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Plight of the Arts

by Joe Sullivan

The performing arts have long been one of the community's strong points. The Knoxville Symphony, the Knoxville Opera and the City Ballet all rank among the best in the country for cities Knoxville's size.

While some perceive them as elitist, the fact is that their contribution to the community's quality of life extends well beyond the appreciation of their devotees. They are—or should be—a source of civic pride. They are an important part of the base on which the revitalization of downtown must be built, and they also provide pulling power in terms of making the Knoxville area a more attractive place to locate a business or retire. Beyond that, they contribute mightily to music education in a county whose school system is bereft of it.

Yet both the Symphony and the Opera are suffering from an erosion of audience, and resultant revenue, that jeopardize their ability to sustain the level of quality that has been their hallmark. The opera company's season ticket subscriptions, according to its general director Frank Graffeo, have dropped to 1,104 this season from 1,249 a year ago. Symphony officials are averse to quantifying how much their ticket sales have declined. But one need only to have observed all the empty seats at last Friday evening's concert at the Tennessee Theatre to frame a stark contrast with prior years when the house was virtually full. The City Ballet's executive director, Ginger Cook, reports that season ticket sales are going well but acknowledges that, "We're trying to climb out of a deficit hole from prior years."

Extraordinary fund-raising efforts this fall on the part of the Symphony and the Opera have staved off a crisis for the nonce. But the small group of benefactors who came up with contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars in excess of their customary generosity cannot be expected to keep responding to S.O.S. calls on a recurring basis.

What's needed is a broader base of appreciation and partaking of what our performing arts organizations have to offer. Readers who have not yet done so should make plans to attend at least one performance this season. And that exhortation isn't confined to the "big three." Jubilee Community Arts, Circle Modern Dance and the Appalachian Ballet also offer engaging programming that deserves support.

A weakened economy has no doubt contributed to this year's decline in season ticket sales. But the decline, unfortunately, appears to be an extension of a longer-term downtrend. Just what accounts for it is matter for conjecture.

One explanation is that younger people, defined to extend upwards to encompass Boomers, aren't filling in the ranks as elderly subscribers fall by the wayside. Another theory is that Knoxville now offers many more entertainment options, including home entertainment, competing for people's precious time. Then, there's the jaundiced view that the predominantly 18th and 19th century symphonic and operatic repertoire is simply not relevant to the MTV generation. That latter view is totally unacceptable to me—especially after attending last week's Mozart and Wagner concert that was one of my most exhilarating evenings in recent memory.

For those who aren't inclined toward symphonic music (as well as those who are), the KSO also offers series of pop concerts starting in January. This year's guest artists include Roberta Flack, the Kingston Trio, Roger Williams, an evening of Broadway show tunes and an evening at Club Swing. Oldies, to be sure; but ageless in my view.

As a special "get acquainted" offer for those who are not prepared to spring for a seven-concert classical or five-concert pops series subscription, the KSO has what it terms Flex Ticket Packages. These consist of either four or six tickets to any combination of concerts of the purchaser's choice. The four lot goes for $140; the six-pack (pardon me), for $192—pricing that's in line with concerts by the likes of Wynton Marsalis. For tickets either call 523-1178 or order them on line at www.knoxville

The Opera Company has two productions left on its program for this season: Gounod's Romeo and Juliet on Feb. 8-10 and a Rossini Festival on April 12-14. Single tickets for this most expensive of all the performing arts range from $15 to $65. Production costs for Romeo and Juliet alone had been budgeted at over $180,000, but in light of financial exigencies Graffeo is trying to scale them down by dispensing with sets that had been due to be shipped from Salt Lake City. Graffeo also stresses that the Opera needs to raise an additional $250,000 from contributors by the end of its fiscal year in May in order to stay afloat. He can be reached at 524-0795.

The KSO has recently gone through a painful round of budget cuts but is committed to avoiding the type of downsizing that would hurt the most: namely, a reduction in its 22-member core orchestra. These full-time musicians, assembled from all over the world, are what sets Knoxville's symphony apart from those of most like-sized cities. The core orchestra gives more than 200 performances in a September-to-May season. These include everything from serving as the orchestra for the opera and ballet to giving about 100 small ensemble concerts at public schools throughout East Tennessee. When the City Ballet tried to cut costs by dispensing with the orchestra's services on one occasion, it drew a groundswell of protests.

Sustaining that core orchestra should be a goal of everyone who cares not just about the quality of the city's cultural offerings but also the quality of life in Knoxville as a whole.

(Editor's Note: Joe Sullivan is a board member of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra)

November 1, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 44
© 2001 Metro Pulse