Panhandling Dialed Up To 10: It Can’t Fix The Arts Crisis


Peter Gelb, General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera (screen capture)

Last week I received a letter from Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera company. He called my attention to the fine work the Met has done over his decade or so at the helm, described the severe blow given the institution by the coronavirus outbreak, and asked me to give any additional financial relief in my power during this time of trial.

Unfortunately for Mr. Gelb, he is not the only supplicant at my door.  Like everyone else reading these words, I am surrounded by petitioners, calling on me to rescue them from likely oblivion if I do not open my heart and wallet to them. These are not the indigent and homeless I see every day hoping for a handout from the rare masked stranger hurrying by. These are the occupants of the citadels of art, nakedly acknowledging that the perilous financial path they walk every day has been erased by an avalanche.

The common trait I find in these appeals is that each petitioner seems to be trying to keep my eyes focused on theirs, as if to prevent my noticing the crowd of fellow-supplicants around them. As soon as one does, of course, the futility of the attempt leaps to the eye. The threat is clear, but in aggregate far too great to be alleviated by the usual  pan-handling techniques dialed up to 10. It is not one dance company or theater troupe confronted with extinction but the whole rickety structure we’ve jury-rigged to keep our allegedly precious cultural heritage in operation.

The current situation of “the non-profit arts sector” has probably never been so dire in our country. But the saddest thing about the situation is that those threatened seem so far unwilling to admit that they are in the same leaky boat in a heavy sea, that their survival can’t be ensured without joining forces with each other to assert their need and society’s obligation to recognize it.

And the reciprocal is true: “the arts” must cease lobbying just for themselves but for their just share of support alongside other “non-profit” instruments of a just society; essentials like universal public heath, public education, basic income. The time has passed for arts funding in the United States to depend in large measure on the discretionary largesse of multi-millionaires and billionaires who can be shamed or flattered into sharing those less fortunate with a taste of “the good things of life.”

Roger Downey
Roger Downey
Born in Canada moved to Peru's altiplano at the age of six; came to the U.S. at 10 to discover that you don't use your feet to dribble the ball. Learned from the git-go that "America" is an idea, not a place.


  1. We continue to live in a competitive world with myriad arts organizations each offering unique expressions of the human condition in equally diverse ways. They compete primarily with content, curating their presentations with as much intelligence and engagement as they can. Yes, it’s dismaying to see organizations as large as the Met reaching deeply into their list of contacts and sending appeals, but organizations large and small will persist in pursuing their missions through this crisis, and many will survive, having somehow communicated a narrative that both their specific arts organization and its contributions to society are essential.
    Whether you love theater or opera, ballet or the symphony, support your chosen institutions by purchasing season tickets now.

    • Give to the groups of your choice? Of course. Buy season tickets now? Not so fast.

      Even in normal times, non-profits spend now and hope they can stay one step ahead of the wolf on their heels ahead of the next infusion of yet-to-be earned cash. This is speculation, even for enterprises which produce collateralizable assets. Most non-profits don’t have that cushion when forced-borrowing time rolls round: just the proverbial smile and a shoeshine. Until the lively arts find a way to secure their own guaranteed annual income they will be in danger.

      What form would that income take? Not direct state subsidy. Anyone who’s spent time watching what the subsided arts put forward in Europe knows that their system is one which encourages extravagance and irresponsibility on-stage and off. But subsidizing ticket prices introduces a measure of realism. What the groups create get to patrons who’ve never developed an arts dependency because they’ve rarely had access to it.

      And in return the purveyors are faced with considering the tastes of their audience more than the whims of “artists” who often despise the tastes for the public, reveling in th eboos and catcalls which follow their more outrageous attempt to “épater les bourgeois”.

      Consider the desires of those hidebound insensitive dummies? The bourgeoisie which may have deserved a sneer now and then is extinct, has been for the better part of a century now. Look at the sophistication demanded of the audience that is accustomed to paying for its pleasure and doing so up front. Underwriting non-profit arts groups substantially wouldn’t coddle them or indulge elitism. It would rather place their work on a par with their commercial competition. “Show me what you got” says the consumer; “And if you don’t got it, I won’t come.”

      • Thanks for responding. We are both well aware of those sturdy pillars essential to the support and order of our cultural temples. So to continue the conversation, I believe subscribing or re-subscribing is the cultural equivalent of being a super-delegate. It’s a powerful way of endorsing a theater company’s relevant (or irrelevant) worldview, a way of monetarily cheering for a maestro’s programming, a way of granting a vote of confidence to a dance company, or a way to support a jazz ensemble for transformative experiences past, present and hopefully future. It’s a way also to become known to the institutions and gradually and systemically be drawn into their ecosystems, with all the perks of access and greater shared community. It’s rather democratic and interest based…and its fun. Yes, you send your hard earned cash this year, but you send it with the knowledge that it provides stability, insures continuity and funds artistic planning into the future. And to address the ticket subsidy thought, many subscriber patrons do just that with their pre-purchased tickets enabling a system of dynamic pricing and greater institutional ticket pricing flexibility as the season progresses.

        As far as “guaranteed annual income”, sure…in the business they are called “cash cows”. All the largest and healthiest institutions have them. And what irresistible guilty pleasures they are…from Boheme and Carmen to Frozen and Hamilton, from The Planets to Harry Potter, to the Rachmaninoff piano concerti. The degree to which an organization approaches the ownership of an offering with the durability (and profitability) of the Nutcracker may determine both the certainly of its financial planning process and the degree of risk available to program a curatorial gem or three, unfamiliar perhaps, but thought sure to surprise and delight. Stravinsky’s Persephone, programmed last season by the Seattle Symphony with the Michael Curry puppets stands as an example. So what happens ideally is that the existing “tastes” of the audience, which in today’s data driven world are absolutely well known, then are integrated into an evening including both the work that the audience member came to see/hear and an unfamiliar work exploding with elements of cultural shock and awe. A synthesis aiming to unlock emotions and stimulate the intellect. Think a major Balanchine work with say a Crystal Pite or Stephanie Martinez piece. Fun stuff!!

        The successful approach I think is one of shared discovery, shared community and a shared demonstration of the value of our very capable arts organizations. Yes, it’s life of “danger”, but I think we like it that way. Operators are waiting to take your call.

  2. I wonder if part of the solution for Seattle is for arts organizations to join forces, realizing savings and efficiencies in the process. This is often advocated, such as the effort to save the Northwest Chamber Orchestra by merging its winter season with the summer season of Seattle Chamber Music Festival; or Empty Space Theater with Seattle University. Donors like the idea, but boards and artistic directors cherish their independence. Some opportunities: more partners with Cornish (former Intiman) Theater; pocket opera companies using ACT. This also performs a pruning service, dealing with Seattle’s bumper crop of arts organizations, whereby 1+1=1.5.


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