Arts Interview: America’s Arts Economy — Future Tragically Imperfect

Over the next two decades, slow-creeping climate change is coming to the arts in America — the arctic ice on which the creative class stands is melting.

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By Bill Marx

By 2035, Boston’s performing arts scene will be decimated, a ghost town. Most of the city’s small to medium-sized theater and opera companies, classical music ensembles and dance troupes will be extinct or barely hanging on. No more SpeakEasy Stage Company, Lyric Stage Company, and Company One. No more Blue Heron, New England Philharmonic, or Dance Umbrella. The performances of the professional performing arts companies that remain will be expensive and bland, homogenized entertainment concocted to appeal to as many easy-to-please people as possible. Those are the alarming but frightening intimations of mortality proffered by Michael M. Kaiser (who has managed the American Ballet Theatre and the Kennedy Center) in his valuable book Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America (Brandeis University Press). I suggest that anyone involved in the arts, especially those who are thinking about a career in the creative economy, take a look at this short but chilling tome.

I agree with a number of of Scott Timberg’s reservations about this volume in his thoughtful review for The Arts Fuse, but the truth is that Kaiser poses the kind of tough questions that few are willing to ask because the future looks so bleak and there is so little that can be done to avert disaster. Better to live on short-term cheer, to howl optimism, because it is good for business, good for Fine Arts Departments in universities and colleges, and good for those with the economic and technological clout to survive the tsunami to come. Over the next two decades, slow-creeping climate change is coming to the arts in America — the arctic ice on which the creative class stands is melting.

What is new about the points that Kaiser talks about in this book? For me, it isn’t the fact that the young donor class is much more in interested in giving to social issues than funding the arts. And I have long thought that the end of public arts education would not only undercut serious demand for the arts but, by removing depth of context, hollow out their substance and appeal. (The majority of my Boston University students haven’t read the Bible — the film or cartoon versions of the Old and New Testaments are enough.) You can already see how cultural illiteracy is thinning out the theatrical visions of our professional theaters. Our tragic lack of committment to funding arts education in our schools severed a cultural jugular vein. The mainstream media either ignores the arts or offers dumbed down coverage. Kaiser’s fear that the end of arts criticism levels artistic standards has been an obsession of mine — remove examples of reasoned discrimination, turn the language of reviewing into the diplomacy or puffery, and what you have left is the Darwinian triumph of marketing. The result is that well-connected artistic institutions that wield the maximum ‘branding’ power — rather than innovate or challenge — set the standards.

No, what Kaiser contributes to the conversation is his vision of how technology will be a game changer, that the current screenings in cinemas of operas and theater (by England’s National Theatre and New York’s MET, among others) signals the end of an era. What Kaiser sees with deadly accuracy is that younger generations are perfectly content to consume their ‘live’ art on screens. The next step is obvious — it is probably on the drawing boards of some of our larger arts institutions — a Netflix-inspired on-demand service for theater or opera or symphony orchestra or dance performances. For $30 a year you will be able to download the finest in music, theater, and dance from around the world to your smartphone or to your giant TV screen, which sits in a comfy living room with a state-of-the art surround-sound system. No schlepping out of the house at a set time, no parking fees, traffic woes, or weather problems. Of course, technology will continue to improve, making the visuals and the sound crisper, sharper, more ‘authentic’ — you will feel as if you are there, in the concert hall, in the theater.

That will be it — the well-heeled organizations will become part of the online subscription services, while the smaller and medium-sized companies, without the stars, production budgets, and online marketing resources, will fall by the wayside, crushed by the glossy international competition. The fixed costs of the performing arts (actors and musicians have to eat) will continue to go up, so production budgets will continue to rise. (Kaiser outlines the economics to come and the tyranny of the ‘price point.’) The future of the arts in America may come to look like the set-up in today’s professional sports — the masses will watch performances on screens (where there are no bad seats), while the high rollers dish out the big bucks to sit at the theater. But generating the big money means perpetual consolidation: a take-no-prisoners competition for more audience share will mean less choice, fewer risky ventures. A subscription to the Broadway channel and a best of the global concert halls package will pretty well cover the fix for the majority of culture consumers. In terms of creativity, that means theater, music, and dance offerings will be chosen (and tailored) to fit snugly on a screen and to coddle audiences with limited attention spans and remote controls at the ready. Nothing too demanding allowed ..

Even if you aren’t convinced by this depressing vision of the decades to come, it is worth grappling with Kaiser’s notions about our downward cultural trajectory; he argues that a golden age of the American arts has come to an end. Curtains? makes a strong case, drawing reasoned extrapolations from what is already happening now, a dire situation covered in Timberg’s Culture Crash. I sent Kaiser a few questions – his responses are below.

Arts Fuse: Your book points out a number of oft-recognized problems afflicting the arts in America: the end of arts education in public schools, the aging of the donor class, and the curtailment of cultural coverage in the mainstream media among them. But little has been written about the long-range peril they and other challenges pose to the arts. Why do you think that is?

Michael M. Kaiser: I believe you answered your first question in your last question. Artists tend to think short-term and to be optimistic. There is also some sense of circling the wagons when someone suggests that there are serious challenges ahead. I have been criticized often by my peers for looking at half- filled glasses.

AF: You write that “the first years of the twenty-first century have seen unparalleled threats to quality, quantity, and diversity of the arts.” Yet in Boston and other cities there have been an explosion of arts and culture — there are more productions here of dance, theater, classical music, than ever before. How do you explain the disconnect?

Photo: Ilan Mizrahi

Michael M. Kaiser — “I fear the number of people who feel that the arts are relevant to them is falling.” Photo: Ilan Mizrahi.

Kaiser: It is true that there has been some wonderful new work produced lately, often by young artists working outside the major institutions. But many of the larger institutions are hurting (some much more than others) and it is these institutions – the ones that produce large-scale work – that I worry about the most. I have written in the past about the joy at watching new collaborative models develop and my fear that these models don’t work for symphonies, opera companies, and ballet companies.

AF: I have argued elsewhere that the end of public arts education is what would throttle the arts in America. But you also warn that technology, married to economic realities, will undercut the existence of America’s small, medium-sized and large companies. How will a generation’s appetite for screens and seeing what they want to see when they want to see it hurt the arts — rather than be a way to spread the word ?

Kaiser: While online arts may open the doors for some people, I worry that it will be the largest, most publicized and best funded organizations which will benefit. The mid-sized regional organization will have a hard time attracting on-line audiences when performances by world famous organizations will be so available. This change in the way the arts are distributed could result in a very different arts ecology.

AF: Does the coming rise of “performing arts on demand” mean that the current rage among artistic institutions for campaigns dedicated to “accessibility” and “democratizing” the arts is misplaced?

Kaiser: I don’t think the focus on accessibility is misplaced (nor is it really new) but I do think that it will converge with online technology very quickly. And the arts organizations that do the best job exploiting online technologies will have a distinct advantage. I am not suggesting the end of the arts – I am suggesting a very different number of arts organizations will survive.

AF: You note that we have reached an end of a “golden era” in the American arts: “The arts world is changing and the children of my children will simply not have the same opportunities for inspiration and education.” How has the the end of middlebrow culture — the belief that the arts are about pleasure, status, and individual self-improvement — contributed to the current situation? Isn’t seeing the arts as a means to generate tourist dollars and economic wealth enough?

Kaiser: The rise of middlebrow culture meant that a vastly larger segment of the population felt that the arts were relevant to them. I fear the number of people who feel that the arts are relevant to them is falling. The impact of the arts on local economies and tourism were a reason for people to invest in arts institutions but not a reason to attend them. The loss in attendance for many organizations is dramatic and suggests that the economic justification will be far less persuasive.

AF: As a critic, I appreciate that you note that quality arts criticism is a valuable part of the arts ecology. How crucial has the demise of criticism been to what has happened to the arts in America? Are serious, independent reviewers the canaries in the mine shaft? Aren’t blogs enough?

Kaiser: The loss of professional criticism, along with fewer pages of our papers focused on the arts, and the demise of the recording industry all contribute to a loss of visibility for our arts institutions and artists. In the 1970s, I could go to the Metropolitan Opera and hear Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Montserrat Caballe, Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Sherrill Milnes. We don’t have the same number of household names in opera today. I would argue this is not the result of a lack of good singers, but the lack of marketing. Blogs simply do not make up for this.

AF: You have run the John F.Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Royal Opera House, the American Ballet Theatre, and the Alvin Ailey organization. What do the rich and powerful think about the future of the arts? Isn’t the indifference of the young, moneyed class to the arts partly about rebellion?

Kaiser: I cannot speak for the rich and powerful but I do believe that many are worried about the future of the arts. I have not observed that younger people are simply being rebellious – I have seen them get their entertainment in different ways that were unavailable when their parents were younger.

AF: For me, your vision of what an attenuated arts terrain will look like in 20 years raises vital issues about survival — it is a warning that should be read by artists, performing arts groups large and small, students and faculty in universities, and concerned legislators. But artists habitually think short term and prefer optimism. How can that reluctance to look ahead be turned around?

Kaiser: I am hoping that books like this one may begin a conversation that looks at the longer term.

Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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