CRITICAL EYE Is Elitism Killing the Arts?

’Porter, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m an arts journalist and a theater critic.”

“Oh, theater-so what’s a good movie to see?”

If I had a dime for ever time I’ve actually had this exchange about my livelihood I could underwrite the Dallas Museum of Art’s new exhibit, “Eternal Egypt: Daily Life, People, and Religion.” But never mind the mysteries of the Nile: Just consider for a moment what events my generous act might set in motion.

The museum staff, in order to jolly me up for future donations and to introduce its exhibit, might throw an opening gala. The Dallas Morning News might dispatch Alan Peppard or my former Times Herald colleague Helen Bryant. Alan and Helen would do their usual witty reportage on the gala-rati. Photographers would flash the affair, and citizens would read all about it in the paper.

Not only would they read about it, but they’d see all the pictures of beautiful people decked out in designer clothes, heavily bejeweled in the name of art. Looks pretty elitist, doesn’t it? And that’s the problem. The arts, because of their longstanding courtship of society and wealth, are seen by the masses as something that belongs only in the provinces of the privileged. Just-plain-folks need not apply.

In deciding what to do with an evening, just-plain-folks will usually choose one of three options: Rent it, watch it on TV or go see it at a multiplex. Why? Because they’ve been turned off by the arts. The bravest might swarm out into the hot night for a “pops” event-that’s a for-the-masses, picnic-and-lawn-chair version of the fur-wearers’ fare. Maybe an outdoor symphony playing Broadway show tunes with Marvin Hamlisch; or “Jazz Under…” anything–the stars, the moon, the bugs.

But even at these events, audiences are the recipients of irresponsibly elitist signals. Pre-show, at performances of both The Comedy of Errors and Romeo and Juliet this summer, a Dallas Shakespeare Festival host walked out on stage in Samuell-Grand Park and told the audience that the only way to get tickets to the company’s August 1 star-studded fund-raiser at the Meyerson in conjunction with London’s Shakespeare Globe Center project was to have “deep. deep, deep” pockets. Oops! Gala-ed again!

What’s the fallout? Notes Liz Kelley of Moonstruck Theatre, which performs in one of Dallas’ most casual alternative-theater venues, the Hickory Street Annex: “A lot of people call up and ask what (he dress code is for seeing a play.”

It’s not just Dallas’ problem. It’s nationwide. But on our home front, lots of arts people scramble for cover when you bring up the subject of elitism. Despite the community-service efforts of exhausted marketing people, the sad truth is that the arts aren’t yelling “Come as you are!” because artists and the people who promote them really like thinking their work has something to do with glamour. Believe me. there are few highs like that moment when one gets to preen on stage to thunderous applause during a curtain call. Artists and promoters simply fall prey to the headiness of it all. It distances them from reality. They begin to believe that art is for good, special people. And suddenly, we’re talking elitism.

Dallas Symphony’s Leonard Stone prefers to put a somewhat happier spin on it. He likes to call anyone who enjoys the beauty of symphonic music “elite of spirit.” Stone, a delightful man. wants to talk about his 30.000 subscribers, his sold-out concerts, his seven-concert packages you can get for $55 on the bottom and $600 at the top. But for all of Stone’s pride in the DSO’s success, he eventually will let his hair down and discuss the fact that, for many people, just walking into such an opulent place as the Meyerson Center might be a shade scary. He even admits it’s “like walking into Notre Dame or Westminster Abbey.”

To combat the public’s fear of the arts, Stone says, the Symphony has undertaken an in-the-trenches marketing effort: “We have chosen to fight. We are persistent We are relentless.”

How relentless? Stone’s assistant Carol Stabler can talk a Mahler symphony’s worth of outreach programs-corporate employee deals, group sales, the Youth Educational Series of concerts at elementary schools, free tickets for the under-served, park concerts…it goes on. And the Symphony is not alone in its endeavors. Meg Hanlon at the DMA will stretch your imagination as thin as a Giacometti with her list of outreach programs. But, in the big picture, despite the Symphony’s sales and despite the half-million people coming through the museum each year, Hanlon is failing. Stabler and Stone are failing, we’re all failing to make the arts a pan of regular people’s lives.

DMA deputy director Emily Sano puts a historical perspective on the arts-money connection: “In the development of museums in the United Suites, the staffs were independently wealthy and didn’t rely on the museums to provide a salary. They were gentlemen-scholars. It’s only in the last 25 years that there’s been an emphasis on professional staff in museums in this country [and] that has created a new mission of being an institution of education, trying to reach a broad populace. But it does require funding. And that’s the bind that this museum finds itself in.”

That’s the bind all our arts are in. Mink ’n’ Moet donations: the arts can’t live without them, yet they’re dying because of the elitism that seems to be part of the package. What’s more, the donations are getting harder to attract, according to most fundraisers, you ask-the wealthy may not be willing to take up the slack for disappearing government funds forever. A nonprofit arts company generally needs half of its income in contributions. The other half comes from ticket sales. So, if the people with money aren’t plunking down as much, the heat is turned up to solicit money from regular Joes and Janes. Unfortunately, Joe and Jane would prefer to see Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act.

Some of the blame for the arts’ lack of popularity can certainly be laid on the media, While the print media may cover the arts and their galas, local television stations turn out mainly for big, “direct from somewhere else” events: John Schneider in the tired roadshow of Brigadoon; lots of stuff about the Catherine the Great exhibit at Fair Park. The reality is that the electronic media rareiy set the agenda. They follow it. So as long as the masses believe that the arts are above them, TV news will reinforce, not counter, that concept.

David Mallette, executive director of the Fort Worth Ballet, shares this concern about the media’s influence. “We don’t like to think of ourselves as entertainment but that’s the discretionary dollar we’re dependent on. This company is only about 30 years old. Houston Ballet is 21. That’s TV time.” What he means is that Texas’ (wo biggest dance powers have existed entirely within the period of TV’s rise to dominance in our culture.

Mallette goes on to discuss the problems associated with his own company’s image. “We’re never going to survive without the Mercedes and diamond folks. And the patronage of wealthy people,” he sighs, “carries an aura that we spend money like our patrons do. We haven’t ever had a chance to become part of people’s lives.”

Mallette’s concerns for his ballet pose a few interesting questions: How badly has the perceived elitism of the arts distanced our citizens from the experience of the live arts? How thoroughly has that elitism driven them to the ways and means of mass entertainment? And, even more importantly, how can we combat the trend? Only with something arts people hate: confession. They don’t want to tell you how big their soaring deficits are, And they don’t want to admit that they’ve always loved the thought of limos pulling up under their marquees. Getting the masses back will require a new, aggressive, multicourse eating of crow mixed with an aggressive pitch that goes something like this;

Come in your cutoffs, barefoot and shirtless, but come.

Forget reservations. Just walk up like you do at the movie theater.

You’ll understand everything. The guy next to you in a lux doesn’t know any more than you do, he only dresses as if he does.

It’s also going to lake the cooperation of the society donors. At London’s Royal Albert Hall, you can dress within an inch of your pearls, but there’s no guarantee the person in the seat next to you won’t be in jeans and a leather jacket. Will Dallas accept this particular form of integration? If not, the arts will keep putting on not only costumes, but also airs-and to an empty house at that.

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments