Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Why There Are Starving Artists

I was recently forwarded an email about internationally renowned violinist Joshua Bell who, at the urging of a Washington Post writer, played his Stradivarius next to a trash can in a D.C. subway station for spare change while mid-level bureaucrats rushed by with little response. Starting at 7:51 AM, Bell played for 43 minutes some of the world’s greatest classical music on a $3.5-million violin. Only seven people stopped to listen for at least a minute, 27 blindly tossed coins totaling $32 into his open instrument case and over 1,000 people hurried by to their government office cubicles without a second look or listen.

This event took place in 2007 and the resulting article earned writer Gene Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize. News of the incident has been floating around cyberspace for two years finally reaching my inbox in Akron, Ohio this month. The story questions our perceptions of artistic value, our priorities and the numbing pace of our lives. As an arts administrator for the past 10 years, I have observed a lot about these things.

For example on artistic value, a recent visitor to the gallery I help run complained about the $100 price of an original lithograph created by a talented, local artist. He haughtily said it wasn’t worth that much and offered $50. I politely declined and reminded him that artists have to eat too.

Another example is the city-sponsored summer performances that our professional ballet company and symphony orchestra give in public parks. Thousands of delighted people pack up picnics and kids to enjoy these talented artists. In fact, this past summer there was record-breaking attendance at these free arts events. Common sense would say these performances should be great marketing opportunities spurring ticket sales for upcoming fall/winter seasons. Not true. National studies show that free arts performances don’t put paying butts in seats later. They only whet the public’s appetite for MORE FREE ARTS.

Why are artistic talents valued so much less than, say, sports talents? Remember that besides having innate abilities, visual and performing artists invest many years and many dollars into training, practice and university educations. Is a $90 ticket to a two-hour professional basketball game a better value than buying a work of art that you can enjoy every day and pass down to your children? Imagine what the crowd size would have been if Lebron James was in that subway station bouncing a basketball. OK, perhaps people would naturally notice a six foot-eight inch NBA superstar plonking a ball up and down. But shouldn’t people naturally notice the moving strains of Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" played by a virtuoso?

On a recent trip to North Carolina, I picked up a Charlotte Observer newspaper and was struck by two, side-by-side headlines – “Football rekindles passions” and “Symphony players take pay cut.” It’s all about perceptions and priorities, isn’t it?

In defense of the government drones who ran past “the greatest American violinist active today” according to the Boston Herald -- I wonder if I were late for an 8 AM meeting and hadn’t had my Starbucks latte would I have tuned out my harried personal agenda and tuned into "Chaconne" from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Probably not, even though Bell calls it "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history.” Of course, when the Ohio State Buckeyes won the national football championship in 2002, I called it one of the greatest achievements in history. We all have our perceptions and priorities.

But thanks to Akron’s Tuesday Musical Association on February 2, I can relax into a seat at EJ Thomas Hall and hear Joshua Bell play his Stradivarius for $22. I can only hope he plays that Bach piece.