THE BLOG

The Power of Celebrity

10/25/2010 08:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is astonishing how much power celebrities have to create interest and excitement for an arts project.

When a world famous actor or dancer or singer is involved in a production, the ability to raise money and sell tickets rises immeasurably.

And when a major exhibition by a celebrity artist is opened, the lines to enter can be very long indeed. Parking and food-service revenues naturally rise as well, and the sale of tickets and gift shop items increases substantially.

The challenge for so many of us in the fields of classical music and opera today is that the number of celebrity artists is dwindling. This is not a comment on the quality of today's performers. There are amazingly talented young performers in every art form. But the vast reduction in recording activity has cost the classical music field its best marketing partner. Record companies used to spend substantial sums to make their artists famous. Almost none of this activity happens anymore. In addition, the reduction in mainstream press attention to the arts has made it difficult if not impossible to become a star. As countless newspapers fire their arts journalists, it is difficult for an artist to build a reputation for excellence.

Think of the opera singers I heard in one season at the Met 30 years ago: Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson, Montserrat Caballé, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes! They all had major recording contracts and were written about in leading publications across the globe. These were artists with international renown who could sell out the largest opera houses even in non-standard repertory.

The number of opera singers who can do that today can be counted on two hands. And the number of these singers who are under 40 years old doesn't require a second hand. It is getting tougher and tougher to count on the power of a celebrity opera singer. The same is true for classical music conductors and soloists. No wonder opera companies and symphony orchestras are having challenges selling high-priced tickets.

To make matters worse, the negative impact on fundraising is just as substantial as the impact on ticket sales. Many donors want to support organizations that can boast of famous performers. And those organizations that can make these stars available to donors at receptions, dinners, lectures, etc. have a true advantage in building a fundraising effort, especially among individual donors. When there are fewer celebrity artists, fundraising revenue is bound to suffer.

This forces individual opera houses and symphonies to create fame for their guest artists in their home markets. This is not impossible. But when an artist is only present for a few performances it can be difficult to justify a large expenditure of money for creating fame.

Major arts organizations are going to have to spend more time creating excitement for the organization as a whole so they can depend less on the reputations of their individual artists. This will be a substantial challenge. Arts managers will face new and difficult challenges in the future.