Tough Love for the Arts

The arts are a business like any other. It's time to rethink how they're funded, and whether taxpayers should be on the hook for artistic ambitions gone wrong.

The new year 's a traditional time for journalists to look back over the notable events of the past 12 months. Arts journalists are particularly prone to this habit, probably because there's so little happening on their beats around this time. This year, though, among the 10-best columns and my-favorite-memory features, another note was struck, paying generic tribute to the incalculable benefits, economic and spiritual, that the arts bestow on our region.

Far from being mere seasonal feel-good features, these articles set off alarms among cynical old-time observers of the arts scene. Never mind the maunderings about how the arts hoist our quality of life into the stratosphere, how the benefits of arts spending keep the engine of our regional commerce chugging; these articles signal one thing and one thing only: In the very near future, someone, usually the body politic, is going to be asked to fork over a whole lot of money.

This time the prospective beneficiaries are Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet, the principal tenants of Seattle Center's McCaw Hall, which was built more or less to those organizations' specs. Before ground was broken, responsibility for raising funds to cover its prospective cost was divvied up between the opera and PNB, the Seattle Center, and local and regional government. But costs proved higher than expected, and when the city of Seattle proposed that McCaw's tenants pay a share of the cost, it was accused of draining their very lifeblood of existence.

For those with only moderately long memories, this campaign is eerily similar to the one waged in the late '90s by private backers of the Paramount Theatre to dragoon the city into paying $5 million more than it had pledged to the restoration of the landmark theater. That campaign failed; it remains to be seen whether the heavy community hitters who sit on the boards of the opera and the ballet are able to bend cash-strapped city politicians to their will.

Clashing with the same season of comfort and joy, backers of the Empty Space Theatre were struggling to keep the 35-year-old institution afloat. Again. This is not the theater's first near-death experience; it barely survived its dive into bankruptcy after a 1980s move from spartan Capitol Hill quarters to a posh piece of Pioneer Square real estate. The prognosis this time round is bleak; unless it comes up with a major infusion of cash, the empty Space is likely to follow the Group into the lamented limbo of once-lauded theaters whose artistic accomplishments were out of all proportion to their size.

Should we save the Empty Space once more? Should the public pick up the difference between what it costs to build and operate McCaw Hall and what its prime tenants are willing to pay? These aren't one-time questions. Squabbles about who ought to pay for buildings or renovations are endemic; just about every arts organization in the Puget Sound region, large or small, has experienced one or more life-threatening financial crises since I've been paying attention to the scene. Some—though none of the largest—ultimately expired, to universal condolence. No one, so far as I know, shrugged and said, "Too bad; well, that's show business."

But that may be exactly the reason we don't seem to be able to break out of the vicious complacency-or- crisis circle. We've forgotten, or been taught to forget, that whatever its social or spiritual value, art is a business like any other. When a fine restaurant closes its doors, we may regret its passing, but we don't try to set up an endowment to keep it open; when a plumber goes out of business, we assume the plumber must have ignored the bottom line and hit the Yellow Pages to look for another.

Even individual artists are expected to live by the economic rules that govern all the rest of us: Friends might throw a rent party for someone who's in danger of losing the lease on a studio, but not an annual campaign with mailings and phone banks. Not year after year. Somehow only arts organizations are allowed to claim immunity from the laws of financial gravity; for them, there's no connection between supply and demand, balanced budgets are for profiteers and sissies, and water runs uphill when we tell it to.

This attitude has been a long time growing; it was implicit in the legislation that created the National Endowment for the Arts back in 1969. The idea is expressed in the NEA's current slogan "A Great Nation Deserves Great Art"; access to the arts is an entitlement of American citizenship. Congress never gave the NEA enough money to begin to achieve that goal, but it did set the ideological tone for states, localities, and municipalities across the nation. And thanks to the overflowing coffers of the Ford and Rockefeller and other foundations, it seemed for a while that the United States was moving toward a system of state-supported arts delivery like that long taken for granted all over Europe.

It didn't turn out that way, of course. Foundation money gradually ran out, and the NEA's modest allotment of cash was sliced ever thinner for the benefit of an ever-wider pool of artistically dubious but politically correct or populist ventures. But the main reason it didn't turn out that way is that there was never a consensus among Americans that the government had any business funding the arts.

There still is none today. In fact, one could argue that the era of government underwriting for and lip service to the high-art cause, much of it surreptitious and indirect— matinees of Wagner's five-hour Siegfried for desperately bored 10th-graders, the post-play discussions of Hamlet moderated by generously remunerated academics— actually hurt the cause it purported to help. It was during the era of government's greatest largesse to high art that public support for art at the individual level began its long decline: the waning of the free library systems and the disappearance of school music and visual art programs.

The art-manufacturing organizations, which had been called into being or fed to sleekness during the fat funding years, felt the pinch as the diet became leaner, but they did not respond by becoming leaner themselves. Instead, an ever-increasing percentage of their budget was devoted to marketing, PR, and fund-raising. Since it was an article of faith that consumers of art could not be expected to pay the full price of their pleasure, wealthy patrons came under increasing pressure to donate. Corporate arms were twisted in the name of supporting hometown quality of life and blandished by having their logos attached to prestige projects (take Boeing's upcoming "Dreamliner Tour" of the Grand Kabuki). Soon artistic projects were being prioritized according to their attractiveness (visibility, glamour, lack of controversy) to corporate marketing departments.

Since there appears to be literally no upper limit to the amount of subsidy any given arts organization can absorb, corporations rapidly evolved defense mechanisms to limit their potential drain on corporate coffers. Nowhere is it more effective than right here in the Puget Sound area, where the 35-year-old Corporate Council for the Arts (now ArtsFund) has grown to be not only the single largest arts funding agency in the area but the agency that determines which arts organizations shall find favor under its wing and which shall, due to faulty organization, lack of board clout, or insufficient size, be left to the chilly winds of the open fund-raising market.

By ArtsFund criteria, size matters—a lot. The bigger and more visible an organization, the more easily can it persuade local eminences to join its board. Since said eminences often also serve on the ArtsFund board or have close business and social connections with those who do, their presence ensures more-than-casual attention to the needs of said organization. Under ArtsFund's benevolent oligarchy, the biggest arts organizations have become virtual gated communities, comparatively impervious to the unpredictability and disorder of life outside their fences.

Whether you happen to think these developments were inevitable or not, they have taken place, and they have consequences, not all of them economic. Organizations do not create art. Artists create art, and with the best will on both sides, it often turns out that the organizational machinery meant to support and foster creativity ends up stifling it. After a while, gilded mediocrity begins to seem the best to be expected.

One of the most ironic results of the art-entitlement game is that it seems to have inspired others to play: others who've proved a lot more adept at it. It's almost forgotten now, but King County's 2 percent hotel-motel tax was originally proposed to subsidize the arts. A substantial portion of the revenue—over $5 million a year—was immediately hijacked to pay off debt still owed on the demolished Kingdome. Now, thanks to the superior strategic and public-relations skills of Howard Schultz and the Seattle SuperSonics management, arts-funding backers are scrambling to hold on to any of the revenue should the tax be extended beyond its current 2020 deadline. The sports forces don't see what the fuss is about; they profess to be perfectly willing to join with the arts types to persuade the Legislature to continue to mulct hapless tourists and tired businessmen in perpetuity.

How long can the game continue? As long as someone's willing to pay the bills, as long as art is allowed a privileged status, as long as people continue to believe supporting the United Way and supporting Seattle Opera or Pacific Northwest Ballet are equivalent activities. Such people have every right to do so. But the rest of us have a right to object when the same people try to extract money from already scanty public coffers to cover unanticipated costs of their artistic ambition.

If the unthinkable should happen—if against all odds one or more of our big arts organizations should actually fold—it would be a grievous blow to our civic pride. The embarrassment caused by the opening and speedy closing of that aimless exercise in arts wanna-be, the Bellevue Art Museum, gives only a faint notion of the impact on our civic pretensions. But beyond red faces, how much would it matter? A great deal to a few, most of all the artists newly unemployed; to many more, a regrettable reduction in the agreeable routine of middle-class life; and to a great many, very nearly nothing at all. When arts organizations fold, art doesn't fold with them. Art continues to be made, perhaps in a quite different form, by quite a different kind of artist; to be made without subsidy from anyone but the artists themselves, who can no more stop making it than a spider can stop spinning webs. Art is not something that happened a year or a thousand years ago, something that needs to be put in a protective box, explained, and worshiped from a distance. It's something that's happening right now, in studios, in clubs, in front of open mikes, and on coffeehouse napkins. It's not up on a hill, it's under our noses. If you want some, buy some. Happy New Year.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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