David Hoppe

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:: Michael Kaiserís Curtains

Art and the endangered middle class

by David Hoppe

My wife and I were on the verge of going to a play not long ago. It was a well-reviewed comedy; we could use a few laughs. The idea of taking in a matinee was appealing, so we went to the theater’s web site and checked ticket prices.

The cheapest seats available were $65. Each.

With a price like that, it’s a little too tempting to calculate the cost of every snicker. We decided to do something else.

Now the two of us have worked in, produced and been around the performing arts most of our lives. We love this stuff — you don’t have to talk us into it.

But it seems more and more people are opting out. This is the plain fact at the heart of Michael Kaiser’s new book, Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America. Kaiser is a peripatetic arts administrator who has headed the Kennedy Center and American Ballet Theatre. He’s built a reputation as an arts troubleshooter, someone capable of parachuting in to a struggling organization and giving it a jolt of positive energy.

So it is troubling to hear him speculate that by 2035, the arts landscape in this country will be severely depleted. In essence, Kaiser sees the arts succumbing to the same pressures that are eroding the American middle class.

He talks about how the arts experienced a 50-year boom. This period coincided with the end of World War II and the convergence of domestic economic policies — from the GI Bill to progressive tax reform — that grew our middle class to an unprecedented degree. The arts reflected this aspirational  prosperity. They were integrated into public school curricula and incorporated into the national landscape, as mid-size cities and towns developed their own orchestras and regional theater companies.

But now a generation has come of age without the benefits of arts education. People are habituated to viewing performances on screens. And the costs of live production have driven ticket prices, like that matinee I mentioned, through the roof.

Given an aging audience and donor base, Kaiser predicts that middle-size arts institutions will eventually go out of business, leaving a constellation of corporate-supported national brands, with local shoestring companies operating on the periphery.

Too many arts organizations, like too many households, are facing a multitude of increasing costs with revenues that are failing to keep up. Where national priorities once saw virtue in policies aimed at creating broad-based wealth, those policies now tilt toward wealth concentration.

Kaiser thinks the only hope for mid-size arts organizations is to, in effect, make news: create work that is undeniably “great.” But this begs at least a couple of questions. Truly great art, like great anything, is a marvelous exception. While most arts organizations are too inclined to play it safe, virtually none of them are boring on purpose. Here Kaiser sounds a little too like a robber baron justifying his outrageous fortune.

And, given the dearth of local arts criticism, how are audiences to find such work?

The arts need a better business model. But America needs new priorities even more.