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No Place For Arts Snobbery

April 23, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — Last week this column bemoaned the rude behavior of theater- and concert-goers who walk out during ovations. The flip side may be a lack of effort by arts groups to create a rapport with their patrons.

The rap against cultural groups has long been that they are not audience-friendly, but are instead elitist, highbrow and snobby. Years ago, when budgets were small, an elite few might have been able to support arts institutions. With today's multimillion-dollar budgets, that no longer applies. Arts organizations, from the commercial art gallery to a nonprofit symphony orchestra, must develop as broad as possible a following--whether the patrons are buying tickets, paintings or making donations.

Do art galleries, museums, theaters and musical groups try to make the customer feel at home, or is the tone adopted by staff members elitist and off-putting? Are theater and concert ushers not only helpful but friendly? Do gallery directors offer to answer questions about "difficult" art to new customers? Are first-timers at events made to feel comfortable? Or does the tone adopted seem to say: "We are the 'in' crowd. Who cares about you?"

The matter is discussed at some length in "Marketing for the Arts, Marketing with a Heart," an excellent piece by contributing writer Pat Wagner in the the April/May issue of Muse, a Colorado arts newspaper.

Wagner writes: "Discounting those galleries and performance groups whose snob appeal is so well-established as to be immune to the dictates of common courtesy, it is doubtful that the average small arts-oriented business or nonprofit organization can afford rude personnel. Conversely, the cost-effectiveness of building good relationships with customers, not to mention among the staff and the community, creates an ideal marketing tool for organizations with limited cash resources."

The arts industry is a service-oriented one, Wagner points out. Building good customer relations is a tedious, long-term job she compares to "hand-weeding the carrots at noon"--a process that requires "sincerity and a genuine delight in people." Wagner astutely points out that many arts groups are so caught up with staff in-fighting that customer relations become an afterthought. Customer relations begin with staff relations, and respect for staffers begins with the person at the top.

As an example of poor customer relations, Wagner cites the story of an elderly woman who came to an avant-garde theater performance. The ushers made fun of her middle-class way of dressing. With her feelings bruised, the woman left at intermission. The staff never learned that she was an established philanthropist whose special interest was experimental art and small theaters.

DRIVER'S NOTES: Many people who make their careers in the theater are survivors. Donald Driver is more than a survivor. The playwright-director said he has always made a good living--never had to make do with day jobs. Driver wrote "Status Quo Vadis" and "Oh Brother!" a farce based on William Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors." Driver picked up a Tony nomination in 1967 for his direction of "Marat/Sade." His family comedy, "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," is on stage at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre through May 10.

Driver was in San Diego last week to check out the production and visit with Gaslamp artistic director Will Simpson. The two were college friends during the 1940s. At 63, Driver remains unrestrained by convention. Rather than deal with the venomous criticism new plays on Broadway tend to receive, he chose to self-publish "Sweet Bye and Bye" and send out pocket-sized copies of the script to theaters. The ploy worked remarkably well. The play premiered at the Buffalo Stage Arena in 1983, had a run at the Back Alley in Van Nuys last summer and continues to be performed around the country. Publisher Samuel French wants the rights to the play, but Driver is willing to wait until the demand for it goes even higher.

Self-publishing is a typical Driver move. He views the theater as a business and to hell with somebody else's rules. The name of the game is work. When he read an article in which Katharine Hepburn complained about the paucity of roles for older women, Driver disguised himself, let his beard grow, dressed up in scruffy clothes and rang the famed actress' doorbell. He said someone had asked him to deliver a copy of what was actually one of his plays. It has a role for an 81-year-old woman.

Hepburn herself called him on the telephone. She had read the script, liked it, but said she wasn't doing plays anymore. Would she like to see it as a movie? Hmm. She didn't know, but had to ring off.

"The fact that she even read it and actually called me back is amazing," Driver said. "In this business you have to keep trying."

PUBLIC ART: Artists eager for a public commission, take hope. The California Arts Council has $120,000 for its annual Art in Public Buildings competition.

Applications are being taken for at least five sites. One of them could be yours, if you are not particular about a location. If you're into trucks, one piece is for an inspection station in Truckee. Two works will be placed at CALTRAIN commuter stations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then there's the Elkhorn Slough Sanctuary--that's at Moss Landing, just a little south of Watsonville. Finally there's the ever-popular Franchise Tax Board--no, not the board members, the building of the same name in Sacramento.

Deadline for applications is May 1. For information, call Claudia Chapline at the California Arts Council, (916) 445-1530.

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