Sometimes what goes on behind the scenes is as interesting as what gets lit up by the spotlights.
The 2023-’24 arts season is brimming with enticing plays and concerts and author talks and art exhibits. For a couple of hours, the best productions and exhibitions become a haven and shelter for audience members by creating miniature, self-enclosed worlds. That is the implicit promise of art.
But outside those protected spaces, the arts world is grappling with the same forces buffeting the rest of American society, from the economic realities of a post-pandemic world to the racial reckoning that erupted after the murder of George Floyd. How well the disciplines navigate the issues will help determine their success.
The stakes are high. In 2022, the arts accounted for 80,000 jobs statewide and had an estimated economic impact of $11.7 billion, according to the Maryland State Arts Council’s annual report. And Baltimore is the heart of the state’s arts programs.
We take a look at some of the questions that arts observers will be asking about Baltimore’s season, as the dramas unfold in real time.
The fascinating part is that it’s the members of the audience — people like you — who are holding the pen and who will determine how the endings are written.
Talk about cliffhangers.
The music man
Can Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Jonathon Heyward make classical music cool?
There’s a lot riding on Jonathon Heyward’s youthful shoulders. The 2022 announcement that the rising star had been appointed as the next music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was greeted with widespread jubilation locally and headlines nationally.
Heyward, 31, is the youngest music director of one of the two dozen biggest-budget symphony orchestras in the U.S. He is the only American. He is the only chief conductor who is Black, and just the second Black person in American history to hold that position.
But all that hoopla means that once Heyward ascends the podium next weekend, he will be standing in an awfully bright spotlight.
A lot of people are hoping Heyward can help the BSO — and by extension symphonies nationwide — overcome formidable obstacles.
Aging orchestra audiences have been particularly hesitant to return to the concert hall since COVID-19. Last season, dwindling attendance caused the BSO to cancel 10 concerts. The field also has been slow to diversify. According to a recent report by the League of American Orchestras, 79% of classical musicians who performed in 2022-23 were white.
Those are huge problems. Heyward’s supporters say they don’t expect him to perform miracles at the BSO — then add that they won’t be surprised if he does.
The bassoonist Sandra Nikolajevs, who has known Heyward since he was a teenager, summarized those sentiments succinctly in an interview earlier this year.
“Maybe,” she said, “Jonathon can save classical music.”
The theater director
Can Baltimore Center Stage’s new artistic director help the company mount a comeback?
On Oct. 2, Stevie Walker-Webb will start his new job as Baltimore Center Stage’s artistic director. One of his first tasks will be luring back estranged theatergoers while continuing to transform the theater into a more racially diverse and inclusive space.
Walker-Webb’s predecessor, Stephanie Ybarra, stepped down as artistic director in March. Some Center Stage insiders thought she put too much focus on diversity, and not enough on presenting engaging, well-acted plays. Emotions ran hot, and fighting words were exchanged by both sides.
There was a mass resignation of several staff members and six longtime trustees on the 44-member volunteer board. Promised donations were rescinded. Patrons wrote letters to the editor criticizing the quality of Center Stage productions, and many didn’t renew subscriptions.
Like Ybarra, Walker-Webb is an artistic director of color. He has said he grew up in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood in Texas, and he is as determined as Ybarra to combat racial injustice. But he thinks the best way to do that is to get audiences to smile.
“Shakespeare wrote plays that made people laugh,” he said. “They learned in a way that didn’t villainize them. People want to be open to new cultures and perspectives. But they don’t want to be preached to or judged.”
The screen scene
Will the Maryland Film Festival return?
When the Maryland Film Festival was hit last fall by a double whammy of setbacks, the announcements had an outsized impact. It wasn’t merely that a Baltimore arts institution dating back to 1999 was threatened; if the festival were to permanently close, people feared it would undermine Baltimore’s claims to being a major cultural capital.
World-class cities have vibrant arts scenes, and a showcase of independent movies is a key component of a healthy cultural ecosystem. Practically every major city in the U.S. has an annual film festival; New York has two.
The first blow fell in November, when the 25th annual Maryland Film Festival, set for 2023, was canceled in an attempt to stem the financial drain resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The following month, the film festival’s parent organization, The Parkway Theatre, laid off staff and ceased operations indefinitely.
Though the Parkway will reopen briefly for a weekend of free screenings during Artscape next weekend, that programming is being funded not by the Parkway, according to the festival’s website, but by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.
The Parkway’s board of directors pledged to devote this year to devising a sustainable financial model, and members said they hoped to bring back the film festival in 2024.
Film Festival executive director Sandra Gibson wrote in an email that planning for the 2024 festival is “well underway” and that the organization has recently posted a job listing for a director of festival programming, a position she hopes to fill this fall.
In the interim, Baltimore’s public radio station, WYPR-FM (88.1), stepped into the gap by founding the inaugural New/Next Film Festival, which screened 76 full-length features and short movies with Maryland ties in mid-August.
Sam Sessa, WYPR’s director of community engagement and events, said they sold 3,000 tickets during the three-day event.
“The response to the festival flew us away,” Sessa said.
The stage curtain call
Will Baltimore’s small performing groups prosper or perish in the post-pandemic world?
Starting in the late fall, a succession of small local arts groups bit the dust one after another in 2023, and the question on cultural observers’ minds is whether the casualties will continue.
In the past nine months, the local arts scene has lost Rep Stage, the Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society, the Sankofa Dance Theatre and Single Carrot Theatre.
Some turnover is inevitable, even in strong economic times. But it’s worrisome to arts observers that all four of the lost groups were longtime fixtures of Baltimore’s cultural scene, with performing histories ranging from 15 to 34 years.
At least two — Single Carrot and the Jazz Society — closed as a direct result of the pandemic.
Arts administrators say that federal relief programs kept many groups afloat during the 18 months when in-person audiences were banned. The real crisis occurred once the groups reopened for live performances.
Government aid evaporated, patrons delayed their return because they were reluctant to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, and audience levels at early performances averaged about a third of their pre-pandemic totals. Last summer, an Audience Outlook Monitor report estimated that 20% of former performing arts patrons might never return.
What’s more, ticket-buyers seemed to have taken to heart one of the key lessons of the pandemic, which is that the future is impossible to predict.
Subscriptions, which require a commitment to attend performances that will take place nearly a year in the future, dropped off precipitously, depriving performing groups of a reliable revenue stream to pay for rehearsals, set design and other expenses of upcoming productions.
“A lot of people are keeping an eye on what’s going to happen with theater,” Genevieve de Mahy, Single Carrot’s former artistic director, said in an interview earlier this year. “Theater is in a really difficult place right now,” she said. “A lot of the things that allowed theater to survive before the pandemic aren’t happening anymore.”
While De Mahy was talking specifically about the genre she knows best, her comments could apply to all the performing arts.