IMO the most egalitarian public taxpayer space on earth–at least in my city–is the local DMV. In this room, all are equal, there are no free passes; there is no privilege except if you have a spotless driving record. [The actual car inspection garage may be the exception. They definitely will drive a BMW with more care than your Pontiac onto the ramps.]

I don’t always feel that same “e pluribus unum” vibe in our arts and cultural spaces. One can see, hear, and even smell the divisions particularly by class, race, and education reflected in who’s attending this event, contributing to the fundraising, box vs. 1st or 2nd tier. And who really benefits from cultural enrichment when parents bring their artistic kids to perform or do their thing, then leave the event once it’s done before the entire show is over. Maybe it’s to get back to a job, or to have a smoke.

The management of arts and cultural organziations may also be in peril by having their own class wars over public and private funding. Some claim they are entitled to certain public tax-payer funds over others (let’s repeat – “public tax-payer funds”). These debates may be distractions from the fact that during the economic downturn, audiences are setting their own priorities, cutting back, or are simply not showing up for lack of interest.

And Hollywood is prepared to take them all in this summer – Yeah, I’m seeing “Star Trek,” “The Terminator” and what else? But let’s not separate Hollywood. Once the lights go out in a movie theater, it’s an egalitarian space. Audience’s film choices may signal any and all other social characteristics.

Sunday, the Washington Post devoted its entire Style & Arts section to arts and the economy – “State of Emergency.”

I’ve been talking with local artists in check out lines and over the phone about their audience development. And for some reason, we all seem to agree on the “small is beautiful” model. Those who are less stressful work within their means and are steady on vision and mission. They grow by steps and not necessarily leaps. Others enjoy presenting in the 100 seater or the black box space where they intereact with their audience, there’s no place for cliques to go off to themselves. It’s like the old speakeasy or rent party where Zora’s taking a pan gingerbread from the oven to serve with a glass of buttermilk because the check for that last article was still in the mail.

Maybe DC arts is more of a cabaret than a coleseum.

However, undercutting the “small is beautiful” model is the Kennedy Center which has for some time aspired to be something more than local, and everything — from small to grand — in scope. Jacqueline Trescott writes in the WaPo
The mantra at the Kennedy Center during good and bad times is to put your best foot foward, even if the price tag is high, because great art will produce strong revenue.

The KC is banking on two big Tony Award-winning musical productions: “Ragtime” and “The Color Purple” (road tour) with American Idol winner Fantasia. The American musical is probably an egalitarian art form when it comes to bringing audiences into art spaces. But the ticket prices hinder its ability to have that full “big tent” effect until the script and score hit the regional and high school stages. Musicals are expensive to produce and don’t always bring in a profit. Investors are necessary however, the KC managed to bring together not just investors, but donors for “Ragtime.” Currently ticket prices for the two musicals at the Kennedy Center range from $25 – $90.

Readers can chat online with KC President Michael M. Kaiser live on the economic crisis and its affect on the Arts acommunity, Tuesday, May 5 at 11 AM (

Even in New York, where one doesn’t have to justify the value of the arts within the frame of an educational or behavior modification tool, the big benefit galas are also in recession for lack of willing honorees. For those unfamiliar with the routine, there’s more expected of an honoree than just showing up.
…an honoree is not chosen just to give a speech and be feted. He or she must be willing to make a big donation, usually from the company’s coffers, and — more important — to invite friends and contacts to the gala who will buy $20,000 tables or single tickets for $2,000 to $3,000, bringing new support to the organization.
New York Times (5/3/09)

And there’s the peer pressure on the social scale as all fundraisers will attest:
Just as potential honorees don’t want to pressure contacts to buy tables, neither do they want to be embarrassed if their “list” doesn’t buy enough tickets.

In these tough times some sort of balance needs to be achieved between public and private financial support of arts and culture. It’s not that we’ve got a Chrysler situation where no one’s buying. The question may be why should they? Arts education may have an answer. Bringing students up close including behind the scenes also brings in the next generation of audiences or contributors. But when public schools require that arts organizations provide transportation to events whereas private schools do not — these could be speed bumps to the presenting group who might opt to accomodate the private school if funds are limited.

Some kind of truce needs to happen between organizations competing for the public funds in these uncertain times. What are the options for collaboration? As I’ve said, the operating clause needs to be “and” not “or.”

This could be the reason why I’m reading more and more books about the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its arts projects (writers, theater, music, visual arts).

Maybe the next art and cultural space will be the local DMV.