SPAC’s audience of tomorrow: From the Times Union

From the desk of Rex Smith. Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union.

Maybe it’s true, as Susan Read was saying the other day, that New York City Ballet is the world’s greatest ballet company. It almost doesn’t matter if the people at Bolshoi or Paris or the Royal object; the point is that since the night 46 years ago that George Balanchine‘s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” launched the City Ballet’s residency at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, our community has for a brief time each summer been at the apex of classical dance.

So it will remain, but that pinnacle is getting quite small: Read, the SPAC board chair, and Marcia White, the president, announced last week that City Ballet will spend just a week in Saratoga next summer, down from two weeks, which has been the length of the annual residency since 2009, which was down from three weeks, which it was for four years before that, which had been cut from the full month annual residency that began on July 8, 1966.

Happy anniversary, everybody.

Just as in the previous cutbacks, this was presented as a matter of numbers — that is, dollars that SPAC doesn’t have. The two-week run of the ballet costs SPAC about $2 million, only half of which is covered by ticket sales. White has done a great job of fund-raising since taking over SPAC in 2005, but even with $3.7 million or so in contributions last year, the place barely broke even.

City Ballet, meanwhile, has its own problems, beset as it is by flat fund-raising and an audience that isn’t growing. While its leaders are as eager as SPAC’s to keep the partnership going, they don’t believe the company can cover the gap between expenses and revenue.

You could substitute just about any cultural organization you can think of here and plug in details specific to each and be reading virtually the same story. We pay lip service to the institutions that we say sustain a community’s quality of life, but we don’t pay much more than that.

Of course, the best of the arts have never been self-sustaining; wealthy patrons and royalty supported composers, painters and sculptors in earlier eras, just as generous folks do now.

But as White asked last week, “How much more can you ask people to give?”

It’s somewhat comforting, perhaps, to remember that the search for a sustaining audience has always challenged serious artists. Beethoven was torn in his compositions between what he thought would rock the socks off big crowds and what would motivate aristocrats to support him. Music historians can point to passages in which he seems to be trying to bridge that gap.

The announcement about City Ballet came just as SPAC was about to be besieged for a three-concert weekend set by Phish, which has a phenomenal following. Each concert was expected to draw 20,000 fans. They’re among the two dozen rock concerts that will be staged at SPAC this summer by Live Nation, which will pay SPAC $1 million as a sort of rental fee.

So it’s not that our community can’t support live performances. It’s just that the kind of art represented by the City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which also calls SPAC its summer home, typically doesn’t pay for itself.

In dollars, that is. It’s hard to measure the value to our community’s cultural life that is presented by the residencies here of two of the world’s greatest artistic organizations.

Marcia White remembers some of the early meetings several years ago that led to the decision to build the computer chip fabrication plant in Saratoga County, which she witnessed as an aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. She heard Hector Ruiz, then the CEO of what became GlobalFoundries, talk about the importance of such cultural amenities as SPAC in luring high-caliber employees.

But to maintain SPAC and other regional cultural treasures — the Albany Symphony, the Albany Institute of History & Art, Proctors and more — we need to be building their audience of the future. A study from the National Endowment for the Arts last year found that childhood arts education has a stronger impact on arts attendance than age, race or socioeconomic status.

But we’re curtailing arts and culture education in the schools, and discouraging students once they reach college age from studying anything that’s not aimed at winning them a high-paying job. At this rate, SPAC’s audience will be the grown-ups who as children danced in “The Nutcracker” at Christmastime.

Shouldn’t we instead be shaping the patrons who will cheer City Ballet at SPAC another 46 years from now?


One thought on “SPAC’s audience of tomorrow: From the Times Union

  1. The dirty little secret ,,that no one talks about, is that the NYC Ballet is not what it once was…is it getting the audiences it deserves…just because it’s ballet does not mean it deserves support..I remember seeing the stars at mrs London’s…so many..Hayden,,kent,, few now

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