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What I Am Learning On My Tour

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My 50 state, 69 city tour is almost over; I will make my last presentation on July 16 in Boise, Idaho.

The tour has been both inspiring and depressing at the same time.

It is inspiring to see so many communities that value the arts and so many individuals determined to maintain arts in their cities and states. I estimate that some 11,000 people will have attended an "Arts in Crisis" tour presentation. Each of these individuals cares deeply for the arts in their home towns.

When I visited Billings, Montana some people drove as much as six hours each way to make sure they could take part in the discussion. Numerous South Dakotans drove for hours to Pierre for our session there. Many politicians came to these sessions as well--mayors, city councilmen, school superintendants, state senators, Congressmen--displaying their concern and interest in the role the arts play in their communities.

In too many cities to name, new or restored theaters and museums provided spectacular venues for our presentations and for the arts. Clearly there was enough interest in these cities to invest millions of dollars to ensure a proper home for the arts.

And in virtually every city, the press was present at these events. Newspaper, television and radio journalists have given this tour an astonishing level of coverage.

One had to come away from this tour with an overwhelming feeling of optimism for the future of the arts in America.

But I was depressed to see how many venues I visited presented performances that were entirely interchangeable with performances at other venues.

It is not that the art was bad. It simply was not special or unique to the organization. In other words, there was simply no evidence of curation. Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, was the first person to teach me about how one must curate a season, selecting works that fit together and making sure the audience was learning along the way. I have extrapolated from his concept and believe that curating a special project or festival is an important part of being a good presenter.

Of course it is wonderful for any community to experience the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or a recital by Yo-Yo Ma. But shouldn't each venue also be creating projects unique to its community?

Presenters must do more than fill slots. They must develop projects that will build excitement and reputation for creativity and excellence. These projects can be interesting amalgams of guest artists or organizations or work that is produced specially by the presenting organization.

Why can't a mid-sized presenter create a festival, perhaps in collaboration with a local producing organization, museum or educational institutions?

When I talk about the need for large transformational projects heads always nod up and down in my "Arts in Crisis" sessions and people tell me how inspiring this concept is. But as I look at the schedules for U.S. presenters, with few exceptions the programming has not changed.

Perhaps I must give it more time. Perhaps in three or four years we will see great new projects that have taken that long to gestate.

But I am afraid my tour will not have accomplished enough to justify the expense of time and money if the programming in our theaters does not change dramatically.