Cover Story: State of the Arts 2005

It's the quality, stupid

Sean Hughes

State of the Arts 2005

We all know the arts are hugely popular here, but the main reason local arts organizations do so well is because they don't rock the boat.

In a conservative area like Greater Cincinnati, arts groups and individuals try hard to avoid offending. After all, playing it safe creatively is good for a nonprofit's bottom line.

Are you nodding your head at this point, or are you wrinkling your brow?

The running debate over the quality of Cincinnati's arts offerings is as good a place as any to take measure of the state of our arts. It's really the only debate worth having anymore, as the argument over the quantity, depth and breadth of the arts here is done.

Time and again research has proven that more area residents attend local arts and cultural activities than spectator sports, amusement parks, zoos and aquariums. The arts generate more money for the local economy than any other entertainment activity.

Not many mid-size American cities still have all three traditional performing arts organizations — symphony, opera, ballet — as well as collection-based museums (Cincinnati Art Museum, Taft Museum of Art) and a stand-alone contemporary arts center.

And not many cities have maintained their historic institutions (second oldest opera company and fifth oldest symphony in the U.S., the oldest choral music festival in the Western Hemisphere) while also embracing today's cutting edges (Playhouse in the Park's Tony Award, Cincinnati Opera's commission of Margaret Garner, the Contemporary Arts Center's internationally renowned new facility, the two-year-old Fringe Festival).

Yet many people who know all of these things still get caught nodding along to the negative whispers that float in the air saying, "If it's any good, why would it be in Cincinnati? We're not worthy!"

"Cincinnati works in spite of the labels people put on it," counters D. Lynn Meyers, artistic director of Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC). "When I was a casting director, I used to tell actors, 'Don't typecast yourself.' Cincinnati has typecast itself as a loser city, and somehow the city continues living up to its own reputation. We're not losers with this arts community."

The 25 people CityBeat profiles as those who get things done in the local arts are far from losers (see "Getting It Done" on page 39). Neither are the neighborhood activists and volunteers who opened the smaller arts centers that have sprung up throughout the area (see "Centering on the Arts" on page 34).

That's not to say everything's perfect in Cincinnati arts circles. Some organizations are up (Cincinnati Opera had its best summer festival attendance in 20 years) and others down (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra attendance dropped 12 percent last season at Music Hall, though its summer attendance at Riverbend was up).

The ebb and flow of success is tricky to predict and tough to control. But Cincinnati's arts persevere.

"I always say a theater season is like a marriage between the theater and the audience," says Ed Stern, the Playhouse's producing artistic director. "There's subtle compromise, but you each know you'll never sell out the other side."

Still, sometimes those doubts resurface: Do we confuse movement with progress? Are we equating quantity and quality? How do we maintain sparks in the marriage between artist and audience?

There aren't easy answers to any of those questions, but they need to be asked.

'Quality is the main thing'
Like a marriage, two of the key measurements of a successful relationship between artist and audience are trust and respect. Arts leaders have to know that audiences will trust their programming decisions, and audiences have to know that their trust won't be exploited to sell tickets.

"If you're successful, the company isn't yours anymore," says Jason Bruffy, artistic director of both the Fringe Festival and Know Theatre Tribe. "It becomes the audience's company. They buy into your mission and know it better than you do. If you screw it up, they'll let you know."

And the quickest way to screw up is to allow the quality of your creative work to drop, whether it's due to cost cutting, inattention or misjudgment.

"If I don't produce Bug or Take Me Out, some people will say we're too conservative," Stern says, mentioning critically acclaimed Off-Broadway shows about drug addicts and a gay professional baseball player, respectively. "Maybe I just don't like the play. I'm too old to do that sort of goosing the audience by producing something just for shock value. If I did that, I'd lose the trust."

Patricia Beggs, general director and CEO of Cincinnati Opera, says audience trust is earned over time and not easily given — though once a good relationship is forged, artistic directors can nudge audiences toward more challenging work.

"My colleagues in Opera America are astounded at the audiences we had for Margaret Garner, the Benjamin Britten opera (The Turn of the Screw in 1999) and Dead Man Walking (2002)," Beggs says, mentioning the organization that represents 125 professional opera companies in North America. "Margaret Garner was a brand new work that dealt with very sensitive subjects. Some people like Toni Morrison, and some don't. We should all feel proud at how many people in Cincinnati embraced this opera."

All three Music Hall performances of Margaret Garner sold out, rewarding the risk Cincinnati Opera took in funding its first-ever mainstage commission. Based on Morrison's novel Beloved, itself based on the true story of a runaway slave who was captured in Cincinnati in the 1860s, Margaret Garner was a cooperative venture with opera companies in Detroit and Philadelphia.

It fit into the "new works" slot Cincinnati Opera has been featuring for the past nine years, through which one of the summer festival's four productions breaks the company's traditional grand opera mold. Even in the other three slots, the Opera has been experimenting with more conceptual stagings of classics such as this summer's Rigoletto and The Barber of Seville.

"People (at opera companies around the country) are surprised that the arts community here embraces new works like they do," Beggs says. "Ten years ago, if we'd done these conceptual operas like Barber or Rigoletto, we'd have gotten lots of complaints. We're asking a lot of our audiences if 25 percent of our season is a new work, but people seem to trust us."

Next summer's new work is actually pretty old, but it'll be new to just about everyone in Cincinnati.

"Next season we're doing L'Etoile, which hasn't been done outside of New York City in 100 years," Beggs says. "It's a breath-taking production from Glimmerglass Opera that's Cirque du Soleil meets Willie Wonka with a great cast from France."

Like Beggs, ETC's Meyers, the Playhouse's Stern and the Weston Art Gallery's Dennis Harrington have been tending to local audience relationships for a decade or more. As a result, they each feel that audiences trust their creative choices.

"ETC is in its 20th season with 1,600 subscribers," Meyers says. "Last year a play about a 6-foot-4 East German transvestite packed them in here (I Am My Own Wife). A play about Death Row, The Exonerated, packed them in. I have two plays about racism to open this season (Intimate Apparel and Permanent Collection), and yet we've had a 70 percent renewal rate for plays no one's heard of. It would be real easy to do pure entertainment instead of theater with a powerful story. That kind of freedom keeps me here. The board says, 'You're responsible for the bottom line here, but do new works.' "

Stern points to similar support from both subscribers and board members.

"The board decided last year they wanted to get into my head to see why I pick certain shows," he says. "I don't pick plays, I pick seasons. I can pick shows no one wants to see but Ed Stern will love, but I don't.

"Last season I went to another regional theater that shall remain nameless, and I was the youngest person there. Crowns was their most cutting-edge show. I love that show (it was produced at the Playhouse last season), but it's not exactly edgy theater."

Stern says he and Playhouse audiences have come a long way together in his 13 years in Cincinnati.

"Eight years ago I remember reading Closer (an adult relationship drama) and thinking that if we ever did it I'd have to resign before the second act," he says, laughing. "Well, we did it four years ago. But when we do this kind of play, I'm not doing it to freak out the audience. We warn people ahead of time about language and subject matter.

"Miss Evers' Boys did lousy at the box office (in 1995). The board said to keep doing those kinds of plays. The show before that was The Mousetrap — an armored truck pulled up to the Playhouse every night during that run, we did so well. The board understands the balance."

Harrington sees the Weston Gallery's job as offering the full spectrum of expression by local and regional artists, and that includes controversial, political and social work. He agrees that "balance" is the right word to describe his programming choices, and he's pleased that his board understands the concept as well.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't take pause when work comes along that's controversial," Harrington says. "That's part of your responsibility as artistic leader of an organization. But the Cincinnati Arts Association (which manages the Aronoff Center for the Arts, the gallery's home) supports us when we stick to our mission of offering a little of everything."

And then there's the newcomer of the artistic directors interviewed, who came to Cincinnati four years ago vowing to stay no more than nine months. Now heading two organizations, Bruffy has quickly come to grips with focusing on quality and on the audience relationship.

"Quality is the main thing," he says. "People see through it if a show is produced just for shock value. Look at New Stage Collective, which came out of nowhere with Kimberly Akimbo (in June) and knocked people out. Audiences are there for challenging work, but they need to be reached."

Know Theatre's 2003 production of Corpus Christi, a retelling of Jesus and the Apostles as modern-day gay men, joined the pantheon of Cincinnati controversies seeping out of the arts community and into the mainstream consciousness. It had one other thing in common with the CAC's Mapplethrope exhibition and ETC's Poor Superman — they all attracted huge audiences.

And even though Corpus Christi ran before he took over Know's artistic reins, Bruffy knows the company's and the Fringe Festival's audiences expect ultra-creative work.

"We're throwing around a tag line: 'Theater for people who hate theater,' " he says about Know Theatre Tribe. "I'm worried that theater in Cincinnati is becoming museum pieces, stuffy. We have amazing institutions and talent here, but sometimes they appear very institutional. Sometimes it feels like we're set for the arts, but we need to continue bringing new ideas to local audiences."

'Burst through the walls'
Creativity doesn't occur in a vacuum, of course.

If you don't have to sell tickets to keep the company running, you can be as self-absorbed and contrary as you want to be. If you obsess too much over revenue, you present nothing but bland, safe favorites. And then there's the marketplace, which favors businesses that clearly define their missions and stick to them.

The Weston Gallery, now in its 11th season, has been successful at staying focused on its goal of presenting the diversity and generational progress of local and regional artists in a high-profile space, according to Harrington. He figures about 99 percent of his exhibitions over the years have hit the mark.

"Of course quality is always the underlying goal, although quality is open to interpretation by viewers and audiences," he says. "This region is rich in quality artists, many of whom don't get the opportunity to be seen by wide audiences unless they're at the Weston. And people have responded and been supportive of what we're doing."

Stern agrees that fiscal responsibility and creativity can go hand in hand, pointing to the Playhouse — with a $9.2 million operating budget (increasing to $10.4 million in the coming season) and 19,500 subscribers — as proof. And he has a clear grasp of the company's artistic mission.

"The Playhouse is a no-niche theater," he says. "Alternative theaters are better served when they serve a special niche, and Cincinnati's alternative theaters are doing very well. I don't want to move us into 'all premieres' or 'all Tony Award winners.' ... And even though we sometimes do controversial work, we can't say to conservatives, 'We have nothing for you.' We're here for all people who love theater."

Innovative programming has also been good for Cincinnati Opera's books. According to Beggs, the company's operating budget has increased from $2.6 million in 1996 to $6.5 million in 2004. The production budget has tripled — the 2005 summer festival featured 10 Metropol-itan Opera singers and two singers making their American debuts — while ticket sales have more than doubled.

"It's very important that that money goes into what's on stage," Beggs says. "Better staging, better infrastructure, better talent."

Some observers wonder if the Opera's commitment to creativity has wavered with last year's departure of Artistic Director Nicholas Muni, who enthusiastically put 13 company premieres on the Music Hall stage. Beggs says the recent hiring of Evans Mirageas in the position reaffirms the company's mission.

"Our artistic philosophy for more than nine years now is to commit to some exploration every season, whether it's new shows or new approaches," Beggs says. "Before we hired Nic Muni (in 1996), we did a lot of research and focus groups, and the clear direction from the people was for new challenges. They wanted more. ... When Nic announced he was leaving, we had a board retreat and reaffirmed our commitment to the challenging philosophy. We ended up hiring Evans, who has a similar outlook as we do and as Nic did. He's very connected and knows the emerging opera artists."

Another pressure point in the creative process, related to audience development and revenue goals, is the attraction of building a shiny new facility. Individual and corporate funders often like to see something tangible result from their investments (preferably with their names in big letters), and artistic leaders often like to visualize leaving behind a three-dimensional legacy.

Stern calls it the "edifice complex."

"Brick and mortar can complicate your creative mission," he says. "Winning the Tony Award isn't enough. I have to worry about 10 to 15 years from now. I don't want to rest on our laurels, so the quality has to improve all the time."

And so do the physical components of the creative mission. Stern says the Playhouse can't afford to disappoint a ticket buyer who, for instance, has a hard time hearing actors in the Marx Theatre because the sound system isn't state of the art.

And so the Playhouse is considering a variety of facility plans, from replacing the Marx to relocating to The Banks downtown. Still, Stern says, an arts organization succeeds in a new building only when they've earned it.

"The way the stadiums here were built — constructing the facilities now so the teams could be financially successful later — reflects a sense of denial," he says. "You can't make it up at the end. You have to prove you're a success, and then the new buildings come."

It's a message Ensemble Theatre has evidently embraced.

Rumors had been buzzing that ETC would expand its Over-the-Rhine facility or even move somewhere else altogether, but Meyers confirms that the company is going to refocus on its creative mission for now instead of becoming distracted.

"We don't want to tread water until a new building opens," she says. "We decided, 'Let's stand firmly on our ground and do what we do and then grow into a new space.' We didn't want to get caught up in building goals."

Meyers says two different feasibility studies commissioned by the ETC board recommended against launching a time-consuming and expensive capital fund-raising campaign. She says she felt a little let down at first, considering she'd already started mentally planning the new space, but now she's thrilled that her board has focused the organization's full attention back to the quality of what's on stage.

"We don't want to change who we are in order to get the dollars and support needed for a new building," Meyers says. "We're going to put money into seeding the theater and let it strengthen internally so much until we burst through the walls and need a new home. We don't need to be the newest door on the street. We can repaint the one we have." ©

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