As the General and Artistic Director of a small regional opera company in Modesto, CA, I have watched the situation with San Diego Opera unfold with a combination of amazement and bitterness. I am amazed that a company that presents four productions annually with a $15 million budget and no debt would close down voluntarily, and I am bitter at the thought of the work our company could do for our community with a tiny fraction of that annual budget. But this decision, made at the urging of their senior management, has helped bring into focus something I think has been a widespread problem for some time now, one which harms the sustainability of many performing arts organizations:
Many artists and arts leaders act as though the position or expertise they possess, as either a presenter or performer, entitles them to pursue an artistic program that is personally satisfying, without regard for the audience experience. This often manifests itself with the notion that as arts professionals, our expertise makes it our place to tell the audience what kind of experience they should want to have, based on the experience we want to have. What I find problematic about that perspective is that it privileges the desires of the presenter/performer above those of the audience, when in fact it should be the reverse. By prioritizing the needs of the presenter/performer over the audience, we provide an experience that is valuable only to people who have the same narrow interest, knowledge, or expertise as artists and arts professionals, which in this country is fewer every year.
Arts organizations don't exist to serve the intellectual or artistic needs of the artists or managers who lead them. Arts organizations exist to serve their communities. We are even granted tax-exempt status because of the special roles we fill for our communities. Yes, the work can and should be fulfilling to someone who leads or works within an arts organization, but fulfillment should come from making available to your community the art form you love. Instead, too many artists and arts leaders feel entitled to use their positions to satisfy their own artistic desires, instead of providing programming that meets the needs and desires of their communities or constituents. This has led to long periods of stagnant programming, an unhealthy fetishization of the art form (more on that in subsequent posts), a formulaic and repetitive audience experience, and subsequently a tremendous decline in interest in the classical arts.
Which brings me back to San Diego Opera. The company has grown beyond what its community is able (or willing) to support, but that does not mean that San Diego doesn’t want or can’t support an opera company. It just means it doesn’t want the kind of opera company it has right now. As arts leaders, our jobs should be to provide the kind of organizations that are responsive to the perspective of our communities, companies that can balance what we know to be substantial music with what our community values. Instead, San Diego will soon be deprived of any professional opera in its community because their company’s leadership is unwilling to consider anything other than their own specific conception of what constitutes acceptable opera.
While artists and arts managers should advocate aggressively for the arts, and should seek the highest possible quality our communities can support, we also have a duty to build arts organizations that are sustainable by our communities. This means adapting our companies to the interests and desires of our own unique communities, and acting more often on their behalf when making programming and other substantial decisions than on our own. If all efforts have been exhausted, and the San Diego community can’t or won’t sustain a $15 million dollar opera company, then the artists and arts managers have the responsibility as lovers and advocates of our art form to build a company that can be sustained by that specific community, regardless of their own artistic desires.
Our communities, and the support they provide, make it possible for opera to exist. As artists and arts leaders, our duty is to serve them—not ourselves—first.