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In Thrall to the All-Powerful Patron

The cash is always welcome, but wealthy arts benefactors--individuals and businesses alike-- rarely give without getting something in return.

October 01, 2000|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is the Times music critic

For the performing arts in America, which have very limited public resources upon which to draw, patronage is oil. The steady supply of private money is their fuel and also the lubricant that makes them run smoothly. Ticket prices, even when they are princely, are far from sufficient to cover expenses, particularly for the opera and symphony orchestra. Consequently, we court patrons, be they individuals or corporations or foundations. But we must also hope that our ever growing dependence upon these art-world oil suppliers doesn't produce an art-world OPEC.

Lately we've been treated to a rare public spectacle of patronage in action, with a press conference held by Placido Domingo, Valery Gergiev and the opera world's most generous donor, Alberto Vilar. The conference had been arranged to announce that Vilar, a New York businessman, will support Gergiev's Kirov Opera and Domingo's Los Angeles Opera, to the tune of nearly $25 million, much of it for the development of new productions.

The announcements came at a luncheon, held at the suitably tony Four Seasons Hotel at Beverly Hills, and Domingo (who had a performance of "Aida" to conduct that evening) and Gergiev (who had conducted in Orange County the night before and was conducting in Phoenix that night) couldn't have appeared happier to be spending time on stage with the man who makes many of their dreams possible. Domingo even shared an anecdote about how, when the trio was asked by a photographer to smile, Vilar joked that it was Gergiev and Domingo who had the reason to smile, not him, whose pockets were being emptied.

Yet it was Vilar who was clearly tickled pink to be sharing a podium with two great opera stars. He is nothing if not a fan, spending, he says, at least 100 nights a year in the opera house. And he is nothing if not a man who likes to be appreciated. At the Salzburg Festival, for instance, every program book carries his picture and an acknowledgment that he is the most generous patron in the festival's history. Indeed, a European music festival-hopper will find Vilar's photo commonplace.

Certainly, whenever Vilar, whose contributions to classical music now reach nine figures, digs into his deep pockets, there is cause for general rejoicing. But the dependence upon Vilar by more and more of the opera world (he has even offered to bail out all three of Berlin's opera companies) and a handful of other big-time contributors to the arts comes with its own set of problems. It would be hard to believe that the people who pay the bills don't have something to say about what they are paying for, and that they don't have something to gain for their benefactions.

If including Vilar's picture in the program makes him happy, it hardly harms the opera-goer. Nor does there seem to be much harm in the Metropolitan Opera's naming a room after Vilar; he's also its leading patron. But an unseemliness can start to creep in from such attitudes. Institutions sometimes feel obliged to acknowledge donors in ways that make the organizations appear to be for sale, and donors and corporate funders sometimes seem to be in it as much for an image boost as an inherent belief in the value of the art form.

In Los Angeles, for instance, we are starting to see big money wash away our sense of history. The latest example has been at UCLA, where the theater once popularly known as Schoenberg Hall (although it never had an official name) was recently named Ostin Hall, after a much admired popular music recording executive, Mo Ostin, and his wife, Evelyn, donors to the university's performing arts programs. Whatever honor the Ostins may deserve, to substitute their names for that of one of history's greatest composers and a former UCLA professor diminishes the importance of Schoenberg to the university. Although the building that houses the hall is still called the Schoenberg Music Building, the public will no longer know the theater by Schoenberg's name. The implication is that UCLA now holds in highest regard popular culture and commerce.

Across town, USC has named its music school after a wealthy patron, Flora L. Thornton. And now all of its performing arts ensembles also carry her name--the Thornton Symphony, Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble, Thornton Early Music Ensemble, Thornton Chamber Symphony, Thornton Percussion Ensemble, etc. USC once meant (and still should mean) something very important in music: Many of the century's greatest musicians (Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky and Arnold Schoenberg among them) taught there; many of today's greatest musicians (including Michael Tilson Thomas and Marilyn Horne) are products of USC. It is unnerving how little that name (and by extension its tradition?) now seems to matter to the school. It may argue that the Juilliard School or the Colburn School carry donors' appellations, but those men were the institutions' founders, and the names now have the weight of tradition behind them.

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