Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

29 November, 2006

The Arts in Madison

The Isthmus recently had a Pint and Policy Forum entitled "Culture Crash in Madison's Art Scene". I wasn't able to attend the forum but it sounded interesting.

The Madison arts scene has exploded in the past 15 years, with a sharp increase in arts groups and arts events. Can a medium-sized city support this big-time arts scene? Can our many arts groups find an audience and survive? And how has the new Overture Center changed the playing field?

It was ironic because, a couple days before it took place, I found myself writing a lengthy email to a listener of my podcast who was keen on moving his family from the northern Chicago suburbs and was considering Madison. He told me the vocations of his wife and himself, that he had kids, and that he was looking for an area that was liberal & had a good arts scene. The gentlemen is an art director by day and a (gasp!) progressive rock musician by night so you can bet your ass that I did my best to convince a fellow prog fan to relocate here. Despite my desire to endear Madison to a fellow prog fan, I was honest. I told him about the reputation of Madison's schools and that I had no basically no idea where an art director would find work here; I gave him some ideas about activities around town for kids; I talked about Madison as a mid-sized city; and, to cut the list short, I gave him a run-down of the Madison arts scene.

After talking about the virtually non-existent progressive rock scene here, I babbled on about the usual stuff. You know, the Overture Center, the forthcoming expansion of the Chazen, the WI Film Fest & the soon-to-be Sundance Cinemas, and a run-down on the music scene generally. One area that I could only gloss over was theater and performing arts.

Then I read a summary of the forum at Dane101. I thought about my own experiences with the performing arts and realized that it's been a long while since I've experienced any. The last time I did was about 2 last year at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago when I saw The Living Canvas. Actually, I took in a fair amount of performing arts the 2 or 3 previous years as well. I saw Copenhagen at the Overture Center and Squonk Opera at the Civic Center; also in Chicago, I saw Blue Man Group as well as Stomp; swinging back closer to home, I'd take in at least one play at American Players Theatre per season and go to Broom Street Theatre a few times a year; I went to dance performances by local troupes Cycropia Aerial Dance and Kanopy Dance Company; and I even took in a couple bellydancing performances as well. So, if I was all into the performing arts and, as I wrote the gentleman in Illinois, Madison has a fairly large and diverse arts scene for its size, why was I not enjoying any of it?

Looking at the summary, I noticed that the main points that were made don't really have a whole lot to do with me. I can't make the owner of an apartment complex give a discount on rent to artists; I can't facilitate collaboration amongst the various arts groups in town; and I can't single-handedly change the cirricula of our schools to include arts education. But I could give money. And, I suppose that it goes without saying, I could attend performances more often than I do. Maybe my tastes are just too parochial and I just lucked out in 2002-2005. There just happened to be performances by a number of artists that appealed to my limited palate.

I recalled a debate I had on the Isthmus forums with someone about the artist merit of the shows at the Overture Center. My interlocutor wrote at one point: "If we were to see a roster with Bill T. Jones, Laurie Anderson, Elliot Sharp, Arnie Zane, John Zorn, Lounge Lizards, Drums and Tuba, Tortoise, Radiohead, Bob Dylan, and P-Funk, there would be no argument from ANYONE that Overture is not truly supporting the arts." Now Bob Dylan, P-Funk, and Tortoise have all played here, though not at the Overture. And then someone pointed out that "Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zanes Dance Company was here this spring. It was one of the most exciting shows I'd ever seen here, but ticket sales were pathetic, really pathetic."

What this illustrates is, not only will people forever be arguing about what constitutes "real" art or art of "real" merit, but also that the Overture has a real PR problem. If someone like christopher_robin, a man of some refined taste, I believe, completely misses the fact that a couple artists that he seems to really enjoy were at the Overture, then there is little chance for stuff like Bill T. Jones and the Arnie Zanes Dance Company coming here again. I mean, if fans of such artists have blinders on that only allow them to see the big budget musicals on the Overture schedule and the performances of these artists are woefully under-attended, then what hope is there that there will be more? As an artist, would you want to come back here? Would the folks who run the Overture want to take another such loss when finances are already shaky?

I've been trying to think of performances that would get my ass on a seat. I mean aside from seeing the above acts again. I would definitely see Quodia if they came here. Unfortunately, I can't think of any other troupes to which I'd commit. But looking at the Chicago theatre scene, some things catch my eye. For instance, there's "Gorey Stories: A Musical Entertainment":

Blindfaith Theatre's exquisite staging of stories and poems by Edward Gorey (The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Gilded Bat, and The Unstrung Harp) is adapted by Stephen Currens and David Aldrich and directed by Nicolas Minas. The black-and-white design places things firmly in the vaguely turn-of-the-century, vaguely Atlantic-rim realm where Gorey's dissipated gentry amble toward their gruesome, comically inevitable ends. A string quartet tucked just offstage superlatively balances mood music and sound effects, breathing ghostly life into the whole.

Plus there's "Four Women":

Four black women pass the time together in a Chicago train station in 1929--ten years after the race riot, sparked by the stoning death of a young black boy on a south-side beach, that killed 23 blacks and 15 whites.

OK, "Four Women" probably appeals to me because I'm from Chicago and I still have affection for it. But I wish there were more plays done about Madison. It seems like we don't look around us for inspiration. Hell, maybe there have been such plays and they've just escaped me. But I can say that, if a play came out that featured, say, a bunch of folks down at the Caribou in 1970 discussing the student riots, I'd be there. You'd have cops there with some regular citizens and discussions could be about war, age vs. youth, class – who knows what a good playwright could get in there.

After all is said and done, I really don't have any suggestions for the arts community to get larger audiences. I do, however, wonder what would happen if media outlets covered the arts like they did other things. For instance, what would happen if Isthmus covered theater and dance as they did anything that happens at the High Noon Saloon. There are some issues where I think there'd be 4 pages left if anything related to pop music, especially "indie rock", were purged.
|| Palmer, 5:39 PM

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