Tim Smith Couldn’t Be More Right

Baltimore Sun music critic, Tim Smith, posted a superb blog on 1/4/2011 titled A tough battle for 2011: Fighting the anti-cultural crowd that examines the apparent upswing of anti-cultural sentiment throughout the comments of traditional newspaper and culture blogs. What apparently set Smith off was a comment thread in a Kentucky paper about the unfolding Louisville Orchestra situation

Smith excerpted some of the harsher opinions and if you’ve been keeping an eye on similar comment threads in the newspapers from Detroit, then you’ve become accustomed to the extraordinary levels of vitriol directed toward the arts. Beyond attacks against cultural institutions, Smith was also bothered by attacks against listeners, which is sadly just another likely byproduct from the recent round of trendy political movements.

Certainly, taking a stand against those sorts of sentiments in a culture blog format is tantamount to preaching to the choir but I’ve noticed another, more subtle, trend from within the field that has a very different feel than the economic downturn following 9/11. For example, spokespersons from a very select collection of service organizations and foundations seem to spend as much (if not more) time offering public statements about why communities don’t seem to care as much about the arts along with seemingly insurmountable financial challenges as they do talking about the value and indispensable contribution professional performing arts organizations provide their respective communities.

Granted, I’ll fully admit that I’ve taken my own pot shots at overly zealous acts of cheerleaderism and regular readers know that I’m likely the last person to jump on that sort of bandwagon, but at this point in time it seems prudent to double down on explaining why culture matters as opposed to crafting sound bites that only feed the anti-culture trolls. Even if service organizations and foundations don’t want to get caught in the middle of vicious stakeholder firefights like the one going on in Detroit, they can still keep everyone happy by focusing on pro-culture sentiments as opposed to offering soliloquies on why people don’t care about or want to fund the arts.

Smith concluded his post with the following line:

The cultural community is going to need more fortitude and imagination than ever to combat this sort of thinking in 2011 and beyond.

I couldn’t agree more.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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6 thoughts on “Tim Smith Couldn’t Be More Right”

  1. On one hand, I agree with this – we should always be ready and willing to advocate for the arts. However, I also feel that there are those who will always have a “sky is falling” mentality when it comes to Americans’ support for the arts. A segment of our population is convinced that we are a totally uncultured people and wish we were more like (fill in the blank other country). Like we’re the first country to have tabloid journalism and mindless entertainment. Smith may or may not be in that camp, but a blog from a music critic that bemoans anti-cultural sentiments would seem to fit that mold. Yes, we should hammer home the message that the arts are important, but reacting to some nasty comments on newspaper websites sounds like tilting at windmills.

    • Those are good observations Darren. There are plenty of stereotypes when it comes to discussions of culture and the arts and I do think those increase in frequency with the size of public format. I wholeheartedly agree with a “don’t feed the trolls” approach but I do feel that Tim’s piece is a very good exception to that rule as it serves a useful “rally the troops” function, especially for those among administrations and boards who are already feeling ground down by local problems.

  2. I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the comments as meaningless because they are written crudely.

    If questioned by someone with more elegant versions of the same criticisms; I’d bet most symphonic professionals could not artfully reply without falling back on our own vague talking points. Our words would sound as hollow to them as theirs sound to us.

    It’s our job to be the more articulate party in these circumstances. It is our job to display flexibility and build bridges where possible. It is not to persuade people that our original position was right all along.

    • I don’t think I’m dismissing the comments because they’re crude, but I want to make sure that we’re keeping a good perspective. I don’t think we should take some comments posted on some newspaper websites to mean that Americans in general are less supportive of the arts these days.

      • I agree with your perspective and did not mean that you specifically were dismissive.

        I’m a fan of Tim Smith’s writing. In this case, I think he is focusing on the tone of the comments and not their message. The underlying sentiments in the comments he excerpted are all fairly common. I’ve heard similar thoughts from board members to people on the street.

        It’s fine to label rants in the newspaper as the fringe. But I think it is misplaced energy to condemn them. Because they come in more polite language and from more empowered people.

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