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Grow It, Don’t Build It

Local culture does not and cannot act how public-private partnerships tend to act.

What takes place on Performing Arts Center stages will shape what gets staged in Richmond at all. The Virginia Performing Arts Foundation has the capacity of a Shop-Vac to suck up most of the local arts funding pool, leaving other efforts high and dry. The foundation markets the center using a mix of arts focused on hometown groups presenting well-worn “high art” organizations: symphony, opera, mainstream theater. The center will likely sink or swim on the merits of what it does with stage resources not occupied by these groups, something about which VAPAF leadership has been maddeningly vague.

The foundation Web site attempts to convince by example, giving visitors a list of alleged successes in other cities: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, Louisville, Ky., and Pittsburgh. Performing arts centers in these cities, the site claims, have helped revitalize their downtowns and take their performing arts to the next level. The stories behind these examples illustrate what does and does not work for downtown performing arts organizations. Three lessons emerge, none of which the foundation has taken to heart.

• A well-designed, well-managed downtown arts organization can sometimes operate without any public subsidy at all. Organizations that do this typically manage several restored historic venues in a downtown arts district. Most started with one such space and only gradually built up to their current levels. None built new arts centers during their first decade or two of operation, since the charm of the restored venue was part of what attracted audiences. The Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, for example, formed in 1969 to save the historic Ohio Theater and currently manages three refurbished theaters in downtown Columbus.

• A downtown arts organization that excludes local grassroots efforts — deliberately or otherwise — will not generate any additional benefits for the community. During its fund-raising stages, Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center promised space to community groups. Those promises withered, the area around the center feels dead in the evenings, and local critics of the Aronoff are convinced the two problems are linked.

Playhouse Square in Cleveland advertises itself as the second largest performing arts complex in the country after Lincoln Center, yet its crowds don’t sustain a single restaurant. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust can’t solve the shortage of theater space that city currently faces because its spaces are too pricey, and its audiences too conservative, to help any of a growing number of local theater ensembles scrambling to secure a stage.

• Arts organizations that present commodities for mainstream consumption will be particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy because their products are essentially luxury items. During the economic boom of the late 1990s, the Aronoff Center did a brisk business hosting short stands by touring Broadway productions. The season after the bubble burst, the Aronoff’s revenues tailed off sharply. The Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville faced a similar crisis at around the same time, even though it placed more emphasis on presenting local theater and music ensembles.

In contrast, local arts scenes can build from the ground up and work sustainably, without subsidy. These develop from the small-scale, with emphasis on development of original content. The difference between this and what arts centers typically try to present is not just a difference between niches in the same market. It’s a different model entirely. This art can become an organic part of our lives we can’t do without. It has nearly nothing in common with “high art” when high art comes to mean a purchase marking status. Because it feels so much more compelling than any luxury item could, this is the kind of art that will weather an economic downturn.

For this to happen, a creative art has to appeal to the eclectic tastes of each person on a very personal level. This requires lots of promotion on a small scale, lots of repetition. It doesn’t require subsidy. There is no packaged one best shot. Absolutely nothing happens by committee, with the city planning apparatus in tow.

In short, local culture does not and cannot act how public-private partnerships tend to act. Local arts scenes enact a certain vision of what’s good in culture: the organic, the complex, in which one can and must find one’s own way. For some of us who participate, this is a reaction against the artificial and monolithic, from the sitcom to Clear Channel radio. City governments will never develop any taste in art or music, and it’s best that they don’t. S

Greg Will is a Richmond freelance writer.

Opinions expressed on the back page are those of the writer and not necessary of those of Style Weekly.

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