The Austin Chronicle

Control Shift

Thoughts on adjusting to hard times from former opera director Kevin Patterson

By Robert Faires, May 13, 2011, Arts

Austin's arts scene has never seen a season as turbulent as the current one. Not even during the downturns following 9/11 or in 2003 were there as many profound shifts in the cultural landscape in so short a period as have taken place over the past six months. Hardly a week has gone by without one: the Austin Museum of Art's sale of the block where it had for 30 years planned to build a permanent Downtown home; Arthouse's elimination of Elizabeth Dunbar's position, followed by the resignations of Jenn Gardner from the staff and Dario Robleto from the board; First Night Austin's dissolution; the departures of major figures from institutions with which they had long associations (curator Jonathan Bober from the Blanton Museum of Art, designer and former department chair Robert Schmidt from the University of Texas Department of Theatre & Dance, second violin Sandy Yamamoto from the Miró Quartet); and most dramatically, changes in leadership at one institution after another – Dana Friis-Hansen leaving the Austin Museum of Art, Ned Rifkin leaving the Blanton, Ken Stein leaving the Austin Theatre Alliance, Latifah Taormina leaving the Austin Creative Alliance, Vincent Kitch leaving the City of Austin Cultural Affairs Division. The latest in this last category is Kevin Patterson, who resigned as general director of Austin Lyric Opera on May 2, a move connected to the ALO board's efforts to stabilize the organization financially.

Most of the time, such leaders leave in silence, but Patterson approached the Chronicle with the idea for an interview. He didn't want to rehash the reasons for leaving ALO but to discuss larger issues at stake for cultural institutions today and lessons he learned. The following is an excerpt from that interview.

Kevin Patterson: Our business model for regional arts organizations in America is fundamentally changing. As any good business does, we know that cash is king; you have to have cash in order to make the products or offer the services or do the things that you have to do. To a greater or lesser extent, depending on what you're talking about – opera, symphony, ballet, art museum – cash is shored up by a subscription or membership model of some kind. During the Nineties in the opera world, we were looking at double-digit increases in people coming to the opera, and a lot of the arts were seeing that. So our subscription numbers got healthier. After 9/11, we saw the subscription model declining industry-wide by as much as 10 percent a year. Some people [say] that in the aftermath of 9/11 people were getting more introspective, that they were wanting spend more time with families, and therefore were foregoing a lot of [cultural events]. That may have been a symptomatic issue, but I think the larger issue is that you had the baby boom generation in full retirement mode and starting to go into financial shutdown, physical shutdown, emotional shutdown. So subscription dollars were decreasing as people were less willing to commit to those models. After 2001, we saw a 15 to 20 percent drop-off in subscriptions. It recovered a little as people got farther from that traumatic experience but didn't recover that full 15 percent. Then we got into that microrecession in 2003 and saw another drop-off. We saw a little recovery, but again not as much. With the recession that we've just gone through, we saw an even greater decline, and it has not returned to anywhere near what it was before.

What we're seeing locally is a twofold problem: Not only are the older generation not subscribing anymore, but we have one of the youngest populations in the United States – I think the median age in Austin is 34 – and it's a generation that has never grown up with a subscription model. They will tell you, "I don't know where I'm going to be two days from now; I'm certainly not going to commit to something six months from now."

Austin Chronicle: So at the same time the traditional audience is falling away, there's a shift in the culture to live more in the moment and think less about the future. The rise of social media is a perfect reflection of that: "I'm here now. I'm posting what I'm doing now. It's all about this moment as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow."

KP: What we're seeing on the single-ticket side – and this worries me more than any single trend – is that we have now raised almost two generations of children who have little to no arts education. Arts have not been embedded into their upbringing. They're coming to adulthood, and because they have not been exposed to [the arts] and their friends have not been exposed to [the arts], they are less willing to try or acknowledge that these art forms can have any impact on their lives. That's really disturbing, because if you're not putting the next generation into the pipeline and teaching them that these art forms can speak to them as human beings, you're setting yourself up to have wonderful performing spaces such as the Long Center that you can't fill.

AC: So it strikes me that the larger institutions that are traditionally tied in to a certain size or scale – opera, symphony, ballet – have less flexibility in adjusting to this new environment. A Zach Theatre can scale back the number of large-cast musicals and do a one-woman show about Molly Ivins that might draw the same number of people but makes a tremendous adjustment in the cost of the production. For a symphony or opera or ballet that's dependent upon performing in a 2,300-seat hall and maintaining a company or working in a repertoire that uses a certain number of artists, the ability to scale down isn't there.

KP: You bring up two good points: the underlying business models and the idea of artistic perception. As [President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts] Michael Kaiser has often said, all of our art forms are heavily dependent on labor. He uses the analogy that if Beethoven writes a string quartet in 1822, [it takes] four players and 22 minutes to play. In 2011, that string quartet still takes four players and 22 minutes to play, but the costs are not the same as they were in 1822. And you cannot achieve productive efficiency like you achieve in commercial corporations by saying to the cello player, "You stay home tonight. We're going to save some money by playing the quartet without you." Also inherent in the model of filling that 2,300-seat hall is the scale of what you have to produce. Without trying to lay too much blame, we can trace most of that back to Wagner and the parameters he set in expecting his audiences to see art forms as he saw them: moving opera and symphony from a public, pop-culture marketplace to a ritual, where all the lights go down, you sit quietly and don't applaud until the music is over, and you must be fully concentrated on what's going on. Contrast that with Rossini's time, where The Italian Girl in Algiers was written for theatres that were also casinos, and in addition to the money that he got for composing the opera, Rossini got a share of the casino winnings. You could say that Rossini was like the floor show at Caesar's, bringing people in to gamble. And yet we have taken that idea of art as ritual and imposed that in the 20th century economically and artistically on what we expect our audiences to do. But the business model won't sustain that scale anymore.

Your second point, about perception: With opera and symphony, there is the expectation that you're going to give me a repertory that I know and am comfortable with. One thing that has always made me jealous of the theatre world is that audiences don't seem to have that preconception of a core repertory that they want to see over and over again produced exactly the same way. People are more adventurous [in theatre], and they aren't as much in the symphony/opera worlds. We have very loyal audiences, but at the same time, we have highly opinionated audiences that don't want a lot of deviation from one section of the repertory to the other. So to say to an opera audience, "I'm not going to put on Traviata, but I'm going to give you a double bill of Kurt Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins and Schoenberg's Erwartung," which both take one singer and an orchestra, is probably not going to sell the same number of seats. Both of those points are really valid in how we look at our business models as we move forward.

One of the interesting things we were exploring at Austin Lyric Opera was the realization that the current business model for opera in Austin is not sustainable in the long run. It hasn't been sustainable for 10 years. Instead of doing three operas, four performances, what if we did one or two main-stage productions with a variable number of performances and supplement that with one or two or three chamber operas that broaden and provide multiple layers to the season and expand upon some things that we did very well, which was collaborating? More than any time in the company's history, we actively sought and executed more collaborations and in doing so not only enriched the artistic environment but were also cross-pollinating audiences. There's a lot of opportunity in Austin, especially as entrepreneurial and innovative as it is, to take the form and re-create the business model in a way that will be unique to Austin, because I don't think that in every city you could take one model. In fact, what we see as the traditional opera business model of a standard season with a certain mix or repertory with a certain subscriber base and a certain contributed income base may continue to work among the top five or 10 opera companies in the United States, but for regional opera to thrive in America, regional companies are going to abandon that traditional big-house model for a unique set of models that will work for them and are adapted to each community. We'll no longer be cookie-cutter, and that's fantastic.

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