Tuesday, December 15, 2009

An Arguement for Wicked at the Expense of Innovative Theater.

So a few days ago the New York Times informed me that Bigger Buildings May Not Be Better. Cultural institutions, perhaps inspired by the Bilbao Guggenheim (who isn't? I love it!), planned costly and ambitious new projects and expansions. In light of the recession, plans from Berkeley to Buffalo have been canceled, because people are realizing that expensive buildings may come at the price of innovative cultural programs. New buildings, especially innovative buildings by famous architects, may become tourist destinations, but they only repay expensive construction costs if they draw large crowds to actually buy tickets. But an institution drawing large crowds is under pressure to have a crowd pleasing, rather than an innovative product. A theater needing to repay a $80 million construction loan is unlikely to showcase outstanding local playwrights, and might prefer to show Our Town, or a touring production of Wicked.

People quoted in the article seem pretty sure that a cease-fire in the architectural arms race is a good thing. They cite institutions in debt, and forced to cut hours and programming, and others who don't take into account heightened upkeep cost for their dramatic new buildings, whose fiscal security is threatened. Obviously, this is a bad thing. Not every cultural institution needs a new building and not every new building needs to be designed by Gehry. Planning major capital projects without factoring in increased upkeep, or the effect of debts on programming is silly. But is it ok to prefer Broadway musicals in Gehry to innovative work in portables?

In a perfect world, of course, every community could have both. Innovative works in smaller, more fringe-y cultural institutions, and crowd-pleasers in grander, hopefully architecturally innovative spaces. In reality, very few cities can support both. Simply given a choice between crowd-pleasers and innovative artistic work, I'd have to side with innovation in most cases - but this choices is more complicated. I think that there is value to having new, impressive, and hopefully innovative architecture in a community that can not be captured by increased ticket sales, or even tourism. Beautiful buildings are a benefit to locals, not just to tourists and ticket buyers, make residents proud, up the ante for surrounding buildings and cultural institutions. I do not think that every cultural institution has an obligation to be an architectural landmark, but I do think a few more true architectural landmarks, perhaps with crowd-pleasing cultural products inside, could be a good thing a not a bad things.

There are more complicating factors; the audience for more esoteric art is likely to be different - wealthier and more educated - than that of avant-garde art, of whatever variety. There may be more value to the community at large to having kids and families going to see Disney musicals, and maybe the odd Shakespeare now and then, than professors and their out of town guests going to see contact improvisation.

My biases: I prefer architecture to almost any other kind of visual or performing art. Also, I've chosen only to live in cities with both fancy buildings with Disney inside, and avant-garde stuff in portables (Equus with puppets?) - if I really had to choose one or the other, I'm not sure it would be so easy.