It's time for frank talk and painful decisions to save the arts
By Michael Lewis
The Miami City Ballet and Cleveland Orchestra's $1,000-a-seat gala this week masks a sad fact: it's the last time this season that our nationally famed ballet will dance to live music. It can't pay an orchestra.
The ballet isn't alone. The recession has bloodied all arts groups. Even before that, most had been skating on the very edge of an icy financial plunge.
The 50-year-old Coconut Grove Playhouse had already shut its doors before the twin blows of recession and a Ponzi scheme that ensnared major arts donors.
Now the ballet is silencing live music, the Florida Grand Opera has cancelled a program and the Concert Association of Florida has ended Broward concerts that once were its backbone. Similar slashes are likely across the arts world.
Make no mistake: disaster looms for the arts. Only united, immediate action by art organizations, civic groups, major donors, government and business can control the damage.
The first step is to convene all parties, not to bemoan fate but to forge realistic solutions beyond the perennial call of the arts: you've got to dig deeper. That's fine, but what then?
The broad assumption has been that the world owes the arts a living. If a group exists, it must be funded by "them," whoever they are. Otherwise, they're philistines.
Well, potential funders in every category — ticket buyers, civic groups, major donors, foundations, big and small businesses, and local, state and federal governments — face a lot of financial pressures today that impede digging deep. It's much harder for them to help.
That "dig deep" call can't bring new Knight Foundations and Adrienne Arshts and Sanford and Dolores Ziffs racing to the rescue of each troubled arts group.
The long-time plea to dedicate funding to the arts won't help, either. Every government's cupboard is bare. Foundations have felt severe investment hits. And corporations that once gave big are struggling.
Another strategy is vital. What it could be, only a candid, hard-nosed summit uniting the arts with all those potential funders can determine.
The clock is ticking. It's not like this economic disaster will end in months. Any arts group basing finances on a quick bounce-back is doomed. The arts funding pool is rapidly drying up.
So a summit to save the arts must be brutally realistic. It must examine not just funding but the nature of the arts in Miami-Dade and their long-term viability. That probe must be thorough and its findings stated frankly.
It must ask whether we are overbuilding both physically and fiscally.
Can we afford to add building after building for the arts? Even if taxpayer money is at hand to help fund construction, can arts groups raise enough themselves to not only pay their share of construction but then operate the structures in the short run, provide the performing or visual content they are built for and, finally, endow the groups' long-term future?
In the most costly example, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts eventually rose — although at 200% budget — but the private sector's vow to pay operating losses was forgotten. About $8 million a year in taxes keeps the center open.
Nor did a foundation raise a slim $21 million endowment vowed by startup. It totals now only one-fifth that. The former interim CEO said the center requires $100 million.
As for content, the shrinking ballet, opera and concert association are three of the center's four resident companies. The other, the New World Symphony, is building a hub on Miami Beach and even now uses the Arsht Center just three times yearly. What will keep the center's core content alive?
That's not to pick on the Arsht Center. The same concerns arise each time we build for the arts. We get construction done, but how will the institution fare thereafter?
And much is in the pipeline. A voter-approved program is to spend $175 million for a Miami Museum of Science home in Bicentennial Park shared with the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.
That same county program has approved $100 million to build the Miami Art Museum in that park, $2 million for the Joseph Caleb Auditorium, $10 million to create a Cuban Museum, $4 million for the Westchester Arts Center and $5 million for the Carver Theater.
And today, a $36 million South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center that was to open in 2007 is 80% complete. It's now expected open by year's end at far higher cost. A summit can echo post-construction Arsht Center issues for South Dade.
Beyond structures, the painful issue must be raised about the groups that use them: do we have too many?
Start with the premise that each group is wonderful and provides a solid resource. But how many can we afford?
Two decades or so ago Miami-Dade had several hundred arts organizations. By the beginning of this millennium they'd multiplied to more than 1,000. Most were barely scraping by before recession hit.
Many of these fiercely independent groups follow an operating founder's dream. They run not on business plans but to provide arts that may or may not be based on community demand or need or patronage.
In this economy, how many can we keep alive? Do we let all bleed slowly, or does a summit seek a rationale way to prop up today those that will best be able to stand unaided in years ahead? Can we, or should we, take actions that may condemn some arts resources to death?
A summit must answer those hard questions to make serious, vital progress in keeping the core of our arts community healthy.
Otherwise, we're condemning the best of our dancers to leap to recorded music, the best of our singers to months of silence, the best of our musicians to eke out a living moonlighting and a bunch of vital arts organizations to starve to death.