Institutional Memory

In a city of transience, I’m beginning to feel like the old guy on the block. The one who ‘remembers when’. In that spirit I’m publishing today something that I wrote back in 2007.

At the time I wrote it I was pretty afraid to be ‘barred’ by the Kennedy Center for criticizing them. I run a local dance company, and my company cannot grow without the opportunity to perform at the Kennedy Center on the Millenium Stage. The Millenium Stage/Kennedy Center is a critical credit and potential support. I thought that if I didn’t publish this, but just gave it to some folks I might appropriately influence policy, without making enemies. I gave it by hand to six people who I knew could influence without making me enemies. I don’t know if it had any impact, but in 2009 they didn’t bring the Nutcracker in at Christmas, and haven’t since, so that’s a start.

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If you liked dance, and wanted to see a few performances each year, would you pick: a), The Kirov, American Ballet Theater, and Alvin Ailey; or b) Washington Ballet, Lucy Bowen-McCaulay and Reflections? It is no-one’s fault; the majority of audience members pick A.

Local dance companies will always have a certain amount of support from local communities. Washington D.C.-based dance companies benefit from this support. Yet many cities stimulate the growth of their local talent through programs and programming institutions. Cities including Minneapolis, Austin, Miami, and Boston have fostered creation of nationally and internationally renowned dance communities.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) documents something called ‘The Multiplier Effect.’ The NEA has seen that for every dollar they give, they inspire the donation of 8 times that amount from other sources. The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has a multiplier effect on the local community, but in the opposite direction.

The Center serves as a drain on audience, and resources. In return the local community receives the Commissioning Project (comprised of three, small, one-time grants), and the Millenium Stage.  If you are a local dance company it is not terribly difficult to get booked onto the Kennedy Center’s Millenium Stage. But when was it that a performance – in a hallway, in the middle of the day – became such a plum? In addition to taking potentially true local money from both Federal and District dollars, the Kennedy Center manages the suppression of local growth by forcing direct competition with world-renowned artists.

Running and hiding is never a good idea for artists seeking true accomplishment. To advocate that the District/the Kennedy Center bar great artists from the city is not a consideration. But the saturation of the mid and high end market is draining potential growth for local companies. Take the example of the Washington Ballet.

Most ballet companies make at least half of their yearly revenue from the Nutcracker. Boston Ballet’s error in not confirming their booking at the Wang Center two years ago forced a major financial crisis in that company. Simply by having to perform in a smaller hall than usual for four weeks out of the year almost caused that company to founder.

For the last several years, the Washington Ballet must compete with American Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker, every year, because the Kennedy Center has begun presenting ABT’s Nutcracker in the Christmas season. Washington D.C. is known for being a city of transplants. Many people move here from other cities. If you were a new-comer, or even not such a new-comer, and wanted to take your loved one to see the Nutcracker – would you pick ABT, or the local company? Understanding that the Kennedy Center is not here to serve local dance, but is itself trying to maximize revenue is one thing. But bringing ABT’s Nutcracker is just not cricket.

Similarly, rather than supporting a sustained celebration of Balanchine by the Washington Ballet, the Kennedy Center has helped bankroll a new company – The Susan Farrell Ballet – that directly competes with Washington Ballet. Sadly, this does a dis-service to both the Balanchine legacy and the local company. Artistically, no part-time company (such as the Farrell Ballet) can adequately perform Balanchine’s masterpieces. Balanchine work is already a regular part of every Washington Ballet season. One can only imagine what a Balanchine initiative would do to support the growth of that company. Septime Webre (Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet) and the Washington Ballet have survived these challenges in part by drawing their ties to the city closer. Specifically, Mr. Webre recently choreographed a Nutcracker that is set in Washington D.C. (But why should the Washington Ballet have to have an avant-garde rendition of the Nutcracker?)

It is impossible to find an example of a local presenting institution anywhere in the country that so marvelously undermines local art. It is one of many tragedies – including voting rights – that the District suffers in its service as the Nation’s Capitol. Fascinatingly, the local community seems desperately eager to eat the scraps off of the Kennedy Center table instead of challenging this local Ivory Tower Producer.

There is simply nowhere to go for dance in Washington D.C. as long as the most prestigious and well-funded presenter in the city continues to feed the local audience a steady diet of the world’s best. At the same time, there is nothing for the Kennedy Center to do if they do not do exactly that. While the Center does receive local and federal funding (19% of their budget is Federal Funds), earned revenue (44% of their budget) is crucial to the stability of the facility.

Is it possible to maintain a facility like the Kennedy Center that can week-in and week-out please visiting dignitaries without draining local talent? Until the conflicts that exist between such a center and a vital local community are functionally considered, we will never know.

-R. Bettmann 8/8/07

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.