CHRISTINA LESSA: What is your personal reason to pursue arts philanthropy?
ANDREW M WEBER: I came into it completely left of field. I never thought of myself as anyone that could make a significant impact with my contributions. It was a wonderful woman at the Met, Camille LaBarre, who reached out to me and said, “You know, you could become involved in this organization in ways that you may find enjoyable. We have outreach programs and lectures.” and I thought; I could do that. The first year I gave them $2,500.00 and they were delighted by what seemed like such a small figure. So I thought the second year, well, I could give them a little bit more and I also think that I could help out The Round About Theater and there are a few other places that I could have an impact on. I just had no idea how much pleasure it would bring me to do that, and how much such a small gesture actually meant to those organizations. I am also acutely aware of the lack of governmental funding provided for arts support and education. Arts education and patronage should go hand in hand. That is the historical formula. Where is our government? Where is our support for the arts here? I’m just a speck on the map compared to some people who donate so generously to the many arts organizations and the fact that I am considered to be at such a high level is shocking. Where are the other people? Where is the government? It’s shameful. All of these programs run at a deficit aside from the, ‘there but for the grace of god’, philanthropic gestures. They are doing better: take for example the wildly successful Agnes Varis $20 rush tickets at the Met (which came with enormous funding). She just passed away and now we are left to wonder, who will fill those shoes? Who will be the next person to say this is important, who will be the next person to make it a priority for our children to be able to go and see opera, dance, theater, ballet, at a price that they can afford? It is fiscally impossible with our great lack of governmental support in this country to put these things on.
I keep having this conversation with people, because we continually do not as a society step up to the plate and embrace our creative nature, support future generation’s endeavors in the arts, and ultimately enable the future of key innovators. I keep telling people that this is the end of the American empire, the twilight of it. This is it. We are not stepping up to the plate to enrich our society and make it great in the 21st century creative sense.
I see a generation of young people that expect everything to handed to them and there is no core value in pop culture without the resonance of a historical perspective/outlook. You can tell that arts education is lacking. Who is teaching the American student any depth of knowledge about the world, about emotions: to be a better, sensitive person? This, is now coming back to bite us in the bum!
CHRISTINA LESSA: Americans notoriously give, and there are many that give quite generously. Almost 4 billion dollars is given away yearly in this country with the largest percentage going to religious institutions, alma maters and other educational initiatives. Only about 3% of those dollars went to arts, culture and humanities based efforts. What do you feel are the reasons, outside of a certain niche group, that patronage and support of the arts is often brushed off as unimportant?
ANDREW M WEBER: Because it’s considered elitist. Someone said to me ‘why are you giving this money to the Met?’, ‘ Why don’t you give it to a hospital’. Well, because everyone gives to hospitals! Art is medicine for the soul. Opera for me is medicine for my soul! When I leave the theater I am uplifted, I feel better maybe even kinder toward people: there is an empathy that takes place. Giving to the arts in a sense is a rebellious thing to do because it can be frowned upon as having no substantial agenda. Now, of course giving to science to find a cure particularly when one has suffered (or a loved one has) makes perfect sense. But as far as I’m concerned this country is suffering from a sickness in it’s soul that needs healing. That is my agenda!
CHRISTINA LESSA: Elitism is one aspect…or do you think that there is a certain engagement in the fear that art in general is too provocative and hedonistic.. if so, how can we impart the idea that art as a whole is an embodiment of the human experience, it’s inspiration can be interruptive, hilarious or breathtaking and it’s creator can be conservative or radical.
ANDREW M WEBER: Well this rather beaten argument that theater is radical, or corrupt, or gay (or whatever it is these days) is just ridiculous because the great middle class have an extraordinary ability to learn and evolve through these provocations. I’m not saying that they aren’t the violent ones or the serious ones. But I am thinking of my Mother who is a fairly conservative person and she will go to see and experience anything in the arts. We will be watching and there will be a naked woman on the stage and I’ll be crawling under my seat and shell be saying, “Well, isn’t that interesting? I never thought about a topic like that, in that way.”, and she understands that it made her think. Nothing should offend people worse than stupidity: that is what should offend people! We need to try harder. If we are not able to give money then we need to give time and thought for the children. It’s imperative. Children need to be able to stretch their minds at an impressionable age to be able to grow into valuable individuals, and letting them see other worlds that they can access…this will produce a better human in the end whether they end up working in medicine, law or art itself. If they simply stay at home on their little computer… Where is that taking you?
CHRISTINA LESSA: With Artists like Karen O, and Rufus Wainwright writing operas staged by traditional companies, dozens of new Classical Choreographers and incredibly talented, young classical musicians and conductors emerging… there finally seems to be a uniquely “American” performing arts scene starting to develop that younger audiences will gravitate toward as the new generations of composers and visionaries and patrons begin to emerge. Despite the renewed interest in classical genres, the institutions that will eventually house these efforts are in severe danger. City Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra were barely able to avoid bankruptcy this year with resurrection at the 13th hour. Is outdated management and repertoire to blame? What are your thoughts on this?
ANDREW M WEBER: New composers writing operas is fascinating. Traditionally, the patronage came from the old patrons wanting to see their Traviatas etc. Yes, I really do love a Traviata, but I pine for something that speaks perhaps more to my generation. It doesn’t matter if they fail or succeed, and that speaks volumes about the crawl toward seeing ourselves in our own art as every generation has and we have had a bit of a drought in regards to that. I think that city opera had a bit of chaos, but I have hopes for them still. It’s resilient and if not, somebody, or something else, will take its place. Perhaps things should end that aren’t working. Sometimes it’s time to rattle the cage and make way for something new.
“There is no better indicator of the spiritual health of our city, its
neighborhoods, and the larger region than the state of the arts. The arts
deepen our understanding of the human spirit, extend our capacity
to comprehend the lives of others, allow us to imagine a more just
and humane world. Through their diversity of feeling, their variety
of form, their multiplicity of inspiration, the arts make our culture
richer and more reflective. “
President, MacArthur Foundation
CHRISTINA LESSA: This is such a powerful quote that to me, speaks directly to the necessary addition of more arts education in our school system. The impact on the developmental growth of all children across all socio-economic backgrounds is immeasurable. Encouragement of academic rigor and reading skills, delinquency prevention, improved critical thinking skills, and a lower drop out rate are only some of the rewards. It is knowledge that has been publicly repeated countless times, yet, Federal support of Arts Education is at an all time low with most students in American public schools now receiving little to none. How can we correct this nation wide problem?
ANDREW M WEBER: In a conversation that I had with Ann Ziff, the chairman of the Met, she said, “How do we prove that what we’re doing there is of value, what does it mean? Is it something that is dusty that should be put away?” and of course we believe that the answer is absolutely not! There is definitely a place for it and everyone needs to go to that wonderful theater where you can feel 4000 people hold their breath at the same time! That speaks of the human shared experience in the most ephemeral way. It’s not tangible. How do sit in a government office and describe last evening’s show of Anna Bolena with Anna Netrebko? It makes me want to scream at those that don’t understand: to whom it doesn’t mean anything! The distressing part is when you encounter people that don’t understand how incredible this is not only for the privileged few, but for those individuals at risk, the suffering, the children, you have a whole package of healing for cognitive dissonance skills, an entire package of skills that will take you through life if you are able to have some arts exposure: because you will respond to something. You don’t have to like opera or maybe painting, but you will respond to something and it will take you down a path that will give you rewards for the rest of your life. Where is the facility for that if it’s been diminished to an elitist concept, its so offensive! Lets pretend that were not in NYC. A show like GLEE makes me laugh my head off because it’s the old school idea of kids putting on a show. It’s like an old MGM musical every week. People across the country love it. They want it and relate to it. A fulfilling, thoughtful, group activity that involves more than batting a ball around a field. The concept used to be that if you’re overly interested in the arts you’re a fairy, a weirdo on the fringe, but no, actually now its really cool! Naturally, not everyone is a star but the participation is the key. Of course, I only played the bagpipes Christina, but I was always a great audience member!
In the words of Spinal Tap we are now living in a world at volume 11 and there is not always time to hear that need. The onus should not be on the parents: they have so much to do already, especially those just trying to survive financially. A school system should be providing a full-rounded education. When you go and see a movie or a play, how many times do you have different ideas about what you’ve seen? It’s an integral part of brain development.
There is hope building, and more and more we see successful business models being developed by various arts organization that are changing the face of patronage from being reliant on the upper class cultural elite and corporate sponsorship. They are creating actual broad-spectrum business initiatives that create profits. Peter Gelb of The Metropolitan Opera is a great example. Gelb started as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in 2006. At that point, the organization had considerable debt and a diminishing turnout. Since joining, Gelb has prioritized new productions and launched the Met’s HD performance series, which earned the organization $11 million in profit last year. This moment in history is inspirational: where technology and his stewardship have collided in perfection. It looks like the organization is now on surer footing: the Met announced last October that it raised an impressive $182 million in donations in the fiscal year that ended in July, a 50% increase from the previous year. An outstanding number!
CHRISTINA LESSA: You’ve done so much to reinvent younger generations’ perception of the opera. How has this affected existing donors interests?
PETER GELB: Since I became general manager, the main donors of the MET (the major patrons) have been very enthusiastic about the raising of the profile of the MET and opera in general. Whether it has been the artistic productions this season, or otherwise, they have been remarkably supportive. More than ever, new productions are being directed by the leading stage directors of the world, most of whom, have never worked at the MET. We are of course also raising the general public awareness and donor base. We are proud that because of these efforts, more people know about opera and are attending. The HD transmissions worldwide have now quadrupled the size of our paying audience. We now have about 3 million people who attend the transmission in 13 countries!
CHRISTINA LESSA: I feel that the environment in the world right now is a hungry one for virtuosic endeavors: all ages. I was laughing the other day that my young niece was pining over Ring Cycle tickets the way she would over a Beyoncé concert. You’ve brought Opera into the 21st century with a successful transference to the next generation.
PETER GELB: Yes, it’s a great sign. Robert LaPage’s Ring production has attracted a lot of outside attention because of its’ technological advances, all in the service of story telling, but we are doing things in this production that have never before been done in any other productions: The scenic machinery that interacts with the singers voices, the animation, the 3D film implements, these are all fascinating and virtuosic on their own, but the combination within the realm of the story telling of a classic is incredible for young as well as older audiences. They can see that we are not telling the story as a metaphor with the introduction of this technology; we are enhancing the experience but also being thoughtful to Wagner’s original intention of his mythological epic. I’m particularly excited about this coming season and the complete ring cycles that will be performed for the first time as cycles as Wagner intended. We will also be showing them in movie theaters, and showing a film about the making of them. One of the exciting things for me as a producer personally, who had produced for the stage and the screen both small and large, is to be able to bring all of my experiences into play at the Met.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Do you see the emerging as well as established American composers’ role as a further catalyst for operas’ evolving future?
PETER GELB: I’m very interested in opera always moving forward not only artistically and theatrically but also in terms of expanding its compositional repertoire. We’re accomplishing this at the Met by not only presenting new works, but also some that have been neglected; whether it’s re-crafting classic works that may be 150 years old (like a Donizetti or John Adams that had never been presented before I came here) or more recent works like Nixon in China and Dr. Atomic. We also began a few years ago with Lincoln Center Theater to provide a nurturing creative environment, mostly featuring American talent. One of the first fruits of that effort that is being born is by a young American, still in his 20’s, Nico Muhly and his work: Two Boys, after it was determined that it was bound for a full commission for the Met stage.
CHRISTINA LESSA: That’s very exciting! The Met offers the perfect tableau as a meeting place for all of the arts, visual musical and otherwise.
PETER GELB: My focus at the Met is to promote Opera! And, yes. All arts. The greatest thing about the opera is that it is the meeting place of all arts, any of the arts: visual, instrumental, written, orchestral, vocal, performing, leading designers, etc. What we’re doing is raising more opportunities for artists all the way around.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Earlier you had said that one should never assume that because you are an established arts organization you can rest on your laurels. You need continual cultivation and evolution to keep the patron’s interests renewed. Next year’s give is not a guarantee.
PETER GELB: It all begins with the art. All of our efforts to promote the art come out of the artistic program that we feature. The second that we take on an unusual new project it immediately attracts like a magnet new ticket buyers/funders young and old. What fuels me is the fear of the art form not surviving. To think that an art form or an institution like this is immune to the possibility of extinction would be a big mistake. I will do everything in my power to make it interesting in an environment in which arts education is virtually nonexistent. I’ve had to take a lot of calculated risks. And the risks I’ve taken have, for the most part, paid off beautifully.
Clive Gillinson / Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall is a unique resource. I personally think it remains the greatest concert hall in the world, and because of what it is and where it is — NYC, it has the opportunity to make a greater contribution to people’s lives through music than any other music institution. We have a comprehensive education program, working throughout the school system, with every age, as well as within the young professional circle in many ways including through the Academy fellowship program. The Academy is one example where, in partnership with the Juilliard School, we are nurturing the most talented post-graduate musicians in the country and giving them skill sets that will enable them to develop extraordinary careers where they can give back to society as well as fulfilling their talent as great players. We have programs like ‘Link Up’ that enables orchestras to engage with elementary school children in their area. We started in NY and are now partnering with over 30 orchestras around the country. Over 160,000 kids in the US are now benefitting through Link Up alone. We hope that next year about 250,000 children will benefit. We give away all our education resources, seeking donations to support our ability to give these resources away, to support the future of music.
Our newest project is to create for the first time a US National Youth Orchestra, starting in 2013. This is one of the things that needed to happen in the US. If you look around the world, it’s rarely musical institutions that have created national youth orchestras. No concert hall is doing this anywhere else as far as I know. Carnegie Hall is seeking to use the power of the hall, the power of the name, to do things that otherwise wouldn’t happen. National Youth Orchestras are usually started by a government, or are the result of some incredible individuals’ life’s work. But we have been able to do it through the power of our institution, allied to philanthropy. Everybody knows that a lot of the fundamentals of life, if they are to happen on the highest level in America, depend on philanthropy. Whilst this can be very challenging, it can also be inspirational.
Government money often means playing safe. What can happen is that people in charge of handing out government money are frequently afraid to get it wrong so they make conservative, “safe” decisions. That means a lot of “good” projects get supported, rather than risky ones, and “great” usually involves risk. What’s inspiring about America, in a privately funded environment, is that it’s no good coming up with a “good” project. In America, it has to be an extraordinary project. I think that the huge strength of the American patronage system is that donors want to be inspired, otherwise why give money? This keeps aspirations on a very high level. I love the fact that the great challenge working here is that it is no use to be mediocre. You must aspire to greatness. That’s a really important dynamic. My philosophy is, “Money follows vision”. You have got to come up with a vision that’s compelling, with ideas that the world cannot live without. Then you have a chance of getting people involved. It’s why the national youth orchestra is a great project; everyone’s response has been that this has to happen. It is the same as the national exams system that we recently launched with the Royal Conservatory in Canada. They are both absolutely fundamental to developing the best future for music in this country, The Academy as well: this really affects the future of music here because we are creating an entire group of musicians who are not only great players, but who also put something back into society. They will spend their entire lives giving back.
You just can’t tell what will happen with government’s involvement in arts education. I’m from England and when I was a child it used to be everyone’s right
to learn an instrument, for free. In my view, these things are cyclical, and what happens is, in countries where there are real educational problems, people often lose sight of the fact that the arts are a fundamental and central part of a good education in favor of, ‘Oh my goodness, we’d better concentrate on reading, writing and math and deal with the arts later’. What then happens in the cycle is that after a while, they discover that if you try to do those without arts as a central part of developing a human being, children do worse. It’s part of educating a whole human being. In my view it’s not to do with politics or a particular party. I believe that the pendulum will swing back again and people will learn that the arts are just as important to the development of the individual in growing and developing and leading a full life. So yes, we are in a period where we’ve all got reasons to be dissatisfied with the way that government has delivered on this, but I believe that it is temporary. If the creative dimension doesn’t exist in education, America will suffer because that is how we balance the right brain and the left brain and is the key to a creative future. The role of the arts is absolutely in that territory, about conceptual thinking, about asking questions, about creative connections, about entrepreneurial progress and about lifelong learning.
Dan Pink’s book, ‘A Whole New Mind’ is a great resource. When I think back to the things that are really important to music and the things that are really important to math and science, they are all the same. This is the combination of rigorous thinking alongside a very creative, questioning, entrepreneurial approach. It’s how you make those two processes work together that matters. The American (and many other) educational systems leave a lot of people disenfranchised. The other part that is fascinating to me (and I don’t pretend to understand it) is the issue of cycles of energy and motivation in countries. Look at how hard Chinese students are working today. A country like America has been so astoundingly successful for so long… and now we have a lot of young people who don’t understand that they have to work hard to achieve a great life. When you think of the immigrants of the past, they worked incredibly hard to achieve the American dream; they were not scared of challenges or hard work. They had to make it. In the end you simply can’t achieve anything special without rigorous work and dedication. There are lots of kids who no longer think they have to earn success but that it is an entitlement. None of us has any rights based on what our parents achieved. We should all feel that we have to make our own lives.
In the end, what I genuinely feel is that life is all about what you give, not what you take. I think that if we in the arts genuinely do things that matter to society, that matter to peoples lives: transform lives, really ensure that music is making a contribution to society in a way that is utterly compelling and really important, then music is going to matter. Then people will contribute. I don’t think of it as a transaction. It’s not about selling your wares. Recently, I was involved in a seminar for a country that has just had a lot of arts funding cut and two of us from top tier New York institutions were asked to speak about our experiences at the seminar. After about 3 hours I said, “Look, I don’t want to be unfeeling about this when things are so tough for you all, but we’ve been talking for 3 hours and all I’ve heard about is society’s responsibility to support the arts. I haven’t heard one of you talk about your responsibility to society.” The fact is that if we think that it’s always about peoples’ responsibility supporting what we do, then we are always looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The right end is: What is it that we can do for society, what can we do to transform people’s lives? If we do that, we will not have to worry about the money.
Quote from Rachel Moore, Executive Director, American Ballet Theatre
As the world becomes more complex, with new technologies, new economic realities and increased interconnectedness between communities, countries and continents, there will be greater and greater need for people who are able navigate rapid change and to problem solve creatively. The arts and arts education are powerful resources as we prepare for the future. They help us see the world in different ways, foster innovative thinking and help us to manage change and ambiguity.
If we are to remain competitive, it is imperative that we support those resources that will help us to be creators, innovators and entrepreneurs. These qualities have long been the strength of the United States and key to its economic success. If we do not invest in our creativity and support our children in learning to be nimble, creative thinkers, we place much more than the arts or arts education in peril. We will weaken our ability to be leaders in the new economy.
It’s a great conversation and one that needs to keep going without bludgeoning people with the state of the thing. Make it a part of your life. Move away from governmental expectations and corporations who are so very greedy.
I only have one thing left to say, “GIVE, in whatever way that
-Andrew Martin Weber