High Culture in the Dumps

The declining interest in high culture is perhaps the most important–and certainly the grimmest–development that arts administrators have had to contend with. Now the President’s Commission on the Arts and Humanities has just released more discouraging news about the future of the so-called “highbrow” arts. The federal study’s conclusions will soon be buttressed by two additional reports from the National Endowment for the Arts. In a front page article in the February 12 New York Times, Vanderbilt University sociologist Richard Peterson, who worked on one of the NEA studies, said this country is in the early throes of a “massive shift in taste and tradition,” with all forms of pop culture, from movies to television to music, overshadowing what has traditionally been called high art.

The performing arts, such as theater, classical music, and opera, have been especially hard hit by a decline in interest among young people. The federal reports cite the ineffectiveness of arts education programs, which foundations have thrown millions of dollars at in recent years in the hopes of creating a future audience for the arts. The studies suggest that young children exposed to the arts in a classroom often come away with the feeling that culture’s like medicine, something unpleasant that’s supposed to be good for you. Perhaps most discouraging, the federal reports flatly state that there’s simply been a drop in intellectual curiosity, even going so far as to say art museums may outlast other forms of high culture because they demand less mental engagement. Museum visitors look as much as they wish, while a theatergoer has to sit in a seat and presumably pay attention.

Not surprisingly, Chicago arts administrators varied in their reactions to the study, from complete agreement with its ominous conclusions to expressions of hope that the decline in interest might somehow be slowed or even reversed. Museum of Contemporary Art director Kevin Consey acknowledges the trend, noting that “commercial culture has settled in like a deep winter snow, and it isn’t melting.” Yet Consey is on the verge of opening a $40 million museum next July, so he’s of course more optimistic about the MCA’s future than he is about some other arts institutions. After all, he points out, his museum deals with the present culture, however it may evolve in the decades to come.

But the Chicago Symphony Orchestra could be facing a far more uncertain future if the federal findings prove correct. The CSO is in the midst of a $100 million expansion, opening its new Symphony Center in the fall of 1997. At a press conference earlier this month, CSO executive director Henry Fogel predicted that the new facility will become a cultural magnet, pulling in Chicagoans with a variety of musical attractions. But it may require more effort if high culture is in sharp decline. “Attendance is at an all-time high now, but everybody can feel the dam is about to break,” says CSO spokesman Stephen Belft. Like arts organizations everywhere, the CSO is grappling with the key question of how to become more “relevant” to younger generations, says Belft. To that end the orchestra has joined forces this year with the Ravinia Festival, hoping to present a much wider range of music, including jazz and world music groups, at Orchestra Hall and the Symphony Center under a “CSO Presents” banner.

Ravinia’s Zarin Mehta says the findings of the federal report come as no shock. “Culture has become a bad word,” he says. But Mehta also believes that arts organizations can take steps now to address the changing society. “We need more of what I call influencers, people in a leadership position who are capable of molding opinion and taste,” he says. Those “influencers” may be found in some unexpected places in the years ahead. Mehta points to Tony Bennett, who attracted younger listeners after appearing on MTV. But Mehta hastens to add that high culture faces declining audiences everywhere. European countries, such as France and Germany, are spending millions to keep an interest in culture alive among young people. “They think it is important,” says Mehta.

Three years ago Chamber Music Chicago changed its name to Performing Arts Chicago and broadened its offerings to include cutting-edge music, dance, and theater. Executive director Susan Lipman says she recognized back then that her group couldn’t survive on a menu of chamber music alone. The new mix, says Lipman, is bringing in a much younger audience. While she argues that the city’s major cultural institutions are strong and healthy, she does believe more groups may have to operate on a smaller scale. “Arts organizations will have to downsize,” Lipman says, “and everyone will have to learn to work with smaller and smaller audiences.”

Nick Rabkin, senior program officer at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, also thinks high culture will survive, but he says it will inevitably evolve in ways we cannot now imagine. “Either existing cultural institutions will transform themselves in some unpredictable way, or new institutions will spring up that will reflect new tastes.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.