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July 20, 2009

Cultcha in da Stix

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Wall Street Journal's theater critic Terry Teachout has made it his policy to review as many non-New York productions as he can fit into his hectic schedule. (This month he's in Santa Fe for the pre-opening tuning of his opera "The Letter" -- he wrote the libretto.) His contention is that there's plenty of top-quality theater out there in what I and others used to call "the sticks" -- in these polite, non-judgmental times, the term "flyover country" seems to be the preferred term of art.

I'm about as far as one can get from being a theater guy, but I find Teachout to be a sensible-sounding fellow and will take his word for it until someone conclusively proves that NYC is still top dog in terms of overall quality and those pretenders are third-raters.

Lending support is the fact that there has been a good deal of qualitative decentralization over the last 50 years in all the arts along with other conveyors of culture such as publishing and academia. In part, this has been driven by the relative demographic decline of the northeast as measured by share of the national population. But that decline was related to strengthening economies in other parts of the country. Here's the dirty little secret: Arts are more likely to thrive where there is wealth. With growing wealth and population comes greater ability to support the various arts. Eventually, some of those arts efforts can equal or exceed the quality of arts in the formerly dominant arts centers.

That's a hypothesis, anyway. So now we need to ask: just how big, quality-wise, are the former little guys? Also, which cities and metropolitan areas are well-balanced culturally and which fall into the one-trick pony category? For example, a pony candidate might be Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Here are some almost-top-of-the-head thoughts from me.

When it comes to traditional painting and sculpture, the old centers still dominate thanks to donations made many years ago. Not many important Old Master works remain outside museums, so them's that got's 'em's gonna keep 'em. To put this more concretely, Los Angeles' Getty will never excel New York's Metropolitan unless the Met goes broke and has a fire sale of Old Masters.

Many museums "out there" might have a stray Old Master or even some nice Impressionists. A few even achieve critical mass in selected areas. For example, the Delaware Art Museum supposedly has a very good Pre-Raphaelite collection (it was on tour when I visited) as well as a fine collection of 1890-1920 American illustration art.

Modernist art is another story because it's still being produced, allowing any museum or donor with spare cash to buy dominance if that was the plan.

Some arts are expensive: opera comes to mind. Santa Fe has an opera of good repute and it's also a center for region-oriented painting. I can understand how painting might be supported in a fairly small place, but how the opera remains viable is puzzling; can anyone clue me in? The San Jose, California area has a much larger population than north-central New Mexico and boasts plenty of rich people thanks to high-tech industries in the neighborhood. Yet its opera company remains on a lower tier even though it has enjoyable productions. Perhaps that's because San Francisco's opera is top-drawer and dominates the West Coast scene.

San Francisco has been the dominant western cultural center since Gold Rush days. As noted, it's strong in opera. It has a very good symphony orchestra. But its art museums are collectively a solid step or two below those of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago for the reason mentioned above. I'm unfamiliar with its theater scene aside from having seen touring shows and a Broadway-bound musical (it crashed and burned).

Los Angeles and Southern California in general have the potential to support arts, and do. There is balance, but based on my limited reading, nothing is close to world-class, film excepted. Please let me know if my impression is wrong.

Seattle has good balance with decent orchestra, opera and theater companies. The Seattle Art Museum has some good donations in the pipeline, but its American and European collections will remain comparatively thin. Its Asian collection is probably better, but I lack the knowledge to give it a proper evaluation. Portland, Oregon also has balance, though my impression is that its quality level is a bit lower than Seattle's.

It has been a long time since I lived in Albany, New York, and I wasn't into culture in those days. What I remember is that the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy would show up at Saratoga Springs in August during racing season. Plus, there were art museums over in western Massachusetts. None of these can be considered Albany-centric, however. I wonder if anything has changed there.

Newport, Virginia has the Chrysler Museum of Art which has a collection that allows the city to punch above its weight in that field. I'm not sure what else is happening because I was in town briefly.

From what I read, regional centers such as Atlanta, Dallas and Minneapolis have thriving, balanced arts scenes. That goes beyond personal knowledge, so please chip in regarding how these and any other places rank nationally. Nominees for well-balanced arts are welcome, and try to include a qualitative assessment if you can. As for those one-trick ponies, let us know of places with at least one first-rate orchestra, opera company, theater and so forth.



posted by Donald at July 20, 2009


For a very long time the Cleveland Museum of Art held out against the de-acquisition mania that gripped so many museums and by so doing kept its European Collection intact. Cleveland has been in steep decline for the past 40 - 50 years but from, loosely, 1850 - 1950 it was a very wealthy manufacturing city and its movers and shakers brought a lot of European treasure back to their hometown. In recent years the museum has been suffering the same sickness of withitness that is endemic in museum culture but I assume it retains most of that collection.
I think the same holds for the Carnegie-Mellon or Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, a once very wealthy steel town whose rich competed in the status game of who could bring back the biggest culture haul from Europe.

Posted by: ricpic on July 19, 2009 9:52 PM

ricpic -- And then there's the Cleveland Orchestra which used to be one of the very best in the country. Is that still so?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 19, 2009 10:29 PM

I can't help on the well-balanced cities, but . . .

Raleigh probably counts as a one-trick pony. I don't know much about ballet, but I believe Teachout counts Carolina Ballet as world-class. I don't know about music and painting, either, but there's not a lot of theater and very little opera in Raleigh, and much of that is touring from elsewhere.

I moved to the ultimate one-trick pony town a year ago, specifically for the culture: Staunton, VA, pop. 23,000 or so. American Shakespeare Center puts on a dozen different plays a year, mostly Shakespeare and other Elizabethans, and does them very well. Teachout was here for Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead a couple of months ago, and thought it was well worth the trip from NYC.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on July 19, 2009 10:59 PM

Would it be appropriate to point out, in light of the recent anti-NEA thread, that Santa Fe Opera received a $70,000 grant for "The Letter"? Or that the many combined NEA grants to various San Francisco arts organizations put well over 4 million into their coffers? Or that Chrysler Museum of Art in Newport, VA got $40,000? Or that the Cleveland Orchestra got $50,000?

It would seem reasonable to suggest that "a good deal of qualitative decentralization over the last 50 years in all the arts along with other conveyors of culture" can not only be linked to growing wealth and population in those areas, but also to the funds (often used to leverage private donations) provided by the NEA, which has been around for a bit over 40 years.

Would we be better off if there was no public funding and the decentralization did not take place?

Posted by: Chris White on July 20, 2009 12:16 AM

Would we be better off if there was no public funding and the decentralization did not take place?

The decentralization described is one of location, not control, as in centralized governmental control.

BTW, how is San Francisco a "decentralized" location?

Please prove that these cultural endeavors would shut their doors if not for the central government freebies, because that is what you are implying.

There are probably a wide variety of reasons for having cultural stuff in various places, not the least of which are higher incomes, the shift from a manufacturing economoy to service economy, more college educated folks, more otherwise unemployed theater and arts majors making the move locally, or gasp, state and local funding for the arts, rather than the Supreme Soviet in Washington D.C.

Feel free to add to the list. I would like zero governmental arts funding myself.

Posted by: BTM on July 20, 2009 2:43 AM

First point, most NEA funds are actually funneled to State arts agencies which determine the disposition of those fund and many states similarly provide block grants to local agencies that make final decisions ... hardly fitting the mis-characterization of the NEA as the Supreme Soviet in Washington D.C..

Second point, Donald offers the observation that ... regional centers such as Atlanta, Dallas and Minneapolis have thriving, balanced arts scenes." and this might certainly be connected to the support provided by the NEA (along with state and local arts agencies). In fact, one of the mandates of the NEA has been to encourage precisely the decentralization noted here, which might then logically be seen as an indicator of the success of the NEA.

Third point, despite it's small size Portland Maine has a very robust, eclectic, and well-balanced arts scene with lively theater, music, dance, literary and visual arts organizations and events. Some, like the Portland Museum of Art, have extremely high quality offerings.

Posted by: Chris White on July 20, 2009 8:09 AM

"...Some arts are expensive: opera comes to mind. Santa Fe has an opera of good repute and it's also a center for region-oriented painting. I can understand how painting might be supported in a fairly small place, but how the opera remains viable is puzzling; can anyone clue me in?"

Well, we're an hour from SF, and people out here in the 'hinterlands' will travel to SF for a lot of events, including the opera (now if we could just get more SFer's out here for events). But what I think you don't realize is that Santa Fe's art scene is not really regional as much as international. Many of the galleries are dealing in art that is generated by artists who are not 'local' and are not producing what would be characterized as regional work. Yes, there is a big market for Native American, Spanish Colonial and other regional art, but the market is more diverse than that, and attracts people from all over the world. I suspect that all the arts in SF benefit from that.

Posted by: KR on July 20, 2009 9:37 AM

Santa Fe and northern NM have a small population, but quite a few wealthy folks- rich Texans have summer homes in Santa Fe and there seem to be quite a few people from Los Angeles with second homes there, too. That wealth has probably helped the opera quite a bit.

Posted by: mdmnm on July 20, 2009 2:04 PM

Los Angeles and surroundings are world-class in serious music -- the LA Phil and, of course, its concert hall are envied everywhere.

In new serious music, Southern California is better than world class, partially due to the enthusiastic audiences built for the new and difficult by the LA Phil, the Ojai Festival, Cal Arts, the Coburn School.

Cal Arts itself is a national magnet for visual artists and, in the design world, Art Center in Pasadena is the West Point of automotive design.

And if you consider cooking one of the fine arts.....

Posted by: Tulkinghorn on July 20, 2009 4:25 PM

Hartford has the Wadsworth Atheneum, a very well-regarded art museum. On the other hand, Hartford was also the home of the Connecticut Opera, which went spectacularly belly-up earlier this year, unable even to pay refunds to people who had paid for season subscriptions.

Posted by: Peter on July 20, 2009 9:17 PM

Mr White,

Imagine what your arts scene might be like if artists and intellectuals in the US, as in Canada, depended entirely on whatever policy was held by the granting agencies run by your federal government.

Committee-run funding of this kind does not exactly reject "subversive" artists and thinkers, but there is a definite, observable sameness to the type of subversion that such committees are willing to support.

Did Hollywood movies improve when the studio bosses began to test-run their films before focus groups? Not that I ever heard from any intellectual discussion of the industry. Yet a truly democratic distribution of grant money would probably require a similar approach to the awarding of funds; that is, grantors would be compelled to ask "what is most fashionable in this field today?"; "what is most likely to appeal to the critics?"; "how do we balance these issues with what is most popular among the general audience for this art form?"

Whatever your views regarding grant money for the arts, you must see that great art seldom arises from the kind of attitude held by granting agencies. It's not that their leaders lack taste, or are incompetent; it's that they are required to consider issues that have nothing to do with their own immediate perceptions of quality. Inevitably, this leads to a degree of homogenization in the arts.

Posted by: aliasclio on July 21, 2009 1:12 AM

If you put all the SoCal art museums together, you can match, say, the Chicago Art Institute. E.g., the Norton Simon in Pasadena has a Raphael, the Huntington in San Marino has a terrific collection of English paintings, and so forth.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on July 21, 2009 3:15 AM

Hmmm. It was just argued in a recent thread on the artist Aronson that the free market generated a lack of originality, or I suppose you could say promoted mediocrity and homogeneity, in commercially successful gallery artists. Now it's being argued that granting agencies run by the federal government also promote mediocrity and homogeneity. So the question in my mind is: from where does great art arise? It sounds like the only artists who have any chance of producing great art are those who are independently wealthy. How many artists have that freedom and luxury--particularly now?

Posted by: KR on July 21, 2009 8:20 AM

ms. clio,

Nowhere have I ever suggested that all, or even most, arts funding should come from public coffers and granting committees. Rather I defend the tiny percent of monies that do flow through the NEA and various state and local agencies as an overall plus to the arts. In the context of this thread I've suggested that the NEA has very likely been a positive contributing factor in the robust, diverse, and reasonably high quality state of the arts noted in various parts of "flyover country."

So far, as you can see from my comment above, nearly every one of the specific arts organizations listed in Donald's original post or subsequent comments pointed to as examples of the artistic health of areas outside the major art cities such as New York received some funding from the NEA in 2009. To continue that research, Wadsworth Atheneum received $50,000, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival got $95,000, The Metropolitan Museum of Art $75,000, grants to fourteen organizations in Portland Oregon totaled just shy of a quarter of a million in grants. I'd continue with the exercise, but hope I've made my point ... although I will also note that those amounts no doubt account for only very modest percentages of each organization's total annual budget.

Public arts agencies have their advantages along with a particular set of weaknesses, biases, jargon, and all the rest. Commercial interests have different advantages, weaknesses, biases, jargon and all the rest. So?

Unless I've completely misread Donald's original post and most of the subsequent comments pointing to smaller, regional, arts centers, he is applauding the "qualitative decentralization" not decrying "homogenization in the arts." NEA funds are in part intended to provide (insert metaphor here) for private donations. My assumption is that the arts in "flyover country" are stronger, more diverse, and attracting private donations at a greater rate than they otherwise might due to the beneficial attributes that come with getting some public funding.

So, given the NEA has a history approaching fifty years (the same period Donald points to as one in which a decentralization of high quality arts institutions has occurred) and given that no one, least of all me, is calling for all or even most arts funding to be funneled through the government, why suggest problems that MIGHT occur if the all arts funding DID come from the government as (presumably) an argument against ANY public funding?

Posted by: Chris White on July 21, 2009 9:23 AM

There was some truly great art that came out of the WPA program during the 30s. And anyway, I'm not sure that's the point of governments arts funding. I see it as a way to carry on valuable arts traditions that may not make it solely on private funding in some areas, and also for arts education.

I realize there are people who do not see that as a valid way to spend tax dollars, but I do.

Posted by: JV on July 21, 2009 1:12 PM

Chris White,

I've suggested that the NEA has very likely been a positive contributing factor in the robust, diverse, and reasonably high quality state of the arts noted in various parts of "flyover country."

How would you know since you don't live in "flyover country"? Where's the great art, or is it just the preservation of great art of the past in the form of symphony orchestras, art museums, and old Broadway shows? I and others don't see any great art from the government. Just state-sponsored propaganda. "Very likely" = weasel words.


There was some truly great art that came out of the WPA program during the 30s.

Really, like what? Those old Post Office murals? What miniscule slice of those are great art?

The fact is that almost no great art came out of the WPA. Just more state-sponsored propaganda.


It was just argued in a recent thread on the artist Aronson that the free market generated a lack of originality, or I suppose you could say promoted mediocrity and homogeneity, in commercially successful gallery artists. Now it's being argued that granting agencies run by the federal government also promote mediocrity and homogeneity. So the question in my mind is: from where does great art arise?

You can't force great art. You can't set up a shop and fill it with "creatives" and get it. Great artists are rare and individualistic. They arise almost spontaneously and randomly. You've just got to figure out a way to support them when they do show up. Think great writers.

The rise of the art gallery, the auction house, and the art media coincides with the decline of the visual arts, no doubt about it. And the reason why is that the more art becomes a business, the less art is there--nothing left but the business. The big galleries and art media have almost all the power to make or break an artist, and they use it too. Why wait for the genius when you can market the mediocre as genius to an uneducated clientele? Geniuses are rare and have too much bargaining power. Gotta figure out a way to negate that and get all the power in the hands of the middle-men. And that's what has happened.

Great art has little to do with commercial art or fine art, commissions or the lack thereof. Its simply and impulse that is in the mind and heart of the individual creator artist (and in my opinion, one that is God-given). The artist isn't satisfied with doing the ordinary.

The reason why there is so little great art made today is not that there aren't great artists out there, but that the arts are so controlled to make money for and spread the propaganda of the ruling elite that the channels to reach the larger public are completely blocked. Its difficult enough to be a great artist and do the work. To ask for the great artist to make his own market is simply impossible. Maybe in a less corrupt and controlled era, but certainly not today.

Posted by: BTM on July 21, 2009 4:55 PM

KR - excellent observation. As near as I can tell the ideal situation, as imagined by many around here, would be artists who have either the Church or a monarch as their Patron since that was the practice when many widely acknowledged great masterpieces were done. This hardly seem likely to happen in 21st Century America.

JV - one major purpose of government funding has been to make the arts more widely available throughout the country, precisely what is being celebrated in Donald's original posting, so it seems reasonable to claim this as evidence of a degree of success. Very little public funding goes to actually create or purchase art. The most common exceptions are various Percent for Art programs. These do commission art objects based on specific criteria adopted by committees that generally include local citizens, "stakeholders" in the new construction triggering Percent for Art requirements (e.g. the architectural firm, the client agency) and local art experts. This might not result in great masterpieces, but (again) that is not the primary purpose of the programs per se.

Posted by: Chris White on July 21, 2009 5:35 PM

C'mon, Chris, you love monarchs and Czars, just Stalinist ones! That's why you love governmental art control. The giant charity that you imagine the government to be is in reality the biggest murderer and tyrant on the planet. But the "charitable non-profit" cover it uses suckered you in real good now, didn't it?

Yep, the government is a big charity. A Big Brother charity. Government loves us. If we let it, it will take care of all our needs, at the wee price of complete slavery and total oppression. But we will have a guaranteed morsel. Yum yum--tough love! I'm glad that somebody loves us!

You have yet to prove that this government funding is the thing responsible for the "decentralization" (or is it complete standardization?) of the arts. Other than the fact that this governmental funding benefits the well-connected and those that are the best grant writers and not the best artists, it probably works great. Yet another success story for the Great Charity. I'm sure many more will soon become known.

And as usual, by those receiving governmental funding. I can hardly wait.

Posted by: BTM on July 21, 2009 6:12 PM

Donald - The music director/conductors of the Cleveland Orchestra were world famous names - that even a casual listener (like me) knew - until recently: Georg Szell; Loren Maazel; Christoph von Dohnanyi. The most recent director is Franz Welser-Most, not as famous. He may be just as good but I don't think - a pure guess - that the orchestra is at quite the level it once was.

Posted by: ricpic on July 21, 2009 7:21 PM

Demography is destiny.

In 1940, one American in eight lived in New York or its suburbs. The NYC area has about the same population, but the country has more than tripled.

Naturally, high art activity, like everything else, has spread out.

There's a distinct possibility the NYC art scene may implode. In the last generation, NYC has become dependent on the wealth generated by the financial industry. A lot of that wealth has evaporated, and a lot of the income has dried up.

But NYC has a massive entrenched government and other large fixed costs. If the banking/Wall Street money goes away, NYC could collapse under its overhead.

This could force a lot of the high-arts activity elsewhere. Yes, that could include large scale de-acquisition by New York museums, the dispersal of private collections, and the close-down or migration of institutions to more favorable scenes.

Among regional cities with "balanced" extensive "art" scenes, Chicago must rank high. A lot of galleries, some big museums, a huge theater scene, an opera company, a very respected symphony...

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on July 22, 2009 1:18 AM

BTM, Chris is in Maine. That's New England's version of flyover country.

Don't go "up the county" with all your teeth or you'll be set upon.

Chris, re: Portland Museum of Art. I seem to recall them advertising a really excellent album cover installation last time I was in Portland.

Posted by: Brutus on July 22, 2009 1:02 PM

The album cover art show was well received. Currently they're featuring "Call of the Coast: Art Colonies of New England" primarily paintings by the likes of Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Charles Woodbury, etc.

And I think Maine qualifies as "flyover country" ... we see the contrails of the big jets heading back and forth to Europe from Boston & NYC throughout the day and night.

Posted by: Chris White on July 22, 2009 3:15 PM

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