) to shore up a more durable position from which to protect its funding. She sees the appeal of this idea, but also wisely points out the costs:
But powerful outside groups have had to use hot pincers to obtain much of the support labor and women’s organizations have obtained from the Democratic lawmakers, and still experienced dramatic contractions of labor rights, union memberships, and abortion access. Throwing in with a political party may get the arts community access to machinery and infrastructure—but it would require arts organizations to build formidable new organizations and fundraising capacity to earn a seat at the party table, much less a favorable slot in the list of Democratic priorities.
The cultural sector in America possesses nothing akin to the organizations these other causes use to translate supporter dollars into lobbying might. And while there are an endless number of enlightened notions precious to progressive Washington, only the ones that line up along some angle of money and constituency actually precipitate action and taxpayer dollars.
That aside, how likely of a fit are the arts for progressive politics? Rosenberg calls it a "tough sell" because progressives, despite their best intentions, still have a hard time sticking up for controversial art, a big roadblock given conservatives' undimmed enthusiasm for culture war stunts.
But I think this underplays the real challenge: that liberals have serious misgivings about whether even the non-degenerate arts warrant government funding. Certainly there is a large swathe of liberals (who probably intersect with public television and radio contributors) that consider arts funding a virtuous use of taxpayer dollars. We observes this milieu, compares it to the narrow-minded, anti-intellectual strain of conservative zealotry now (still) ascendant, and assumes that liberals must be on the side of culture and by extension whatever government can do for it. But that fight is really about free speech and cultural tastes (i.e. letting people express themselves vs. being a reactionary asshole); it tells us very little about how different political persuasions feel about government's role in subsidizing the arts.
So in the interest of figuring out where liberal-minded people really come down on that question, I submit four concerns/suspicions that a lot, if not the majority, of liberals probably have about government funded sponsorship of the arts:
  1. Arts subsidies have some fundamentally anti-populist features. This is the protest one hears against government support when aligned with bastions of "high" culture--that the government shouldn't be in the business of supporting culture that is experienced by relatively few people or culture that, despite subsidies, still charges for entry.
  2. Unsubsidized culture is satisfying enough. If you don't mind largely excluding a few sectors (i.e. classical music), it is the case today that a liberal-minded person in a big city can live a highly fulfilling cultural life without ever consuming (or more importantly perceive that they are consuming) a piece of art that has received any direct government subsidy.
  3. Arts subsidies' effect on societal welfare is weak to nonexistent. After 40 years of fighting a rearguard action against conservatives who would drown government in the proverbial bathtub, liberals are highly protective of the narrow but unimpeachable space in which justified government action exists. As an economic welfare enhancing activity, the arts may well have some value, but it falls somewhere below the already dubious value of state-sponsored sports stadiums and well short of preferred investments in infrastructure, health care, etc.
  4. Arts subsidies go to works without redeeming social/political content. This is sort of the liberal counterpart of conservatives' anger over taxpayer dollars spent on "degenerate art"--a sense that, if the people are going to fund art, then it should at least advance the peoples' aims. More fundamentally, it is a rebuke to the (not unfounded) concern that governments sponsor art in order to perpetuate the dominant culture.
Save perhaps for #3 and probably #4, you'll recognize these as points that Greg Sandow makes frequently. What arts (and especially classical music) inclined folks need to confront is that he's not playing a classical music provocateur when he channels these ideas, but as a liberal trying to reconcile his enthusiasm for the arts with his gut reactions.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Follies at the Kennedy Center

Big caveat: I am a Follies virgin as far as a staged production goes--listened for years, read my share, etc., but suffice it to say this is going to include a lot of half baked speculation of what Follies "should" be. Fair warning and all.
Its not a huge mystery why this show is problematic. The central story of Ben and Phyllis and Buddy and Sally--the now-tortured couples who met thirty years ago while the women were chorines in the last days of the fictional "Weisman Follies"--requires the highest caliber acting if it is to be believed amidst the book's flimsy framework. And then there is the massive score that demands its army of supporting players deliver the pastiche songs with such a range of particular shadings that the probability one production will get them all right approaches zero. And, perhaps most troublesome, the production numbers can't just coast along on empty dazzle, how they are presented and their effectiveness are integral to the success of the show.
The current Kennedy Center production, directed by Signature Theatre's Eric Schaeffer, does well on point 1, not so good on point 2, and quite strongly on point 3. And when it is firing on all of these cylinders--as it might more frequently in a less fallible world--it is truly a thing of terrible beauty.
Even by Sondheim standards, the four principals in Follies each has a daunting acting challenge. Among these, Sally, the 49-year-old living out a 19-year-old's fantasy world, is surely the heaviest lift, and Bernadette Peters follows her down the emotional rabbit-hole fearlessly. This is the Sally the book really asks for--damaged goods from the start and often an unlikable wreck, even as she breaks your heart. On the whole, this is a very successful interpretation, set back only by the fact that BP looks more spectacular than any downtrodden housewife has a right to. Also, the Act I numbers, particularly "Too Many Mornings", are clearly a bitch to sing, but they may lie in an especially unfriendly portion of BP's voice and she has not quite figured out how to navigate them successfully.
The slightly weak link among the principals is Ron Raines' Benjamin Stone. Raines brings a fine, strong voice to the part that makes Ben's numbers a lot more attractive than when done by an older voice (i.e. John McMartin on the OBC). But its also difficult to take his travails seriously--rather than a man thoroughly broken by the evening's end, this Ben doesn't seem to fully believe the claims to agony coming out of his own mouth.
Jan Maxwell's Phyllis and Danny Burstein's Buddy are recommended without reservation. Her "Could I Leave You" and his "God-Why-Don't-I-Love-You-Blues" (hon. mention to "The Right Girl") are probably the finest instances of the Sondheimian art on view in this production, each delivered with a blistering, spot-on intelligence.
On the second point: Can I make a somewhat glib blanket statement about the problems with the supporting cast? Older actresses may not be old enough to make Follies work properly anymore. The haunting magic of the show is rooted in a central conceit that is just a little bit grotesque: elderly people inhabited by the ghosts of their former selves to the point where they, and the audience, can't quite tell where the person ends and the ghost begins. The idea is that as we age we must learn to cope with our accumulated spectral pasts--the protagonists of Follies are pointedly middle-aged to explore the problems of succumbing too early to those ghosts against the backdrop of the older performers who may be in closer communion with them. But the dramatic effect of this contrast doesn't really take off when everyone onstage resides in that robust, perpetual middle-age which we now take for granted.
For instance, Linda Lavin sings"Broadway Baby" here as though she has no plans of quitting show business any time soon. Lavin sounds and looks great (in a classy purple cocktail outfit), and gives a stirring performance of the song, but that's just the trouble. "Broadway Baby" isn't a feel good showstopper to demonstrate the actress has "still got it"--set properly in the context of the show it should have clear pangs of discomfort, where the key lyric "Maybe someday/All my dreams will be repaid" is poignant and dark (though the degree to which the character delivering it is in on the irony may be ambiguous).
Unfortunately, this is largely the MO for all of the Act I character numbers, not least of all a very unconvincing "I'm Still Here" sung by Elaine Page. Schaeffer stages them as cute crowd-pleasers and the audience is duly pleased, but the thread of loss, wistfulness, delusion, and gritty determination that should run through these sequences and define the mood of the show is rarely found.
That leaves the final leg of the Follies three-legged stool: the production numbers. And on this count the Kennedy Center production does very well. "Mirror, Mirror" is an early success. A largely faithful recreation of Michael Bennet's original choreography (so I gather), the interplay between the ghost dancers and the aging stars is complex and fluid, producing the unnerving effect of the boundaries between past and present being crossed.
The main event--the Loveland sequence in which the leads' intractable emotional mess is transfigured into a half hour musical theatre extravaganza--is an acid delight from beginning to end, a winning spectacle that rivets your attention with its blend of bravado and emotional nakedness. The one weak link may be Peters' "Losing My Mind". She offers a devastating, emotionally fraught performance in line with the characterization she has marked out, but it feels out of step with the fantasy of "Loveland", where the characters are supposed to be burrowed into characters within themselves until Ben's epiphany breaks the spell. "Losing My Mind" should be Sally as wounded chanteuse, not Sally as wounded housewife.
Update: Just in case it's not clear, that IS a recommendation to go see the show. If it isn't quite the elusive unicorn Follies one dreams of, it is nonetheless a very serious, rewarding attempt to grapple with the show and one that invests the level of resources necessary to present a legitimate full-fledged production. Not to be missed if you love Sondheim and can manage (it closes June 19th)...