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Beware the Edifice Complex


by Anne Bothwell 14 Aug 2008

Michael M. Kaiser (credit: Kennedy Center) Today’s Arts Advocacy Day in Dallas, and I just got back from a luncheon where Michael M. Kaiser, the president of Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, rallied local arts groups who’d spent the morning learning advocacy strategies such as developing messaging and approaching legislators. Kaiser was, of course, […]

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Michael M. Kaiser (credit: Kennedy Center)

Today’s Arts Advocacy Day in Dallas, and I just got back from a luncheon where Michael M. Kaiser, the president of Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, rallied local arts groups who’d spent the morning learning advocacy strategies such as developing messaging and approaching legislators.

Kaiser was, of course, preaching to the choir. City Council member Angela Hunt even lead the room in a short chant: “The arts fuel our economy!” It never hurts to be reminded of the economic impact of the arts – Kaiser’s stats: Last year, the arts generated 100 billion nationally in household income; in the US, 6 million people work in creative industries; in Dallas last year, 5 million people attended 52,000 arts events.

But in the auditorium at the Dallas Black Dance Theatre – about a block away from the construction site of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts – Kaiser also deftly and diplomatically warned of the “edifice complex” – building beautiful arts buildings but struggling to raise funds for programs. “We’re in danger of having wonderful, empty buildings,” he said, quickly adding that he was certain that wouldn’t happen in Dallas. Later, discussing cultural collaborations, he brought up those big beautiful buildings again. “Rather than create squabbles between arts organizations,” he hopes they provide inspiration to “create collaboration between arts organizations.”

More on diversity, and how arts groups should think about the Web after the jump:

Diversity: It’s crucial that government support arts organizations of color, says Kaiser. The arts must speak to and reflect the diversity of the human spirit. Ethnic communities have strong philanthropic traditions, but that philanthropy is more often directed toward education and the church, “not yet arts.” Without government support, “we may deprive our children of the next Alvin Ailey, José Limón or Ann Williams.”

Arts and Digital Media: This is a topic we think about a lot here at Art&Seek. Arts groups should absolutely find ways to bring their work online, Kaiser says. The Kennedy Center offers daily free performances in Washington, and all of them are streamed live on the Web. But Kaiser worries about competition from electronic media, especially as ticket prices rise. For the cost of “two tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, you can buy a computer, sit home and watch YouTube for free.”

Related: The Met and other companies are making the opera experience more affordable and accessible by broadcasting their performances in movie theaters around the country. “What I hope doesn’t happen is regional companies start to lose their audiences” to the competition on the big screen.

Nothing replaces the live experience. And one job for arts educators is to highlight the differences between watching a performance on stage and one on the screen.

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  • Jac Alder

    Mr. Kaiser’s well spoken remarks on the funding needs for the arts were inspiring at Arts Advocacy Day. His arguments for a healthy arts ecology and what it does for a city were sound and will, I hope, be heeded — including the quote above “We’re in danger of having wonderful empty buildings.”

    We’ll soon have the full glory and the importance of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts with its genuine architectural masterpieces (including the splendid new facility for students at DISD’s Arts Magnet School). I’m absolutely all for it. But building it is not enough. We have to support the programming that goes on there AND, IMPORTANTLY, ALL OVER THE CITY.

    Otherwise the Arts District is just architectural showboating.

    When I was in architecture school, a world famous architect, Richard Neutra was brought to my school on a tour sponsored by the aluminum company, Alcoa. Neutra, in his heavily accented English — he was Austrian by birth — wagged a finger at us and said “De mosst impawtant material in a buildink — eefen includink aluminum — is dee human being.” Our cultural facilities — all of them, all over Dallas — are packed with exciting performances and engaged audiences. A lot of hugely talented people with skills, training, and determination are not just gypsy artists passing through town on some tour, but amazing Dallasites who care about the community they serve and the arts they practice.

    With all this happening, it’s painful that the City of Dallas is considering a budget that cuts support for operations of some of the city’s most significant institutions. I fervently hope these cuts can be restored as a result of the advocacy efforts of organizations and individuals inspired by Mr. Kaiser’s thoughtful and persuasive commentary you’ve discussed.