the arts ARE worth it

Do you want to know why the arts face an uphill battle in the country? Check out the comments over at the Mercury that arose after it was discovered in the proposed city budget that $200,000 had been appropriated to help send the Oregon Symphony to Carnegie Hall in 2011.

Somehow, in the course of less than ten comments, it had degenerated to the point where the original post’s author suggested that sending the orchestra to Carnegie would come at the expense of fire protection, and that the orchestra perhaps might just stay home and play Barber’s Adagio for Strings for people when their houses burned down.  Somehow even the $20 million set aside for bike lanes was inserted into the mix.

The fact is, $200K is a big portion of the OSO’s annual budget to come up with out of thin air, while it’s a tiny fraction of the city’s budget.  These are tough times for everyone, I do recognize this, but the Oregon Symphony has hardly been a fiscal drain on city, metro, and state government for the past decades.  We’ve received little in the way of funding from the city – and that has dwindled to nearly nothing since Vera Katz’s term came to a close.  We used to do four free parks concerts that were paid for by the city, and now we play just one – the annual waterfront concert at Tom McCall Waterfront Park at the close of summer.  Almost all of the other money that is contributed to the orchestra comes through private donations and foundation grants, as well as ticket sales.

Going to Carnegie Hall is the crowing achievement of one’s career as an individual musician, and for orchestras it is much the same.  Once you go to Carnegie, you declare yourself to the world that you have arrived.  For the Oregon Symphony to play Carnegie for the first time is to place it in the company of the greatest orchestras in the world, and the chance to face the most powerful critical establishment (who have heard all of those other orchestras) is a challenge that will help to further the remarkable artistic growth that the ensemble has already experienced in the seven years of Carlos Kalmar’s tenure with the orchestra.  Returning triumphantly from the debut will also bring a higher profile to the orchestra and to the arts scene of Portland to which it belongs.  As the city’s (and state’s) flagship arts organization, it’s a chance to share our talent on the world stage.  If doing so does not matter, then why does Thomas Lauderdale proudly proclaim Pink Martini as being from Portland, Oregon at every concert? He does so because people learn more about the city by seeing what comes out of the city.  If a community is full of fabulous, vibrant, and creative organizations, it’s a powerful incentive for people to move to the region, for businesses to locate here, for people to retire here.  That growth leads to a more cosmopolitan, vibrant, and creative community – which is always a good thing.

But we constantly face the obstacle that music is an ephemeral art: it happens and then it’s gone.  There is no fire station, mall, bike lane, or homeless shelter left behind to admire.  But the orchestra itself (made up of people who love this city and make it our home) does remain, and so do our audiences, who spend money in the downtown core, lobby their schools for more arts education, pay taxes, and yearn for a more artistically viable community.  Our going to Carnegie is for them, really, and for all of those musicians who have come before us, working entire lifetimes to make the Oregon Symphony a great orchestra – we love Portland, we love playing for our fantastic audiences here, and we want to take that love and joy and Oregonian spirit to Carnegie hall and knock their socks off in NY.

Isn’t that worth a measly $200,000?

23 Replies to “the arts ARE worth it”

  1. Beautifully said, Charles. I will quote you repeatedly.

    It so often comes down to the arts versus fire/police/ambulances/schools/jails (insert your favorite underfunded public good here.) Maybe one day we’ll start asking why important things like education are underfunded even in boom times, rather than assuming that starving the arts will solve the much larger problems we face as a society.

  2. while i agree with nearly every point in the excellent article above, i also can well imagine one of the more diamond-encrusted symphony patrons uncorking a tax-deductible check for 200K without undo duress. after all, what’s a measly 200K for someone worth 50,000,000?

    let’s put it this way, 200K to someone with 50Mil is the equivalent of someone worth 250K ponyin’ up 1K.

    my basic belief is that when there is a SIMPLE way around intense karfufflage, let those that can smooth the path, git to it.

    1. To Bob Priest and all the other well-intentioned observers who make the point that the Oregon Symphony should just turn to some big donor to fund its Carnegie Hall trip: The point that always seems to get lost is that it already costs the Oregon Symphony $14 million a year to operate in Portland, and more than half of that amount already comes from its generous donors, large and small, each year.

      Like every other arts organization in Portland (and, for that matter, across the country), the Oregon Symphony’s fund-raisers work tirelessly, day in and day out, to find enough potential donors to support its “normal” operations. The cost of this Carnegie Hall trip comes on top of all those “routine” costs of doing business. And those generous donors will pick up their share, as they always do.

      But the fact is, there just aren’t that many “diamond-encrusted patrons” in Portland who aren’t already generously supporting the Oregon Symphony, and other worthwhile causes in town, year in and year out. That’s why the orchestra needs to ask for the city’s support for this one-time extraordinary expense.

  3. @bob your logic is sound… Similarly if 50k individuals donated one Vente mocha worth of pocket change ($4) we’d get to $200k. 

    Care to donate a few mochas or help corner a mythical diamond-encrusted Portlander? If you’re reading this blog I assume you somewhat value the arts…  step up man, HELP us git er done. I double dog dare ya. 

  4. while what carl says might be true, i have my doubts that there isn’t a “diamond-encrusted” guardian angel or three among the OSO supporters (private &/or corporate) that could EASILY produce an extra bit of gazzillionaire chump change for this extraordinary opportunity.

    as for dan r., your logic is sound – in a long drawn out, nickel ‘n’ dime sorta way. my ultimate point is to avoid the bake sale mentality and turn this over to someone who can alleviate the pain with one blazing blast from their over-stuffed checkbook. could that be you or one of your de-beerded friends, dan r?

  5. Charles,

    Thank you for your eloquence and logic.

    It is so difficult to justify an art form to a society that seems to base its values on materials. When music speaks to us beyond the ability of words, how can you describe its importance? If someone has never had goosebumps while listening to a live music performance, can they really understand how profound music can be? If some view music only as an entertainment, how could they comprehend the significance of an orchestra in their community?

  6. I imagine and hope that a local donor or donors would step up and help launch Oregon Symphony’s international profile, by way of making this important appearance at Carnegie Hall a reality.

    This is an opportune time for Oregon Symphony to stake its claim as the Pacific Northwest’s finest; I hope your community recognizes this.

  7. Mr. Priest, I understand your hesitance over using the city’s arts budget to send the Symphony to New York. We live in times of tight purse strings and coupon clipping. But what I don’t understand is, if you are so against using this arts money to help our orchestra play at Carnegie, then how will you help? By only relying on the diamond-encrusted people of this city, you are perpetuating the stereotype that classical music is only for the rich. The Oregon Symphony belongs to all of us. I am far from loaded but for $10 bucks, I can get a student ticket upstairs in the nosebleeds and loose myself in Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Sibelius and watch a world class orchestra perform with Midori, Pinchas Zuckerman, Baiba Skride, and Stephen Hough. This is MY orchestra. I don’t have a lot of money, but I do have a lot of love and respect for those musicians (who are local, I might add) and want to do my part to see my city get the props it deserves on the national and international level. They are that good. They deserve to go. So I’m going to give my latte money. Maybe it will go to insure Nancy Ives cello… 🙂 We as a community need to step it up, not just those with deep pockets.

  8. to music nerd:

    please re-read my comments. i do not say that i’m opposed to the city supporting the OSO’s trip.

    what i’ve been trying to say is that i’m in favor of a big-buckeroo or two solving this measly 200K problem in an expeditious fashion. why agonize over a mocha or kookie klatch in this instance? why spend an enormous amount of time debating this topic when “dudley &/or dorothy diamond” can simply whip out their Montblanc Diplomat & sign-off on their lunch money for a week?

    as for my own personal contributions to the PDX arts community, i won’t bore you with the details. however, rest assured that i amply put my money, mouth & time where my heart is. that you appear to be willing & able to do the same is admirable.

    1. Dear Mr. Priest, I applaud you for your support of the arts. Its comforting to know that there are more people out there that do. My concern is, that while it would be great to have a few benefactors swoop in to save the day, I don’t know if that is going to happen. As this debate over city funds gets nastier, we need to keep our eye on the prize: Carnegie. I propose we find a way to start a community fund that supports this trip in case the hefty bank accounts and city funds do not come together.

      I hope our exchange has not offended you. It has been nice to have a discussion over this issue vs other sites where the comments will get bloodier before they get better.

  9. I am very sad at some of the comments from that blog- particularly by the person who said that your symphony orchestra wasn’t important to your city’s culture. I hope this trip works out for you!

  10. Haha – I wish I was a diamond encrusted patron or a trustafarian. Alas I’m one of the bike commuting members of the high tech proletariat who sits in the Schnitzer nosebleeds.

    Having a big buckaroo swoop to the rescue would be the quickest, easiest way to raise money. No doubt, no debate.

    Will it happen? I hope so but I’m not going sit on my hands *expecting* someone will bail us out. I’ll schmooze, volunteer, donate mochas, panhandle & promote arts appreciation to all ages with the long term goal of seeing Portland’s cultural institutions running in the black. Call it a bake sale if you like.

    1. Watch this space – I’m sure that there will be some sort of back-up plan to find money if the city doesn’t come through – I know something is up, but not sure exactly what at this point…

      1. Countdown to Carnegie
        May 20th 6p @ The Nines (62.5 $4 mochas for a seat or 625 mochas to sponsor a table)
        Thomas Lauderdale and the esteemed Carnegie host committee invite you to kick off the Oregon Symphony’s Carnegie year in style, with a benefit at the Nines on May 20. Join hundreds of fans marking the year preceding our debut in New York with a delightful evening of fine dining, dancing, entertainment by The Art Abrams Swing Machine Big Band and surprise guests.

  11. to musicnerd:
    our exchange has heartened me. you appear quite committed to your beliefs. i like that and encourage you to keep on a-keepin’-on . . .

    to don r:
    in your recent note, your rhetoric & hands-on zeal broadens to include PDX cultural institutions in general. this is a particularly encouraging sign. for, you see, there are MANY organizations in town that have precisely ZERO prospect of a big buckaroo being chauffeured into their next “champagne & brioche bake sale” with a blazing checkbook . these are the groups that REALLY need your smoozing & profitable panhandling. heck, some of those low-rollers have probably never even tried a mocha!

    finally, to charles:
    do i hear the delicious din of diamond decibels starting to roar?

  12. I’m back to beat a dead horse after taking time to panhandle for the arts offline.

    @Bob – I assume you were responding to my comment and not Don R. who hasn’t chimed in yet. Believe it or not I spend time outside “the establishment” for a variety of arts organizations & in our schools. The larger issue (as I see it) is a decline in arts appreciation in our schools and society. Supporting a keystone cultural institution like the OSO to perform at the US performing arts epicenter furthers the reputation of Portland. Hopefully drawing more talented musicians/artists to our community and world-class artists to perform in the Schnitz (evidenced by next season’s program)… inspiring younger generations of artists and patrons or at the very least raising arts awareness.

    What I don’t quite understand is your sense of entitlement that a buckeroo *should* save the day and your notion that a hands-on/bakesale effort is a waste of time when the end goal is beyond sending the orchestra to NYC. Why make dwell on the class war when the larger battle is against arts ambivalence? Are your pleas to the PDX buckaroos the only input you have?

  13. to don rasay:

    i agree with many of your general points and a few strike me as overly reductive. however, ultimately, we are fighting the same general fight – i think.

    just the same, yes, i DO believe that one of the OSO big buckeroons SHOULD step in and resolve THIS PARTICULAR ISSUE quickly and painlessly. there’s plenty of time and deeper opportunities to get to the truly big issues that concern us all. i personally don’t believe that this measly 200K OSO fund is the correct vehicle for addressing the broad spectrum of the issues at stake for the ENTIRE arts community.

    now, i could elaborate, quote budgets, weigh-in for some of the arts orgs. that REALLY need a bake sale or two, etc. but, ya know what, dan, i’m tired of this blown out of proportion instance and KNOW that there are quite a few folks in the OSO extended stable of supporters that can close this sorry chapter prontissimo.

    btw, that you work for arts education in the schools is TRULY admirable. that is exactly where the deep structure of the future of arts in america resides.

    so, i leave you with the above and don’t plan to reiterate what i’ve already overly reiterated.

  14. OSO gazillionaire buckaroo(s) SHOULD step up and help with this one instance. Gotcha, thanks for your input.

    An overly reductive response from me will have to suffice as I’m not going to write a treatise in a blog comment. Cheers and keep up the good fight.

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