Sunday, September 27, 2015

Who Supports the Arts?

Alex Ross of the New Yorker performs a valuable function: if you want to see what the conventional wisdom is on nearly any issue, just look at what he is saying. Here is a beautiful example, his recent post titled "The performing arts in America." The post is simple, consisting of two photos of performing spaces:

What is the point of this post? It is likely intended as a criticism of rich philanthropists. David Koch in particular is usually considered by everyone on the left (which includes the New Yorker and most of Manhattan) to be Evil Personified so if he gives money to something, even a ballet theater, this must be a Bad Thing. But the inclusion of David Geffen is a bit puzzling: apart from being rich and a philanthropist, he is also gay and was a supporter of Barack Obama, so plainly one of the Good Guys. A post like this is not intended to be an argument for anything, however, but simply a kind of shibboleth enabling the Right People to self-identify. I suppose the "argument" goes something like: "It is bad that the arts have to rely on rich people for funding as that enables them to put their names on buildings." Pretty feeble, really.

There are two subtexts that we can identify as well: one is that, in the absence of relying on rich philanthropists, which must be Bad, the arts should instead rely on, what, government? That would be the only other alternative as the performing arts are notoriously uncommercial. That brings up the second subtext which is that this argument is utterly ignorant of history. The major support for the performing arts has always been rich patrons. Until the 20th century, the only significant institutional support for the arts was the Church.

But history must be ignored because the conventional wisdom is that anything the rich do is bad because inequality or something.

On a few occasions I have talked about classical music's "business model" which boils down to support from wealthy patrons who are music lovers. Reliance on the generosity of governments is a weak reed as that support is always grudging, minimal and biased by political rather than aesthetic considerations. For all of its 1,000 year existence, classical music has been supported by a relatively small group of wealthy patrons. As an example, let me mention Oscar S. Schafer, chairman of the private investment firm Rivulet Capital, who has become a major supporter of the New York Philharmonic. As recounted in Barron's this week:
This month, [Oscar and his wife] bankrolled the parks concerts in perpetuity, among other projects, with a $25 million endowment. But saving the parks concerts is just a prelude. Schafer, who became chairman of the Philharmonic’s board in January, is presiding over one of the orchestra’s most tumultuous periods in its history.
During the 2012-13 season, the orchestra raised a record-breaking $31 million, a good chunk from its own board of directors. At a minimum, directors are expected to give $150,000 annually to the orchestra’s coffers, a relatively modest sum in New York cultural circles, but the pressure to do more is ratcheting up. Already, during the 2013-14 season, the board contributed $7.9 million, up from $4 million four years earlier, and the number this year is expected to rise appreciably more.
Schafer, whose passion was forged at Harvard University while studying music appreciation under the inspiring Prof. G. Wallace Woodworth, is energized by the idea of attracting a new generation of donors looking for high-impact giving opportunities.
Take note of that last paragraph: a life-long patron of classical music can be created by one inspirational music professor! Yet another argument for high quality music education at all levels.


Ken Fasano said...

I think Ross' point is that money has become the primary arbiter of aesthetics. But of course it always has been. If Haydn hadn't pleased Prince Esterhazy, he'd be out of a job. But from the point of view of the aesthetician, money cannot be the primary arbiter of aesthetics.

Bryan Townsend said...

Perhaps that is a good way of putting it. But if we unpack that, it is not money that is the arbiter, but those who have money. Rich people make the decisions as to what they want to support. Paul Allen put his money into a museum originally honoring Jimi Hendrix. I think that the challenge is for us to help the rich decide what is aesthetically worthwhile. They need guidance.

Marc Puckett said...

And the professional fund-raising people have to inhabit their own minor circle (a sub-circle of that of the Advertisers), in Purgatory, too: I suspect that they are analogous to pimps (in a different sort of 'professional world') but cannot quite work out if that's a sound analogy or not. Arbitri elegantiarum, pft.