During the more than 40 years of practicing architecture and city planning, a significant chunk of my work was associated with the planning and designing of places for the arts. I designed the now-gone addition to the Modern Art Pavilion at Seattle Center. I was responsible for the master planning of Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, which includes a theatrical venue. I helped with planning for the conversion of the old Eagles Fraternal Hall into a theatrical space now occupied by ACT Theatre.
But planning and design are only a part of the challenges associated with these places. Funding is a huge one, perhaps the largest and most important. I admire people willing to provide money to make such spaces a part of the culture. However, the model of big donors, foundations, and companies providing wads of cash is a risky gamble. It depends on the shifting interests of foundations, corporations, city hall, and individuals. Not to mention the state of the economy and the ability of arts organizations to deliver promised programming over the long haul.
The arts are littered with the husks of places that couldn’t sustain themselves over time. (The once marvelous Empty Space Theatre in Pioneer Square is but one example.) I fondly recall the era of small-scale, shoe-string theatrical productions that used to occur in various venues around Capitol Hill. Cutting-edge galleries that used to populate older buildings in Pioneer Square were long ago shoved out by landlords receiving higher rents from tech companies.
As David Brewster points out in his recent article on arts-funding models, Seattle has for decades depended on a model in which a plethora of arts organizations compete for grants from relatively small number of big donors — especially people who write large checks. These generous donors get thanked by their names carved on walls and mounted on building facades. However, this model is precarious and can change on a dime, to make a bad pun.
In my five years of living in Italy, I have benefitted from another, quite different model. Here, local arts entities chase relatively modest donations from commercial, non-profit, and governmental sources. No one gets a name on a building. But they do get lavish praise. At the beginning of each concert, the donors and their families are recognized with effusive applause, bottles of local wines and bouquets of flowers. The mayor invites them to stand or come up on stage to be given kudos by all in attendance.
I’m not talking about hundreds of thousands of euros here, but more like merely hundreds – not an impossible amount for most people. Indeed my wife and I provided in-kind services for two visiting musicians in terms of room and board and were similarly praised in public. This model allows ordinary individuals and businesses in a community – not just the rich – to feel a part of the cultural patrimony. Companies are allowed to hang a banner on stage for the evening, not unlike the sponsors of softball games in the U.S. I’ve seen banners for hardware stores, flower shops, and shoe-making companies. The owners beam broadly on stage for a few minutes in the footlights.
Here, every town, including our hilltop village of 1,400 people, has a teatro. Ours is a miniature version of its big cousins in Bologna and Milan – the grandly-sized semi-circular classic Italian theatres with 4-5 tiers of boxes wrapping around a flat floor of moveable seats in rows. The flat floor, once cleared, allows the occasional very large group to perform, or for an orchestra providing music for the acting on stage. No sound amplification is necessary, as the architecture does the job, so there is not a bad seat in the house. All seats are equal; there are no boxes reserved for well-heeled patrons.
Prior to covid, which rightly shuttered every venue with closely-spaced seating, our little opera house hosted multiple performances every month. One was a visiting orchestra from Poland. Another was a boisterous band from another town in the region. There have been jazz singers, rock bands, small symphonies, chamber music trios, drummers, and the town’s own band filled with talented performers from eight years old to 80. For a week, there was a classical group from Japan that played in the theatre as well as the several outdoor piazzas around the town. Moreover, there are dozens of similar theatrical venues in towns within a 30-minute radius of our front door. All of them are coming back, now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted.
But here is perhaps the most shocking part: Almost all the performances are completely free.
Most of the venues are publicly owned. The mayors make them available to non-profits at no charge, waving fees required of ticketed events. The modest donations I mentioned go to paying musicians, feeding them, and providing transportation (usually a rented bus). The expenses involved in mounting a show are minimal.
Cities see their role as making culture widely available to everyone without imposing stiff ticket prices. Key beneficiaries of this are two demographic groups: the old and the young. Audiences are filled with local folks in their 70s through 80s, some arriving in wheelchairs or walking with canes or an assisting relative. Chairs are occupied by parents with infants, toddlers, and teenagers. Many of the attendees know the lyrics by heart, even the American songs. The entire audience often sings along with the group on stage. It’s a thrilling blend of family, arts, and shared experiences without a tinge of cultural snobbery. There are no tuxes or high fashion gowns; workmen show up in their work clothes and boots.
Now, its certainly well-known that Italy has historically supported the arts in many forms. When we Americans think of this, we assume that must mean government or corporate largesse. Not so here. The sources of funding are just plain folks. Just like the audiences.