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Monday, June 13, 2011

A Place for Art and Culture - Tori

“Classical music is dead among the young. . .classical music is now a special taste, like Greek language or pre-Columbian archeology, not a common culture of reciprocal communication and psychological shorthand.” [1]

During a robust class discussion on Christopher Reddick’s account of the bankruptcy of the San Antonio Orchestra, one participant stated that one of the key factors in the financial demise of the San Antonio Orchestra was the Board’s unwillingness to adapt their business model to include programming that would appeal to a wider demographic. Using the collaboration between the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and pop artists as an example, the participant said that orchestras must adapt to survive. The implication was that the Board of the San Antonio Orchestra was blinded by their elitist, hoighty-toighty attitude which disabled their ability to grasp fairly obvious market realities. Taking a Socratic approach to the debate, another participant inquired whether adapting the symphony’s program to appeal to current consumer preferences might violate the Board’s mission. As a follow-up, this participant asked whether the Board should dissolve rather than to fundamentally change their mission to accommodate the tastes of a wider audience.

As most interesting debates do, this engaging class conversation raised many more questions than it answered and is reflective of a larger debate currently taking place as state and federal lawmakers consider ways to trim government budgets. In Virginia, Governor Bob McDonnell recently used a line-item veto to phase out funding for public broadcasting stations. The governor defended his decision by stating “In today’s free market, with hundreds of radio and television programs, government should not be subsidizing one particular group of stations.”[2] Like the participant in the class discussion that defended the adapt or dissolve position, the Governor believes that the marketplace is a fair and efficient arbiter of arts and culture. Artists or singers and other cultural groups with broad popular appeal or that are appreciated by wealthy patrons should have little trouble financing their artistic endeavors.

Yet, should there be a sphere of civil society that is exempt from the pressures of the market? In his book A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong, Benjamin Barber contends that the arts are the driving engine of civil society and that a vibrant democracy depends on the creativity, spontaneity, and imagination of artists. Barber writes “Imagination is the link to civil society that art and democracy share. When imagination flourishes in the arts, democracy benefits. When it flourishes in a democracy, the arts and the civil society the arts help to ground also benefit. Imagination is the key to diversity, to civic compassion, and to commonality.”[3]

I believe that art can serve as a catalyst for critical and/or existential reflection on societal realities. I am not sure, however, that there is fairer or more efficient mechanism for allocating funding for the arts than the market. Leaders of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations are in a unique position to shape the contours of this interesting debate.

[1] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York: Simon and Shuster, Inc., 1987), p. 69.

[2] Paige Winfield Cunningham, “McDonnell’s Line-Item Veto Cuts PBS Funds,” The Washington Times, May 3, 2011,

[3] Benjamin Barber, A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998), p. 111.

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