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Silence at LACMA would be a sour note for everyone

June 15, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Steven Lavine had a proud papa grin on his face. He is the president of California Institute of the Arts, and it was intermission during a recent concert at UCLA. Earlier that day, Lavine said, CalArts had agreed to sponsor a California EAR Unit series at REDCAT, the black box theater that the school operates at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

CalArts couldn't be happier to again host the EAR Unit. One of the country's finest and most imaginative new-music ensembles, it was formed by CalArts graduates 23 years ago. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- which had been presenting the EAR Unit since 1986 but had just summarily dropped the group as part of a cutback of its music programs -- was off the hook. REDCAT is a wonderful space for music; LACMA's Bing Theater is acceptable. Everyone appears to have come out a winner.

But no, everyone is not a winner. CalArts did the right thing. LACMA is hardly off the hook.

In May word got out, and rapidly spread within the local music community, that the museum planned to pretty much abandon the music business. It had, since 1965, sponsored the Monday Evening Concerts, the nation's longest-running series devoted to new music. But that sponsorship was to end. LACMA would also divest itself of its residency programs, which included an annual concert series by the EAR Unit, Xtet (a lively, unpredictable local chamber group) and special guests. It would, further, dump its first-rate chamber music series.

All LACMA wanted to retain was its outdoor Friday night jazz series, which is more social than musical, and its free Sunday afternoon concerts, which often present emerging artists.

In the end LACMA backed off slightly from these draconian musical measures once it sensed a public relations debacle. Firing Dorrance Stalvey, a composer who had run the music programs with minimal institutional support for 33 years, looked especially heartless. This season included a celebration of his 75th birthday, with several of his pieces programmed. He is in poor health, and the loss of his job would have left him without insurance.

Ultimately, the museum agreed to retain the Monday Evening Concerts for one more season and to let Stalvey keep his job another year. The rest still goes, though.

Money doesn't seem to be the overriding concern. The museum's music programming has always been done on the cheap. Many of the series have underwriting. The Rosalinde Gilbert Concerts, which is the chamber series, was begun nine years ago by board member Arthur Gilbert in memory of his wife and is supported by the Gilbert estate. The Aaron Copland Fund and the radio station K-Mozart chip in for the Monday Evening Concerts, as do private benefactors.

The museum's expenditure for music this past season was $250,000, which is approximately one-half of 1% of its $48.5-million budget. And given that some Monday Evening Concert patrons are threatening to withhold all future support for LACMA if the concerts go (and some have pretty impressive art collections), the savings will be all but negligible, especially if you factor in the loss of prestige.

Although bean counters might argue that a quarter million here, a quarter million there adds up, what the museum is really saying is that these concerts no longer fit the image of the museum as LACMA-land. The people who come to the concerts aren't $30-a-head King Tutters. They are not necessarily well-off yuppies who see the museum as a classy pickup joint and whom LACMA is clearly courting with its print and television advertisements. The concerts are $5 for students, who tend to be scruffy and serious. Few BMWs can be found in the parking lot on Monday nights.

Complaining that audiences for new music are ebbing at LACMA and growing elsewhere, Deputy Director Bruce Robertson explained in a statement that the museum wants to concentrate on its "core mission" of presenting visual arts to the public. I wonder about that. The Monday Evening Concerts I attended this season had larger-than-usual crowds, despite little or no promotion and little effort at institutional hospitality. The cafeteria in the Bing, for instance, closes half an hour before the concerts begin (and starts putting food away long before that).

The historical importance of the Monday Evening Concerts and their profound effect on music in America have been much discussed in these pages. Much has been written as well about the EAR Unit, Xtet and some of LACMA's finds, such as astounding Italian pianist Marino Formenti.

But the larger issue is the relevance of music to an art museum. The interaction between the arts is hardly a new story, having been a consistent thread throughout 20th century culture. But never have the arts been more suited to interaction than they are now. And never before have art museums been better equipped to be laboratories for such chemical combustion.

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