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Michael Kaiser

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A Two-Tiered World?

Posted: 07/02/2012 8:21 am

I have been fortunate to live through the second half of the twentieth century when there was an unparalleled number and diversity of arts organizations. I have enjoyed huge productions at the Metropolitan Opera and the Beijing Opera, I have heard the world's great symphonies, I have seen many of the great theater companies and enjoyed performances from the leading folk ensembles.

And I have also enjoyed the remarkable creativity and ingenuity of the world's smallest ensembles, creating with few financial but many artistic resources, inspiring and entertaining works.

But, perhaps most miraculously of all, I have enjoyed the mid-sized groups as well, in too many cities to name. Not the 'state' opera or theater or the orchestra with claims to international stature, but the regional organizations, that entertain and educate huge segments of our country, and other countries as well.

Perhaps I am too influenced by the current economic challenges but I fear that this broad array of types and sizes of organizations is threatened. With the gap between the haves and the have nots changing, with too few arts organizations building the size of their funding families, with the advent of new technologies that can help us but also compete with us, I am growing increasingly concerned that we will have a very different arts ecology 20 years from now.

Yes, we will still have many of the large orchestras and opera companies and ballet companies, though some of them may disappear. (We have come close to losing several of them in the past few years already.) These groups have a huge advantage when it comes to taking advantage of new technologies, attracting new family members and building visibility. It won't be easy for these groups -- they will have to work extremely hard and well to stay healthy -- but the world will not be bereft of all large-scale arts institutions.

And I am sure that there will always be new, young, vibrant arts groups that are created because an artist has something to express. But, increasingly, artists are working on projects -- often with collaborators from other media -- and then disbanding to conceive of the next project. This leads to tremendous vibrancy in the nature of the work being created and allows artists more flexibility, but it comes at a cost. How many of these artists will have the benefit of a relatively consistent income flow, especially from donors, that working in a company format will allow?

But I worry most that the mid-sized, regional arts organizations will become increasingly rare. These groups do not have the assets of world class institutions but have large cost structures that are becoming increasingly difficult to fund. Yet the service provided by these organizations is immense.

Not every regional or mid-sized group is doomed. Those organizations that do a very good job of building support structures -- involved boards, strong administrative staffs, large donor bases, committed audiences -- will survive and thrive. But it will not be easy and will require discipline, passion and a comprehensive strategy, not to mention exciting art.

I hope many are successful and fewer of these organizations vanish, or shrink, than I fear is likely.

 
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