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NEW AGE FOR THE MUSIC CENTER? : Charting the Ever-Shifting Tides of Patronage of the Arts

May 10, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

It ever was and ever will be true that the loftier the art the less likely it is to pay its way financially. Comic books may make it, but, even with nightly sold-out houses, ballet and opera, for example, require massive transfusions of additional money from somewhere.

In times past, the royal courts, the Church and Croesus-rich patrons kept some artists and musicians from starving (if in fact they didn't starve). In Europe there is still a tradition of important government subvention of the fine arts (the German provincial opera houses, some of the British theater companies, for example). But before we get too envious, it's necessary to note that in those countries, it is not so tax-advantageous for individuals or corporations in the private sector to play arts patrons.

Government support of the arts in the United States has never been a major factor or a major public enthusiasm; and although the situation has improved over the years, the largest support of the performing arts, beyond their ticket sale revenues, has come (as has the support for non-commercial radio and television) from the private sector, individuals and corporations.

And, like the individuals and corporations themselves, the arts support is subject to variables, like prosperity or the lack of it, and inflation, and age and changing tastes in the marketplace.

The performing arts in America today find themselves, if not in deep crisis (and here and there the crisis is very deep indeed, as Barbara Isenberg points out in her adjoining article), then in conditions of painful readjustment. The consequences of the new tax law on private and corporate giving to the arts is not yet clear. Anything like a recession, however slight, would be likely to affect adversely such discretionary giving.

The philosophy of the Reagan Administration, which has insisted on the primary role of the private sector in support of the arts, has put tight restraints on the two main arms of federal funding, the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities. Public radio and television have been forced into some severe belt-tightening.

Locally, the Music Center complex has not escaped the need for painful reassessment and readjustments. As the following stories graphically indicate, the Music Center, now into its third decade, has developed one of the most active and effective support systems of any cultural center in the country, involving more than 6,000 volunteers who will this year raise in excess of $12 million.

Yet, thanks to inflation, operating costs continue to rise faster than the income from contributions, capital funds and ticket sales. The costs of expanding the area's cultural diet--e.g., the importing of the Joffey Ballet as a bicoastal operation (as reported on Page 6 by Judith Michaelson), the creation at long last of a local opera season--come particularly high, though no one doubts their real if subjective worth to the life of the region.

In some ways, there are local consequences for national and even international situations, most notably the shortage of magical new musicals, and the shortage of starry vehicles, musical or otherwise, to lure patrons to the Ahmanson Theatre.

Partly the Music Center, like the film industry, has been going through a passage, never easy, from one generation of leadership to another. The new leadership is looking to see where it can cut costs and eliminate overlapping services.

Expanding the Music Center is still a dream, and there is fierce competition for playing time on its existing stages (one reason the Civic Light Opera is leaving). The plans are controversial, as Ted Vollmer's report on Page 4 indicates, though it is possible that new theaters could be built, as the Museum of Contemporary Art was, by commercial interests as part payment for their valuable Bunker Hill site. Yet, ironically, the Ahmanson Theatre is expected to be dark at least part of the summer.

In an ironic sense, the Music Center is to some extent the victim of its own success in stimulating the cultural life of the region. Orange County's grand Performing Arts Center is only the newest of the cultural attractions on the Southern California scene, all offering some degree of competition with the events at the Music Center.

It is a suspenseful time, fraught with pain, but, as always, laden with promise. In the following articles, Calendar takes a multiple look at the status of the Music Center as it moves through its third decade.

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