A Journey to the Austrian Alps to Discuss "The Performing Arts in Lean Times"

Posted by Mr. John R. Killacky, Mar 11, 2010 4 comments

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.

4 responses for A Journey to the Austrian Alps to Discuss "The Performing Arts in Lean Times"

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John Killacky says
March 12, 2010 at 12:14 am

Painfully true and so well said.

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March 11, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Thanks for the Salzburg report John. Had been following the news a bit from the tweets a number of the participants were sending. The Zambian example you cite encourages me to note that the divide we face is not just a "First World vs. Third World" chasm, but a gap right within our own country, our own cities. The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance has done some fascinating new research that illuminates the huge challenge we have, especially in the African-American community, of creating an environment where people feel welcome in our "institutions." We also have cities filled with deep, intractable poverty and crime and many arts groups barely connected to the vast majority of the population grappling with these challenges. This is an issue that has been studied and talked about for years, and I frankly am getting discouraged that our progress in addressing it has been so slow - glacially so.

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Joe Tuohy says
March 11, 2010 at 4:07 pm

John, your thoughts about vitality resonate strongly and offer a potentially valuable shift in focus. This played out in a tangible way over the past few years at Visual AIDS in NYC. When I joined the board about six years ago (in relatively "good" economic times), the organization was struggling, in large part due to collective uncertainty about its relevance either to the arts community or in the fight against HIV/AIDS. With a slight shift in focus a new vitality emerged, a broader constituency responded in kind and Visual AIDS has ended the last two years in the strongest financial position in its history. A large reason for this was a new focus on the present: less bemoaning the loss of its past identity or the uncertainty about the future of the AIDS pandemic - something none of us can predict.

You also remind me of one of the most astounding images in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. In the face of utter economic and material devastation.....we heard song.

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Barry Hessenius says
March 11, 2010 at 12:02 pm

John asks: "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?"

This is likely "the" question for the arts sector in the next five years - and how we answer it will challenge our assumptions, impact and affect virtually every aspect of what we do and how we do it. In what should be invest, if not organizations? In the art? In our people - artists and administrators? Of course, but in ways that would actually be a sea change from what we have been doing. This promises to be a fascinating, and at times, painful, question for us. But address it we must, because the "private" sector is likely to answer it for us if we fail to.

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