Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fighting Words over the Fine Arts

Matt Smith has thrown down a pretty stiff gauntlet in his column for this week's SF Weekly, and he has thrown it right in the face of San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Here is the basic argument as set forth in his opening paragraphs:

These are trying economic times — unless you're Michael Tilson Thomas, the baton-waving tycoon at the head of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He is one of a troika of symphony honchos who, when you include money allocated to agents and personal projects and a personal loan, drain $2.6 million from what is, in essence, a charity partly supported by taxpayers.

San Francisco fine arts nonprofits such as the symphony have consistently failed in their mission of instructing residents in what they should accept as great culture. That patronizing mission would be outdated even if they were earnest about pulling it off. But they're not: They've turned our local culture palaces into sites for air-kiss orgies among the superrich.

As the symphony helps create a recession-proof standard of living for Tilson Thomas, the city finds itself contributing to the kind of superstar worship that makes a farce of classical music. Meanwhile, the tycoons' wives behind the nonprofit that runs the de Young Museum are turning the museum into an extension of their own closets, producing fashion shows featuring clothing that regular San Franciscans could never afford.

The megawealthy can do as they please with their money. But we can choose not to have them play with ours. Legislation recently introduced by the lame-duck Board of Supervisors claims to target fat-cat executive directors of government-funded nonprofits, but it's worded so that its effect on mammoth salaries earned by such directors as Tilson Thomas will be nil. In January, newly elected supervisors should put their radical pretensions to work and find real ways to excise taxpayer subsidies from the city's exalted cultural institutions.

There are any number of ways in which this position can be contested. In the face of Smith's full-frontal attack, I would like to consider two questions that cut to the heart of whether that position is muckraking in the face of an abuse of public trust or a distorted account of an institution whose "world class" status has won recognition from knowledgeable music critics in both New York and London:

  1. Who benefits from the San Francisco Symphony in general and the ways in which Thomas has made it "his" ensemble in particular?
  2. What is a reasonable cost for those benefits, and how shall that cost be met?

In order to answer the first question, it is necessary to understand the nature of the benefit itself. Smith seems to want to reduce that benefit to "the kind of superstar worship that makes a farce of classical music." Given the amount of work I have put into understanding both the theory and practice sides of classical music (for which this blog provides a recent but modest sample), I feel I have at least some authority to recognize what constitutes farce; and, at the very least, I have to question just where Smith acquired his data points to make his claim.

There is no doubt that Smith's "megawealthy" have a serious presence in Davies Symphony Hall. On one occasion when my wife was given the gift of two tickets in the Loge, I learned how to find them; and I confess to feeling a bit like a field anthropologist encountering a previously undiscovered culture. Scott Fitzgerald was right; they really are "different from you and me!" However, the Loge is a relatively small (and therefore deliberately elite) portion of the Davies seating plan. My wife and I usually sit in the Front Orchestra section: It's a price we can afford, and I am willing to sacrifice a good view for minimizing the number of people between myself and the music. The view I get, instead, is of the occupants of the rush seats in the Center Terrace, who are at the opposite end of the wealth spectrum. I do not know where Smith got his data, but at least I can account for where I got mine!

What do my data tell me? The bottom line is that I have never seen more consistently attentive audiences than the ones I have encountered in Davies; and I have been going to concerts since, as a pre-schooler, I was taken by my parents to a Philadelphia Orchestra children's concert to hear our child-prodigy pianist neighbor! So I am willing to hold my data points up to Smith's on any occasion. Granted, there are times when I hear nervous coughs; but I have never heard them come from the Terrace seats or from my immediate vicinity. For all I know, they come from the Loge! From my vantage point I always feel that I am sharing my space (doesn't that sound Californian?) with those who, like myself, have come to listen; and we (if I may use first person plural) come to listen to visiting conductors as much as we come to hear Thomas. Whether or not any of the others come, as I do, for the sake of listening to be a better listener is not important. All that is important is that most of those seats in Davies are occupied by people who are far from being "megawealthy" who find benefit in the experience of listening to the San Francisco Symphony as the current Music Director has come to fashion it.

The heart of Smith's argument, however, is concerned less with benefits than with costs. Smith is not so much attacking the question of whether there should be a certain element of public trust in the fine arts organizations of a major city as much as the specific allocation of $2.6 million for "a charity partly supported by taxpayers." Now I am not sure how much of the Symphony budget is public record; and, as a rule, I tend to be in favor of transparency where any budget is concerned. However, Smith recognized that there is an interesting historical context for Symphony support:

In 1935, after the symphony went bankrupt, voters relaunched it by establishing a permanent taxpayer set-aside for the orchestra, currently $1.8 million per year. A lifetime later, that quaint act of civic-mindedness — resurrecting the orchestra — has grown into a monster bent upon enriching one man. As fine arts institutions turn toward commercial success and placating rich donors and away from the public interest, they eliminate all rationale for government subsidy. What's more, taking the symphony off the dole would have a pianissimo effect on its total budget, which in 2005 was $63.6 million.

This is worth examining sentence-by-sentence. I knew about the bankruptcy from reading the memoir by violinist David Schneider, who joined the symphony right after its "resurrection." Having acquired a reasonably good understanding of how the Symphony progressed while Schneider worked there and a basic sense of what happened after he retired, I have a lot of trouble accepting the proposition that the institution "has grown into a monster bent upon enriching one man" (presumably its Music Director, whether that Director is Thomas or any of his predecessors). I would have to wonder, however, why, if Thomas is being so "enriched" by his compensation package, he still actively maintains his commitments to the New World Symphony and the London Symphony Orchestra. That must make for a maddening schedule, particularly if he works with those other ensembles as intensely as he works with ours. As to the Symphony's total budget, this is where the question of transparency arises. I am reasonably confident that the list of expenses that the Symphony must face annually is longer than any list I could hypothesize on my own. Again, if Smith has better data points than I do, I would be happy to see them and reconsider my position.

On the more objective plane of the relation between costs and benefits, I can only speak to my own financial management. Having come to the age of fixed-income status, I had to work with my broker to determine whether or not I would be able to support the sorts of things on which I wanted to spend money; and tickets to the performing arts were part of the budget from which we worked. So I am more careful about the money I spend on tickets than I was when I first moved to the Bay Area, which basically means that I am a lot more picky about getting my money's worth! Regular readers know that I certainly do not like everything I hear at Symphony concerts, but just as certainly I do not in any way feel that this part of my budget is being poorly spent. All I ask of retirement is the means to keep my mind alive; and the San Francisco Symphony does a great job of providing those means, thank you very much!

Thus, I feel that Smith's attack does not hold up particularly well in the face of the two fronts I have proposed for challenging his position. I would be only too happy for him to respond to those challenges. For that matter I have to admit that I sympathize with him when he directs his attack at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum and have even used this blog to "voice" my misgivings about that institution. However, given how important the San Francisco Symphony has become to my life here in San Francisco, Smith's column awakened in me a need to "speak up" on its behalf!


Stephen Smoliar said...

The following comment was submitted by Matt Smith by way of a response to the points I raised; since he submitted it to my most recent post, rather than this one, I am reproducing it here:

Dear Mr. Smoliar,

Thank you for your very thoughtful comments.

There's no question ordinary people get pleasure out of going to the symphony. I
think I meant my discussion to be held in the shadow of a city that's struggling
to decide what to cut or not cut in the fact of a $90 million budget deficit.

More than a decade ago I spent a month researching an article on the business of
classical music, and attended the annual trade convention of this "industry"
such as it is. I sat in on workshops where symphony executive directors fretted
about how to re-cement their position as worthy public-benefit charities, now
that the public felt it could satisfy sophisticated musical tastes elsewhere.
Many acknowledged that the old idea of a symphony deserving tax dollars didn't
really fly in many communities. Some tried to redefine their organizations into
educational institutions. San Francisco went a different way, largely weaning
itself from government support by developing a national donor following.

The old article is here:

I had a section in this week's column on this issue, too. But it was cut for
space. Perhaps you'd be interested in reading it anyway.

"...But it’s worth taking a look because it’s the public face of a business
strategy unrelated to serving the public interest. It involves hoisting the star
of their music director to boost ticket sales, then shoveling ever more cash and
perks to their self-created celebrity to keep him aboard.

This type of spectacle is what’s known among some priggish aficionados as The
Decline and Fall of Classical Music. The zenith of this arc occurred during the
1970s and 80s, as boom cities in the Southwest and bursting exurbs everywhere
sought to exhibit their newfound glory by establishing, or growing, a symphony
orchestra, so that chamber of commerce brochures for towns such as Fairfield,
Calif., could in good faith feature a cello bow action shot.

The bottom fell out of that market during the last recession, which coincided
with a catastrophic epiphany among baby boomers: listening to Cuban
Afroantiliana music or American jazz, they realized, had cultural merit similar
to attending a performance of Tchaikovsky.

Some symphonies tried to survive by re-fashion themselves as educational
institutions, forcing unhappy flautists to give talks at schools.

Just as the end seemed nigh, a miracle came along in the form of The Three
Tenors, drawing nearly a billion people to television broadcasts, and selling up
to 10 million records per release. De Mille, not Chautauqua, became the new
paradigm. San Francisco found its own handsome, charismatic, artistically
prominent box-office draw in Tilson Thomas, spending fortunes to promote his
stardom, and fortunes more to keep him..."

November 21, 2008 11:40 AM

Stephen Smoliar said...

I am glad that Matt Smith found my comments "thoughtful;" and I definitely feel the same way about his response. I also agree that in a time of serious deficit (and I do not doubt that $90 million is "serious," even though some institutions would regard it as "insignificant") there are budget items that need to be significantly cut, if not eliminated entirely. In such times it is difficult to talk about negative long-term consequences in the face of short-term remedies; but the consequences of avoiding such talk are almost always more negative. The good news is that Smith is open to such talk; the bad news is that neither of us is likely to have any impact on budget decisions, regardless of the conclusions that emerge from that talk.

Smith is right to point out that there is a dark side to how the fine arts are funded. My effort to respond in terms of a cost/benefit analysis was not so much a rebuttal as an attempt to view the situation through different lenses. Nevertheless, I will be the first to admit that those lenses are distorting, primarily because the benefits involve the sort of "intangibles" that the business-school types like to identify and then ignore. In that respect funding the fine arts is not that different from funding education: One does not get any argument over whether or not there are benefits; but as soon as anyone insists on quantifying those benefits (say, in order to prioritize the "seriousness" of budget cuts), the discussion goes all to hell.

From a strictly qualitative point of view, I can state that I have lived in a rather large number of cities around the world (probably not as large as Mariedi Anders, the subject of the article at the other end of the "classical-discord" hyperlink). I have lived in cities where the only opportunities to hear "live" classical music come from an extremely sparse flow of visitors, where the "resident talent" is painfully mediocre, and where the performances are "world class." To the extent that my portfolio still allows it, living in a city with "world class" talent makes a difference to me; and Michael Tilson Thomas contributes to that difference in a significant way (as does the San Francisco Opera, just to clarify that I am not putting all of my eggs in one basket). I might even be bold enough to suggest that Thomas makes a significant positive impact on the quality of education received by students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, as well as the less specialized academic institutions in the Bay Area.

On the quantitative side, it goes without saying that every recipient of city money needs a ruthless representative whose goal is to avoid getting that recipient's budget cut. That is the way the game is played, and the tragedy is that those rules undermine opportunities for negotiation before the conversations even begin. Unfortunately, alarmist rhetoric over spending too much for too little in return also undermines opportunities for negotiation, which leaves the city's budget caught between a rock and a hard place.

I have no idea what, if anything, the Mayor and Supervisors will do in the interest of serious deliberation with representatives of the fine arts institutions prior to any budget decision-making. I do know that many of my reasons for living in San Francisco are based on "intangible" benefits. If those benefits leave, then I shall have to decide whether I want to leave with them.