Good News, Everyone!
We've been waiting for years, and it's finally about to begin. The new Green Line light rail between Minneapolis and St. Paul will start running on June 14, just in time to shuttle people in for this year's Northern Spark! (However, it may not be able to shuttle them home, as the line stops running at 1am.)
Also filed under Good News!: the NEA avoided the meataxe. The House of Representatives had originally submitted a budget bill in Congress that slashed funding for the National Endowment for the Arts nearly in half (to $75 million). After a lot of wrangling, Obama was able to sign an omnibus bill that put the organization's budget at $146 million, or what it was back in 2012
Other News, Everyone!
I had some other articles I wanted to share and talk about this week, but the discussion about buildings that you will see below took up most of my textual real estate. So, when you're done wrapping your brain around the problems with constructing huge arts buildings, you can come back to these (in no particular order):
And so, armed with these refreshers, let us sally forth bravely...
Arguing for the Ephemeral
I've talked a lot in recent weeks about the growth and stagnation of the large regional theaters in America. On HowlRound this week, Annah Feinberg threw an incendiary device in the collective faces of those beloved institutions with an article calling for their swift and tidy dissolution. Of course, someone on HowlRound calling for the destruction of the large, entrenched regional theatres is about as surprising as the sun rising in the morning; but this article--a distillation of a larger MFA thesis that will be available in full on HowlRound later this spring--argues that these institutions suffer from a cultural irrelevance that "is largely caused by the permanent structures that have been built around the theatrical work on our country’s stages."
This is an interesting line of attack. Typically, this kind of fall into irrelevance is blamed on the changing tastes of the audience, myopic artistic choices, a lack of funding, etc; but Feinberg maintains that these are not causes, but symptoms of the real illness. From her perspective, the pressure of "permanence" (that is, to live on indefinitely in an expensive, custom, single-purpose building) eventually overrides the artistic mission of the company, leaving maintenance of its own existence as its sole purpose. From Feinberg's perspective, this is how a $26 million organization ends up with a $125 million theater space that will sit unused for a month with employees furloughed for a week after a $438,000 end-of-fiscal-year deficit while the Artistic Director still pulls down $701,000 a year.
If You Build It…
In the late '90s and early 2000s, the United States experienced an incredible boom in new construction to house arts organizations. A city is always proud to add a cultural gemstone to its tiara, and the arts organization housed in its new building always feels that this is the next healthy, inevitable step of its growth; but according to a 2012 study, that big, beautiful building is likely a burden that they can't bear.
Since the arts building boom peaked around 2008, a number of large-scale projects have run on rocky shores, even as their initial capital campaigns went over like gangbusters. This week, the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh ($40 million building) was ordered into liquidation by its conservator. The Nashville Symphony ($80 million building) received a notice of foreclosure last year that was only narrowly avoided. Our own Minnesota Orchestra went forward with its own expansion and remodeling ($50 million), while at the same time locking out its musicians and asking for pay cuts.
If you've kept up with such stories, you've probably heard the term Edifice Complex. Originally coined to describe the underlying political motivations of architecture, in the arts world the term has come to describe the obsession with large-scale buildings. Last year, Michael Kaiser, the head of one the largest complexes of arts buildings--without any trace of irony that I can detect--leveled this charge at the Nashville Symphony. MinnPost commentator David Markle invoked the term last December while commenting on the current Minnesota Orchestra situation and the lessons that should have been learned from another arts building boom in the 1970s.
All of this ought to lead to the inevitable question that large arts organizations seems afraid to ask: "Do you need to a be a building-based organization to accomplish your mission?" In a recent article, researcher and writer Diane Ragsdale explores the ways an organization should go about asking that very question before it ramps up the capital campaign.
Going Gracefully Into the Night
All of this is not to say that arts organizations should be homeless. Going back to Anna Feinberg's original article, her argument was against permanence, which multi-million dollar, special-purpose buildings enable. In this line of thinking, a non-profit, mission-driven organization should be allowed and even encouraged to close up shop once they feel that they have sufficiently served that mission. I was surprisingly hard-pressed to find an example of a high-functioning arts organization voluntarily ending its run without first being dragged down by financial troubles, but I did eventually find one.
For ten years, the Trey McIntyre Project dance company has brought national attention to Idaho. For the past six years, the company has rested comfortably in its own space in Boise while touring across the world and never falling in the red, financially speaking. Yet, the company is voluntarily closing down its facility and reformulating the company. According to their press release earlier this year, the company completed its stated mission, and it was time to move on to a new one. I seriously doubt you will see such a message coming from one of our regional theatres at any time.
In the arts, we're told all the time some variant of the old phrase, "Do what you love," which has lead countless thousands of us down the path to financial ruin in pursuit of the noble "starving artist" title. (As per usual, The Onion found a better way of describing what most of us actually do.) People who have already succeeded in their chosen field often tell those who are coming up behind them that this was the magical key to their success; but what if this was actually a load of crap? In a recent article on Slate, Miya Tokumitsu makes the argument that "do what you love" actually devalues hard work and disguises the enormous privileges given to the few who already succeeded.
So, as not to end this week's column on a downer note, I want to show you someone who does, in fact, passionately love what she does. If you've seen her web series Green Porno, you know that actress/model Isabella Rossellini loves one thing more than anything: animals getting their freak on. If you were lucky enough to be in New York these past few weeks, you had the opportunity to see her perform her bizarre, costumed romp through the sex lives of animals live on stage.