Arts in the suburbs

Anne Midgette had an interesting piece in Friday’s Washington Post on the boom in arts facilities in the DC area:

If the 1970s saw an increase in performing arts organizations, the 1990s and 2000s have seen a notable increase in places built to house them.

The boom is reflected nowhere better than in the Washington area, which – economic crises be cursed – has seen at least eight arts centers open since 2000.

These range from institutions that offer studio as well as performance space to active artists, such as the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, and more conventional ones, such as Strathmore in North Bethesda, whose 1,976-seat Music Center is the best concert hall, acoustically and aesthetically, in the region – including the Kennedy Center.

“People always go back and forth lamenting the decline of Western civilization,” says A. Scott Wood, a conductor who leads the Amadeus Orchestra in McLean, the Arlington Philharmonic and a couple of amateur community orchestras. “Then you turn around and see . . . these [new] performing centers. They’re not always amazing, but the standard level of what’s getting put up there is so much higher than it used to be. Not to run down Constitution Hall, but it’s pretty rough, and that used to be the best thing going.”

Here’s what’s striking about these new performing arts centers: They aren’t in the city. ….

Strathmore’s small size does allow for unconventional approaches. Traditionally, performing arts centers set their schedules well in advance to sell subscriptions and gauge interest. Strathmore just eliminated subscriptions altogether, which approaches heresy to presenters.

These days, subscriptions are plummeting in virtually every art form, and single-ticket sales are rising. Audiences don’t want to commit to events long in advance. Strathmore’s experiment has borne this out: Its ticket sales have soared, said Shelley Brown, vice president for programming. And because there is no subscription plan, nobody minds if the center adds last-minute concerts – which has helped Brown enhance this year’s ongoing guitar festival, since a lot of the artists she’s booking aren’t used to scheduling long in advance, either….

A larger question is what kind of service such centers provide to the community. Performing arts centers are slightly like museums; they represent the institutionalization of the arts. In taking a geographical step away from familiar urban settings and redefining the location of “culture,” suburban centers are doing a signal service; but the real measure of their value lies in their individual curatorial abilities. Some centers, such as the Workhouse Center or the polymathic Artisphere, are mainly focused on providing space where artists can work. Others, such as the Hylton, have taken on a missionary function, educating an audience unfamiliar with live performance.

I found the bit about eliminating subscription sales particularly intriguing. There are good reasons for the subscription model, and arts groups aren’t the only ones using it – pro sports teams like it as well. But, in terms of serving the public rather than the needs of the arts organization, it’s flawed, as recent trends have showed.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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