Wednesday, December 19, 2007


A cultural terrorist by the name of Marcus Westbury dropped a bomb on the morning of October 18, 2007.

The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald published an article by Mr. Westbury that has essentially challenged the entire notion of supporting the performance of western classical performing art forms, from symphonies to operas and beyond. His thesis is that organizations that perform works by Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, Bach, Brahms, etc. are little more than glorified “cover bands” and why should such entities suck up so much of the available resources that are provided to support the arts?

“My argument isn't about form and it isn't an extreme one. It's about scale, equity and magnitude. I do think it would be a loss if Australians were to lose all connection with our vast and glorious European cultural heritage.

“But Opera Australia receives more than $10 million a year from the Australia Council. Sure, opera is lavish, expensive and glorious but I simply cannot think of a single sensible, logical or sane reason why one opera company is valued roughly on par with more than 400 separate organisations supported by the music, dance, literature and inter-arts boards of the same organisation.”
Wow. KaBOOM!
This thesis opens up a pretty large can of worms and challenges those of us charged with “supporting the arts in all its forms” to define what exactly we mean by that phrase.

Back in the mid-1960s it was pretty clear. “Supporting the arts” to us mostly meant providing resources to schools and arts organizations that would perpetuate art-forms of and educate audiences in western classical art forms. In America, this definition expanded over time to include distinctively indigenous forms of art—such as jazz, the blues, and musical theater—all of which represented a blending of cultural influences that, initially at least, used the instrumentation of western classical art forms.

But with the opening up of the world’s cultures through the internet, and with our increasing exposure to so many extraordinary nonwestern art forms from India, Asia, Oceania, South America, and Africa that have influenced several generations of creative people, the ascendancy of art created by “dead, white, western males” has been challenged, to say the least.

And that’s just for starters. The very nature of experiencing art is undergoing a massive shift. Those of us above a certain age (50?) expect performances to be in halls that seat large numbers of people so that the art provides an embracing communal experience. The latest trends are tracking this common experience to be dissolving to the point where performers and creators are creating works of art to engage “gen-aught” audiences of ONE. Even more perplexing, the timing, location, and media used in the presentation of the work are determined not by the creator/presenter but by the audience through its I-pod, computer, or other multi-media device.

I am not insulted at the notion that a symphony orchestra might be nothing more than a cover band. Those words are meant to be inflammatory and rile every self-respecting symphony manager, conductor, musician, and audience member out there. But all they make me want to do is to articulate why these art forms are important to support and maintain.

I believe that in order to understand other cultural experiences one must have a solid grounding in one’s own culture—which, in America, is still dominated by western-European influences.

I believe that we support opera companies and symphonies today because they have withstood the test of time and offer valuable insight to all citizens of the world (including those of us from “the west”) about western culture and values.

I believe that nothing builds social capital more effectively than sharing a profound arts experience with other members of one’s community. Theater, dance, opera, music deliver the goods again and again. They have proven their worth.

I also believe this conversation is far from over.

What do you believe?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


I admit that despite majoring in English and American Literature and Languages, and spending a great deal of time stumbling and mumbling through “the classics,” poetry usually succeeds in eluding my comprehension. But every now and then something triggers a bizarre “poetry recall” in my brain. Then it’s up to me to figure out the relationship between the experience and the poem and draw some kind of essential life-lesson from it.

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

When I first read this e.e. cummings poem in high school I thought it little more than a lark—a tour de force—written by a clever man who eschewed all literary and poetical conventions, and whose evident purpose in life was to frustrate my academic aims, such as they were.

But recently I read a story on titled Subprime Losses, Slashed Bonuses Threaten Funding to Nonprofits and phrases from this poem started bubbling up in my head. I needed to know why.

children guessed (but only a few
as down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that no one loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

According to the article, many charities, including arts organizations, depend on significant year-end contributions from corporations and their employees to close the income gap of their annual operations. For some, this year-end bounty amounts to as much as 40% of their annual contributed income. This year, the “subprime mortgage situation” (which might be more accurately referred to as The Big Swindle) is resulting in massive “write-downs” (losses) by financial juggernauts like Citigroup and Merrill Lynch.

How much, you ask? $40 billion and counting. These losses will not only affect those corporations’ charitable capacity (Merrill Lynch will most likely cut way back from its 2006 level of $40 million), but it will also mean that the year end bonuses of the management staff who got our money into this mess will be cut by five to fifteen percent. Five to fifteen percent of what, they don’t say. But I think we can assume at least eight figures…

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then) they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

Something is out of whack here, isn’t it? I am the director of a $1.5 million dollar a year not-for-profit agency in the public trust, and can barely afford cost-of living increases for staff much less a year-end bonus—and that’s in a year when we end up with a positive fund balance. That other people, managing billion-dollar portfolios into a negative balance, can expect a year end bonus at all, much less one that is smaller than last year’s by a mere 15% is nothing short of criminal.

Our expectations, our values, our SOMETHING have all gone topsy-turvy on us—sort of like the language of this poem. $40 billion vanishes with a few strokes of a pen, and charities are made to suffer the consequences...!?!

The wishful-thinking-adolescent me used to think that maybe the poet was under the influence of a controlled substance when he wrote this poem. Now I’m not so sure. In the context of cummings’s verses, this whole subprime mortgage scandal is making a whole lot more sense…

one day anyone died I guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain.

[anyone lived in a pretty how town by e. e. cummings reprinted with permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation]