WOID XIX-1. Last Tango at the Philharmonic

If you need a sense of how the malfunctions of a large cultural institution become a part of its functions, read Johanna Fiedler’s book, Molto Agitato. Fiedler worked at the Metropolitan Opera from 1975 on, and the book is less interesting after that date because it’s one thing to gossip about people you know; getting personal gets in the way of a trenchant analysis. The beginning, though, is full of gossip about trivial events with a long-lasting impact, and here’s my favorite:

Into the early ‘seventies there were few productions at the Met that didn’t include horses and dogs – I still remember the first opera I saw that didn’t, and the whole audience sat in anticipation followed by shock as it became obvious there weren’t going to be any horses and what’s more, the whole point of the production was to not include horses. According to Fiedler, the Met had long wanted to get over the horsie thing, but one of the major patrons happened to love horses, and if you didn’t have the horses you didn’t get the funds. Then again, if you did have the horses the funds all went for the hay and the handlers, not to mention all the tickets left unsold because people who go to the opera to see horses are more likely to go to Barnum & Bailey instead, where there’s elephants and clowns as well.

If you need bigger, better, more up-to-date malfunctions in culture, read Robert S. Flanagan’s report on The Economic Environment of American Symphony Orchestras, commissioned by the Mellon Foundation. Flanagan is a hotshot economist at Stanford – the Mellon doesn’t usually order these things from Ray’s Original Pizza.

Flanagan ends up with the same insight as Fiedler but of course more scientific: it’s not, as some obsessive critics have worried, that he proves American symphony orchestras aren’t doing it right to raise money, it’s that the whole fundraising rationale of large American symphonies is a pile of manure to begin with. For one thing, all the marketing strategies in the world aren’t ever going to make much difference: audiences come if they like the music, and they don’t if they don’t, and – though Flanagan doesn’t discuss this – if you push to bring one type of audience in you’re just as likely to drive another audience away.

This is very bad news, though not necessarily for musicians and artists and art historians. It’s bad news for the whole ponderous back offices of the culture industry, the administrators and fundraisers and those who teach Museum Studies and Management for Non-Profits. But it’s no surprise to those who’ve read Fiedler’s book or thought about the issue: from the very beginning the Metropolitan Opera was run according to the principle that it would not be allowed to survive without its wealthy horseloving trustees. Come to think of it, that’s been true of Opera since Monteverdi, and it was true of symphony orchestras, and it’s true of Lincoln Center as well, as anyone can tell you who’s actually worked there, as Fiedler’s done and as I’ve done, too. The difference is, that over the past ten years large numbers of museums and cultural centers have been set up with the promise that they will pay off, and all they need is a few more competent administrators, a few more MBAs. We are nearing the top of a very steep hill of cultural expansion and some institutions, like the Guggenheim, have figured out what’s on the other side: a very steep drop. Others, like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, haven’t yet, or like a big Bear Stearns of culture, pretend they haven’t. As Flanagan puts it, “The question becomes: When are these expenditures going to pay off?” The answer’s pretty much what it’s been since Monteverdi: Never.