Events vs. Culture

Southwest Chamber Music performance for the 2015 LA International New Music Festival at REDCAT in Walt Disney Concert Hall

My observations of our world have a recurring theme —  ample resources exist alongside an inability to spend wisely. Whether looking for solutions to the pressing problems of the environment, education, or politics, people who control the money rarely look beyond their individual experience to explore what is best for their community.

In politics, each voice tries to scream the loudest to be heard rather than finding a compromise. We have charter schools with their own focus to the detriment of public education. The oil industry continues to deface our planet for profit. And in the cultural world, we throw money at status entertainment rather than developing paths to future creativity.

I am no expert in the environment or politics. However, I have observed how money is spent in the arts world. Many of our arts presentations have become high-priced entertainment, with superstar performers, spectacular concert halls, and status that comes from supporting the most expensive cultural presentations.

Historically, the arts were maintained by royalty and wealthy individuals. As the world shifted to democratic ideals, governments took up the charge to present their culture at home and abroad. The Goethe Institute, Institut français, Japan Foundation and many other government agencies continue to provide valuable international support for their artists. As I wrote in my previous blog, the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble of Mexico is only one example of an ensemble which has an international career led by government advocates around the globe.

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Hanoi New Music Ensemble, conducted by Jeff von der Schmidt, performing in 2016 at the Institut français in Hanoi, Vietnam

What has shifted in the arts during the past 30 years reflects the reality of income inequality around the world. As the 1% grew richer, philanthropy began to focus on individual donor recognition rather than developing inclusive projects or solving community needs. It became a Fantasia situation where chasing arts donors with bigger and bigger recognition made everyone lose sight of the root of the arts — creativity. When you build a skyscraper, it is very difficult to see the street below.

Without creativity, society suffers. There is widespread agreement that the most developed countries and societies demonstrate cultural maturity through artistic accomplishments. Creative achievements survive civilizations such as the Romans, Greeks, and Khmer. We look to culture to provide a link to understanding what has come before us.

In many environments, creativity has been taken hostage and turned into entertainment. Nowadays we focus on buildings and popular culture rather than exploring new artistic expression. True exploration still exists, but it is mostly housed in academia or at smaller organizations. The public now expects the arts to be presented in stadiums or high-priced venues, backed by multi-million dollar institutions who can afford marketing and publicity to fill every seat with art that “sells.”

Our organization is proud of the work we have accomplished: bringing forward new musical works, collaborating with other artists internationally and at home, and developing a successful model of a mid-sized arts ensemble. The quality of our work is more important to us rather than the size of the audience. We have observed many composers who have also chosen to create in a environment of smaller ensembles rather than chasing the symphony orchestra or opera house where success is measured by financial box office results.

What has developed from this current focus on “bigger is better” is a divided culture in the arts —  larger “presenter” versus smaller “producer,” events vs. culture. A presenter in the arts is an organization that holds the keys to performing venues, such as concert halls, theaters, and museums, and decides which artists to hire to provide their programming.

Southwest Chamber Music is a good example of artistic self-production where the focus is on the development of creativity — in our case, through music of our time. Our audiences came to appreciate learning about current musical creativity in numerous concerts throughout the year. We formed our locally-based ensemble, rented appropriate smaller venues, sold and marketed tickets to our performances, and raised money to support our efforts. Occasionally we were hired (presented) by venues or other organizations, especially when we toured outside of Los Angeles. In those situations, we received a fee for our performances from the presenter.

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Members of Southwest Chamber Music prior to our 2010 performance in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Sounds pretty good on paper, and often it is a wonderful situation. An ensemble such as Southwest looked toward presenters to support special projects outside our city, but we always determined our own artistic profile. Many artists often focus solely on touring, depending on presenters for all of their concert engagements, a historical model for many theater, dance and music groups. But this model places an ensemble in a community often for only one performance a year.

In the past few decades, the presenter model changed to a focus on entertainment — artists with household names (Perlman, Fleming, Yo Yo Ma) performing in bigger and fancier venues. Symphony orchestras and opera companies grew to build their own venues to present their resident large ensemble and visiting groups. And, donors wanted to be the first to place their name in a new concert hall or theater, designed by the most famous architect. People wanted to see the new building rather than experience the art inside.

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Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California

Over time, the presenter began to hold the keys not only to the building, but to the art inside. They began to discuss programming with the artists, what they felt would sell to their audience. “Oh, please don’t bring any challenging music — it won’t sell.” The marketing department began to determine artistic content, which became more and more conservative — the artists became less responsible for their artistic profile

The result was that the presenter, because of the large number of seats and number of engagements, became the arbiter of artistic life in the community. The presenters have the most money, the most prominent donors, and access to publicity. In many smaller communities, this could be a positive way to bring culture forward. However, by turning art into high-priced entertainment, presenters took community resources and spent them on one-night appearances that did little to encourage local artistic development. The fee for one visiting orchestra’s single performance was often more than the entire annual budget for a local group!

Unfortunately, many smaller organizations find it increasingly difficult to access donors and venues due to lack of staff and time. Sometimes a theater group will grow enough to purchase their own space. And, there are some enlightened small venues who present local artists, such as Boston Court in Pasadena, California, who provide space for locally based theater and music performances.

Boston Court in Pasadena, California

We need to connect the dots. With a decrease in arts education over time, the presenter culture has often become detrimental to the arts. Of course there are enlightened presenters and marketing departments, but because of less arts education, there are fewer and fewer artistically trained administrators. Over time there is now less and less money and resources available to local artists who are doing most of the creative work.

A small music or theater ensemble needs to perform somewhere. Unless you own your space, it becomes necessary to rent your venue. As an organization grows over time, the venue becomes increasingly important for visibility and proof of importance. When Southwest Chamber Music added up our expenditures on venue rentals, we were actually providing as much revenue as a major donor to the host venue! Even with reduced fees, rent became a major portion of our budget. Especially with young groups, the rental fees (or lack of fees) often determine where the concert will be held.

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Hanoi New Music Ensemble performing at Manzi Art Space in Hanoi

I don’t blame the audience members. Most attendees have come to prefer the shiny new concert hall with parking, restaurant, and all the donor amenities. But what happens over time is a public perception that the new or developing group can’t be as valuable. I have worked with some enlightened presenters who think they are helping local groups with a reduced rental fee at their venue, but in fact, they rarely offer the hall for an entire series throughout the year, which would greatly assist the local group in developing its infrastructure. It also would assist the presenter in diversifying their offerings with locally-based art.

Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University at Northridge, California (photo by Lee Choo)

One of my dreams is that every presenter, whether an orchestra, arts venue or university, include in their offerings a long-term commitment to their local talent. I am certain it would help increase their audiences as well — everyone would agree that each city needs to cheer for its own sports teams, or its own orchestra, or its own developing talent. This is also how we inspire young people to be more creative. Artists reside everywhere, contributing to vibrant creativity through education, exhibitions and performances. I hope that larger institutions will see the value of collaboration with local artists to inspire and demonstrate pride in their own communities.






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