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Without arts, we're just a dot on the map

June 04, 2009

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    June 04, 2009
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    Opera Carolina News

Without arts, we're just a dot on the map

The public debate over the future of the Charlotte Symphony begins a welcome and long overdue discussion about arts funding and the role the arts play in the life of a great city.

As this open forum proceeds, let's first clearly separate art from entertainment. To compare Beethoven to Billy Joel is not the point. A great city wants both. So let's agree to define the performing arts as being symphony, opera and ballet.

Think of the performing arts as we do the public library – a place where great classical works and modern literature are preserved for the betterment and access of everyone. I for one would argue that “Carmen” is classic, just as is “Treasure Island.” But unlike a literary classic, to experience “Carmen” one must hear and see it, and the best way to experience it is live. Some like to argue that people attending the arts should pay “full freight” for their tickets. OK. Let's also charge for access to the library. Let those who want a book go to Borders or Amazon and buy it.

Access for everyone
Past generations have accepted that great literature should be available to all, paid for by the people. The arts should get similar treatment. Why? Go online and compare prices at the Royal Opera in London to those in Charlotte. Do we really want a community in which only the wealthiest can afford this experience? I prefer a community in which you can buy an opera ticket for $16, as you can in Charlotte ($10 if you're a student). That is only possible with a broad base of support, including public support, and where the public sector, business community and individual leadership work together.

The other evening, I met a young woman who loves attending the opera. She is recently unemployed but hopes to be able to come to a production this season. In this city, thanks to patronage, she can. The stereotype that everyone who enjoys the arts is wealthy is simply not true. It is our responsibility to ensure access to the benefits of great literature, and great art.

How badly do we want it?
Please also bear in mind that your local arts organizations keep your money in this community – we turn it into jobs, educational programming, taxes and tourism dollars. Unlike touring concerts and performances that take the majority of local ticket revenue out of town, our focus is on the betterment and enrichment of the community. As the school district faces new financial challenges, we will do our best to ensure that students experience the arts, whether we are paid by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for the programming or whether we seek philanthropic support to help us serve the school district.

Having said this, Opera Carolina runs on a budget model of 52 percent earned income to 48 percent contributed income, and before the recession, we covered roughly 75 percent of the cost of each production with ticket sales. The greater our earned income, the less need for contributed income. So, to those who want to see the opera thrive – buy a ticket and participate. Believe me, we would prefer to sell a $25 ticket than receive a $100 donation from someone who never attends a performance.

Difficult economic times allow us to reevaluate our priorities. As a community, our actions will determine whether this will be an artistically interesting city, or just another place on the map. With the power of our ticket buying and philanthropic dollars, we will decide if we're going to be able to say, “You can go the Belk Theater to hear Carmen next season,” or whether our reply will be “Sorry, you'll have to go to Atlanta for that.”

James Meena is general director and principal conductor of Opera Carolina in Charlotte.

By James Meena
Posted by the Charlotte Observer/Opinion