Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Cincinnati: The State of the Arts

The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a special feature this week on the state of the arts in Cincinnati and the financial challenges facing many of its institutions. This is hardly limited to Cincinnati – it is happening from coast to coast, in big cities and small. Cincinnati has been fortunate in many ways. It has a number of very old and strong arts institutions, and even some good financial news as well, such a recent $85M gift to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. I thought this series was broadly relevant, so wanted to share it here.

The main article is “Arts groups struggle through the recession to maintain quality – and survive.” Some excerpts:

“My great fear,” said Playhouse in the Park’s Ed Stern, “is that there will be a time when artistic directors will only deal with name shows – greatest hits. That’s the most terrifying thing of all.”

The good news is that most of the region’s arts groups are reporting stable attendance – some even increased ticket sales. But because ticket sales and museum admissions provide less than half of their annual support, local arts groups are struggling to stay afloat because of precipitous declines in sponsorships and funding. In a tough economy, fewer opera or theater lovers may write that extra check for $25. Corporations, many still in layoff mode, and foundations that have seen dips in their stock portfolios are slashing how much they give to the arts, leaving local arts groups scrambling to find new angels.


Across the country, the arts picture reflects the dismal economy – in some regions more profoundly than here. In November, the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra filed for bankruptcy. After closing for five months in 2008, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra is struggling to come back and facing a possible $1 million shortfall. Museums nationwide are cutting exhibitions and laying off staff. Opera companies are erasing productions from their seasons. And 77 percent of theater companies surveyed by the Theater Communications Group last year said they had cut costs, including wage freezes and layoffs, and were bracing for cash flow problems this year.

On a more positive note, Margy Waller of the Fine Arts Fund argues that the city’s vitality and creativity are on an upswing. And Ray Cooklis, who came to Cincinnati 26 years ago to be the Enquirer’s classic music critic says that society has changed, but the arts are still a big deal:

Compared even to the 1980s, the arts as we persist in defining them – mainly Western classical music, theater, dance and visual art – strike me as being in a far more precarious situation. They are marginalized, further out of the American mainstream, which has been devoured by pop/celebrity culture. My generation had Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” on TV. Now we have “American Idol.” This makes me wonder: Is there a real future for arts organizations, even if they come through this recession unscathed? Or are they simply whistling past the graveyard?
Cincinnati may be more fortunate than comparable cities, for the arts have been virtually encoded into our civic DNA. And as the Fine Arts Fund’s Margy Waller points out, the traditional Big Eight such as the symphony and opera, with their endowments, high profiles and prestige, have been joined by a rich array of new, smaller, often edgier groups that are helping to draw people together, expand our vision of the arts, and make this a more attractive place for young professionals. Have you been to the Gateway district? Walnut and Sixth downtown? There’s fresh creativity and excitement here, adding to the economic and cultural vitality of our city.

I can’t really do the Cooklis piece justice without quoting the whole thing, but I highly recommend checking it out.

Other pieces in the series include:

Big Eight Arts Organizations in Cincinnati – a slide show
Fine arts fundraisers may be running uphill
Carnegie pares schedule, sharpens focus

Topics: Arts and Culture
Cities: Cincinnati

2 Responses to “Cincinnati: The State of the Arts”

  1. Kathy says:

    This is an old trickle down theoretical approach to the arts that the Fine Arts Fund has been pushing for years. It has nothing to do with celebrating or in any way supporting the arts. It’s all about filling the coffers at the FAF.

    You don’t need to quote all of Cooklis opinion piece to see this is the same old tune.

    Waller won’t be the one to show you my own response to this, so I will.

  2. Wad says:

    Like Ray Cooklis, I have also worked on arts criticism for newspapers. In my case, it was theater as opposed to classical music. I also did not have the privilege of the tenure he has had.

    I find this statement baffling and disheartening: “This makes me wonder: Is there a real future for arts organizations, even if they come through this recession unscathed? Or are they simply whistling past the graveyard?”

    That’s not the critic’s problem, unless criticism is the only function the writer has in society. ;>

    The arts will never die. There’s a period of dormancy, rediscovery, regeneration, but never death.

    The closure of a long-cherished arts institution is a painful experience for the artists, its benefactors and even its managers. But the loss of an institution doesn’t mean the loss of an art.

    What happens when a Philharmonic or theater company closes? Do the musicians throw their instruments and sheet music into a pyre? Does an acting troupe take shears to its costumes and sledgehammers to its sets and lights once the curtain falls? No, unless they were psychotic or nihilistic.

    Each loss of a work of art, or its creator(s), helps to make the survivors more valuable. The closure of an art museum does not mean a precious painting is lost to the ages. The folding of a symphony orchestra allows its musicians the opportunity to find new places to play or time to build upon their own talents.

    They didn’t die, and aren’t dying, because pop culture “devoured” fine arts. There was never a famine in the arts in the first place.

    Pop culture serves a different purpose. Pop culture became so highly evolved that it was able to transcend being an art form into a polished commodity. Cooklis might appreciate this analogy, being from Cincinnati and all: Columbia Records is the Procter & Gamble of the music world, and Beyonce is its Tide detergent.

    Pop culture is applying the mass marketing model to creative endeavors. And even critics must acknolwedge a rightful place for pop culture, because:
    1. Pop culture allows a genuinely gifted artist to be rewarded with fame and fortune.
    2. Conversely, it gives a pop star a chance to transition from a manufactured product to a bona fide artist.
    3. Pop culture provides subsidies both tangible (a hot-selling pop culture product can underwrite the losses of a genre with limited appeal) and intangible (pop culture can spawn a generation of inspired followers, as well as iconoclastic reactionaries, and both camps will enhance the field as a whole).

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