Sunday in the Park
A week in Canada, at a conference to study the business of the arts, is an opportunity too rich to pass up. Especially when they offer to sponsor me. For the second year in a row, I went up north to experience some of the brightest minds on the continent share how they do what they do. I was re-energized to try to make what we do here, something of value. That had been, after all, the title of the conference, "Culture Counts — Measuring the Value of the Arts." It was the most tightly scheduled week of my life. The 100-plus delegates from all over Canada and me, started each day at breakfast meetings with speakers, followed by workshops and break-out groups and then lunches with more speakers, followed by more workshops, then dinner with speakers, then showcases thrown in, where over the course of five days, we witnessed 18 different acts we might want to consider booking. Think of high school and the three minutes you have to get to your locker between classes and you get the idea& Just by happenstance, we have booked an average of three Canadian acts a year for the past couple of years at The Eccles Center. I didn’t set out with any plan to do this. We just look for exciting performers and it turns out, our neighbors to the north are immensely talented. All of our Cirque acts have come from Canada and why not, they invented the modern form of circus, music and dance. A number of children’s shows have originated there because they have such a high level of performance value and don’t pander to children but create programming that appeals to the whole family. This year, the first night of showcases were acts I wouldn’t book. A hip hop/klezmer musical group, which I think would appeal to a rather niche audience. Ditto the folk singer who had a beautiful voice but sang all in Inuit, or more accurately, Nunavik, and who was hot off her recent tour of Greenland. I thought that might be difficult for us to market. The final piece of the evening was an athletic, energetic, famed dance company who received a standing ovation at the work’s end. I love smart, modern dance. Edgy stuff and we have presented such, from our beginnings. MOMIX, Pilobolous, Aspen Santa Fe, Bruce Wood. Great groups, high energy. My new friends wondered if I’d been shocked by the company. There was nudity and much sexual content. And I admitted I was shocked. Not by the content of the work but by the anorexia of the dancers. From my seat in the balcony I could count the ribs on both male and female performers. Their contortions looked more like performers from a Chinese circus than celebrating the human form. It was downright disturbing. Once I voiced this, I found both men and women in my group agreed. They said they wouldn’t bring such a group into their community. Later in the week there were tremendous jazz singers, storyteller/songwriters, inventive children’s dance and the funniest comedian I have seen in years. There was a dance company of tribal work where after the showcase, the choreographer discussed the piece in terms of quantum physics. I will have plenty of choices to share with my board when we gather to select shows next spring. But I thought about that first dance company all week long. Like a Jackson Pollack painting I once struggled to understand and never did. So on some level, the art was effective because it caused me to examine my own values and have one of those inner break-out sessions where I had to look at the root of what performance and all art, for that matter, should do. We had spent the week talking about that with the top arts consultants from the United States and Canada. Government officials, funders, agents, and nationally-syndicated newspaper columnists were all part of the dialogue/debate. And so, like the British-influenced Canadians, when the actual debate took place, the moderator introduced all the panelists and then encouraged them to "stay firm" as they began debating. We talked a great deal about the old indicators of success in the arts. How vogue it was just a few years ago to use economic multiples to justify what we did. You know, where you say the $20 you spend with us is really more like two million when those patrons then go out to dinner and spend the night in a hotel and shop on Main Street and then maybe buy, I don’t know, a condo before they leave town. One presenter said his councilman had told him one year, during just that kind of explanation, "Consider then I just gave you a $100 million, cause that’s what you can do, no doubt, with the $1,000 we’re prepared to give you." We all laughed a little too loud at that story. We talked about the trend to say the arts increase students’ ability to learn, and the recently released RAND study does prove just that. But as one guy said, no kid ever signed up for high school band because he thought it would increase his spatial learning capacity. Sometimes we had to just admit the obvious, the arts feel good. They transcend us and cause us to see and hear in ways we didn’t know before. But how do you measure that? Tim, a presenter from St. John, said he had been having this very discussion with his friend, who is a priest, right before he left to attend this conference. He explained it was about measuring the value of the arts. The priest replied that shouldn’t be hard& after all, Tim presented first-rate performing arts, in a great facility, with many sold-out shows. "No, Father," Tim replied, "the problem of our measuring success is more like this& Out of your parishioners who have recently passed on, how many of them went to heaven?" And therein lies the rub. Sometimes you can work hard, do good and spend money wisely and still not know if you have actually succeeded. I left Canada, once again, filled with new ways of seeing old problems. With new friends and re-connecting with old ones. And I left remembering the power the arts have to vibrate with us long after the experience of seeing them. I know I’m still haunted by those anorexic dancers and I wonder about a culture that values that as art. We have to be careful what we curate, the arts are that powerful in their ability to influence us. And all that is important to remember any day but certainly on my return home this Sunday in the Park&
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