A Journey to the Austrian Alps to Discuss "The Performing Arts in Lean Times"
Last month I joined colleagues from around the world to attend the Salzburg Global Seminar: “The Performing Arts in Lean Times: Opportunities for Reinvention.” Adrian Ellis and Russell Willis Taylor co-chaired the convening. Several ideas from this meeting may be relevant to our blogosphere discussions. First the context: we were lodged in Max Reinhart’s castle. This is the building that stood in for the Von Trapp villa featured in the movie version of “The Sound of Music.” And, of course, there’s Salzburg, itself: Mozart’s birthplace in the Austrian Alps -- totally fabulous! Now, here are some tidbits from our conversations, as well as my observations. First off, lean times in the West snapped into perspective when a Zambian playwright reminded us that people in her country live on two dollars a day. This starkly contrasted with the news from a Hong Kong government administrator who privately shared that his city is increasing its (already) multi-billion dollar investment in culture.
Policy analysts, journalists, and practitioners debated. Have the arts lost their legitimacy? Why have we not been able to articulate our values to various shareholders? The beleaguered assembled were reassured and fortified by a Bharatanatyam choreographer from India. She explained the concept of Rasa, a Sanskrit term indicating the profound state of empathic bliss that an arts experience can produce in each of us. Additional encouragement followed. Several presenters addressed the pivotal (at times, predicating) role that arts play in transforming societies. We were rapt as we learned about burgeoning theaters in Beirut, a community center on the outskirts of Casablanca, and a major cultural center in downtown Newark – all metamorphosing their communities. The intrinsic, social, and economic value of the arts became eminently clear. At last, it was safe to be sanguine! Leaders from major institutions in England, Australia, and the States groused about cascading losses in ticket revenue, endowments, as well as government and foundation support. Furthermore, they noted, on-line innovations encouraging us to co-create meaning and crowdsource have disrupted the authority once ascribed to large arts organizations. And, of course, the erosion of arts journalism in mainstream media only compounds all of our problems. Perhaps, the primary conversation at the summit circled in on sustainability. Is focusing on institutional sustainability the right priority in these, or any, unstable economic times? Perhaps, longevity is not sufficient to warrant investment. Could it be that capitalizing vitality is more pertinent? As stimulating as the formal presentations and work groups may have been, time-outs with colleagues were deeply rejuvenating. Sitting by a lake in the Austrian Alps reconnecting with friends I have known and worked with for over 20 years was worth the 16 hour cramped coach sojourn. And making new friends in the field was equally terrific. As the recession lingers, there are going to be many difficult choices for all of us. My Salzburg retreat reaffirmed that all of us, (artists, producers, presenters, curators, funders, academics, and government workers) with our multiple perspectives, need each other not to lose faith. We rely on one another to continue caring and believing in the power of art.