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How Much Will You Pay for Something Beautiful?


A few weeks ago, a woman called me to ask how much it would cost for the Choral Arts Society to appear in a concert series she was organizing. I told her, not evasively, that it depended on the type of program she wanted, the date and the musical requirements.

"How much for something beautiful?" she asked.

With the economy in shambles, that is a question everyone who cares about the arts is asking with special urgency. An Organizational Review Team, a committee recently formed by Mayor Schmoke to re-examine the structure of city government, has suggested an answer. Its draft recommendation proposes eliminating all city-government support for the arts within five years.

One of the team's assumptions was "that nothing was sacred." This indicates a healthy willingness to develop imaginative solutions to old problems. But if we declare nothing to be sacred, we forfeit the yardstick by which we define ourselves and our collective character. Only when our vision is clear, when we agree that certain things are sacred, will we be able to solve the problems of our community.

Our arts institutions must be held in this regard. We cannot let our current problems sacrifice the future of these institutions. The city cannot abdicate its responsibility for the arts to the private sector or to other levels of government. Funding the arts is part of what the city should do, in bad times as well as good.

The mayor's review team suggests "phasing out city funding for art, culture and museum programs over a period of five years, at which point these operations should be self-sustaining. As a means of easing this transition, the [team] strongly suggests that the city's cultural and artistic centers begin charging all users a fair price for these services."

The proposal misunderstands how arts organizations function, and leaves some crucial issues unaddressed. Does "self-sustaining" allow for the participation of the county, state and federal governments, with the city being the only non-player? Do we sustain ourselves with no public funds whatsoever? What is a "fair price" for our "services?" (How much should it cost to go to Center Stage or the Baltimore Symphony?)

What is meant by "artistic centers?" The Walters, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Meyerhoff and the Lyric aren't the only venues in which cultural events take place. The Choral Arts Society has performed in all those places, and in other concert halls, churches and temples. There is currently an art exhibition in an old Buick dealership. The term "artistic centers" betrays a lack of understanding about how the fabric of the arts in Baltimore is stitched together.

Baltimore's arts institutions are vital to its economy. We are a big reason people come to town. We help sell Baltimore to other regions and countries. We help educate children. We are a link to the past and a bridge to the future. And let's not forget in the midst of all this number-crunching that we nourish people's souls. Does that sound frivolous? As an artist and a tax-payer, I don't think so.

The draft report asserts that the arts should be paid for by "users." This addresses the concern that perhaps only a small ,, percentage of the city's population, as well as many non-city residents, use and enjoy the city's arts institutions. Of course county governments, and county citizens themselves, should pick up more of the tab. But the city cannot just hand the bill to someone else and leave the table.

Nor can it let our institutions simply fend for themselves while it goes about its business. It is the city's business to preserve that which makes the city special. If the city gives up on the arts, it gives up on itself.

Let's rethink the method by which city funds are allocated. Let's formalize a partnership with the counties and coordinate grant-making with county and state governments. Let's re-examine the value of events like Artscape. Let's commit to the primary importance of the arts in Baltimore. Let's not give up.

A few years ago, the Choral Arts Society gave a concert that included a piece inspired by the Holocaust. After the performance, a woman introduced to me as a concentration-camp survivor came backstage. She had been deeply moved by the music. I was honored that she had attended our concert. The moment called for small talk, but the intensity of the emotion we each felt made small talk unthinkable. We embraced without speaking. I will never forget her.

The music made that happen. Public policy about funding for the arts must acknowledge the unique nature of this kind of personal experience. We encounter art -- gazing at a painting, watching a play, hearing an opera -- in the privacy of our own souls. As we compare our responses to art, we build a collective consensus about our shared world.

Let's measure the value of our arts institutions in these real terms, instead of disassembling them into yet another service which somehow gets delivered. Let's not let the misinformed rhetoric of the draft recommendations obscure the issue of what the arts mean to our lives individually, and as a community. Let's talk instead about enriching our souls, expanding our perspectives and celebrating the diversity of our heritage. And let's insist that our government stay involved.

Tom Hall is music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and chorus master of the Baltimore Opera Company.

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