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Eli Lehrer

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Don't Save the Lincoln Theater

Posted: 10/19/11 06:38 PM ET

Robert Bettmann falls into a trap far too common among people who enjoy the arts: a belief that government funding will somehow make things better. He's wrong.

Let's look at The Historic Lincoln Theatre, Bettmann's focus, first. While bemoaning its likely closing and calling for more subsidies, he fails to mention a single culturally notable event that has taken place there any time recently. It's not surprising because, actually, there haven't been any. The Lincoln's current schedule includes a Howard University student poetry event (likely as forgettable as all other student poetry events everywhere) and something called the "Global Fairness Awards." Over the next three months, the theater will get used a total of six evenings. Furthermore, only one event, a holiday concert, involves people who live and work in or near The District. Despite the place's storied jazz history I can't find any evidence that there's been a single jazz event there any time recently. Quite simply, nobody wants or needs the venue.

In fact, the neighborhood revitalization that included a partial restoration of the Lincoln may have made things harder on U Street as a cultural destination. Although it may have more jazz history per square inch than any other similar stretch in the world -- there were likely nights during the 1930s when a young Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and Miles Davis all played within two blocks of Ben's Chili Bowl -- the area now has only two true jazz clubs. On some Saturday nights, in fact, there are more places to hear jazz played in Arlington's terribly bland Crystal City area than there are along U Street.

The Lincoln, white elephant that it is, doesn't help and may even hurt the ability of the area to emerge as a stronger arts destination. It's empty almost all the time and converting it for something more useful would likely reduce rents (slightly) elsewhere in the area. Restrictive D.C. laws that limit the places music clubs (even if they only offer acoustic music) can operate combined with high rents -- driven higher by both governmental and private investment along U Street -- have driven out more jazz clubs and stopped new ones from coming in. High D.C. property and income taxes make it inefficient to rent out any space that will be used only three or four nights a week (as most jazz clubs are). And this means that suburban hotels host more local jazz talent than D.C. jazz clubs.

The biggest problems facing D.C.'s arts scene isn't money for the arts -- thanks to federal funding D.C. almost certainly has more arts spending per capita than any other city in the world -- but rather a political environment that, through high taxes and burdensome regulation, is implicitly unfriendly to the arts. If the District government should look to change these things before it spends a dime of taxpayer money on a theater that nobody wants.