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Arts in the suburbs

0 Robert Levine

Anne Midgette had an interesting piece in Friday’s Washington Post on the boom in arts facilities in the DC area:

If the 1970s saw an increase in performing arts organizations, the 1990s and 2000s have seen a notable increase in places built to house them.

The boom is reflected nowhere better than in the Washington area, which - economic crises be cursed - has seen at least eight arts centers open since 2000.

These range from institutions that offer studio as well as performance space to active artists, such as the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, and more conventional ones, such as Strathmore in North Bethesda, whose 1,976-seat Music Center is the best concert hall, acoustically and aesthetically, in the region - including the Kennedy Center.

“People always go back and forth lamenting the decline of Western civilization,” says A. Scott Wood, a conductor who leads the Amadeus Orchestra in McLean, the Arlington Philharmonic and a couple of amateur community orchestras. “Then you turn around and see . . . these [new] performing centers. They’re not always amazing, but the standard level of what’s getting put up there is so much higher than it used to be. Not to run down Constitution Hall, but it’s pretty rough, and that used to be the best thing going.”

Here’s what’s striking about these new performing arts centers: They aren’t in the city. ….

Strathmore’s small size does allow for unconventional approaches. Traditionally, performing arts centers set their schedules well in advance to sell subscriptions and gauge interest. Strathmore just eliminated subscriptions altogether, which approaches heresy to presenters.

These days, subscriptions are plummeting in virtually every art form, and single-ticket sales are rising. Audiences don’t want to commit to events long in advance. Strathmore’s experiment has borne this out: Its ticket sales have soared, said Shelley Brown, vice president for programming. And because there is no subscription plan, nobody minds if the center adds last-minute concerts - which has helped Brown enhance this year’s ongoing guitar festival, since a lot of the artists she’s booking aren’t used to scheduling long in advance, either….

A larger question is what kind of service such centers provide to the community. Performing arts centers are slightly like museums; they represent the institutionalization of the arts. In taking a geographical step away from familiar urban settings and redefining the location of “culture,” suburban centers are doing a signal service; but the real measure of their value lies in their individual curatorial abilities. Some centers, such as the Workhouse Center or the polymathic Artisphere, are mainly focused on providing space where artists can work. Others, such as the Hylton, have taken on a missionary function, educating an audience unfamiliar with live performance.

I found the bit about eliminating subscription sales particularly intriguing. There are good reasons for the subscription model, and arts groups aren’t the only ones using it - pro sports teams like it as well. But, in terms of serving the public rather than the needs of the arts organization, it’s flawed, as recent trends have showed.

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