In enough ways to do damage, 2002 was a "perfect storm" of a year for the regional live arts. After the economy tanked in the last quarter of 2001, cultural philanthropy became even scarcer in a region where it's never been particularly robust to begin with--despite the large roster of corporate citizens in Raleigh, Durham, Cary and Research Triangle Park. Foundation and state support got thinner as well: You knew what kind of year it was when the head of ARTS North Carolina actually celebrated a mere 8 percent cut in state funding for the arts.
As above, so below: Though regional live art audiences had been moving away from season ticket sales for years, 2002 was the year they bolted in larger numbers than ever. Many, if not most, of these patrons still showed up for individual performances: For most companies audiences didn't substantially diminish over the year, while some groups actually saw growth in their houses. Still, a lack of guaranteed advance revenue from season sales and other economic reversals left companies like Raleigh Little Theater in varying degrees of budgetary crisis throughout much of the year.
During the same period, almost all of the regional press reevaluated their coverage of the live arts downward. While the Indy's coverage of theater and dance substantially increased in 2002, The News & Observer announced in February that they'd respond to a steadily growing community of performance by reviewing even less of it than ever--an announcement which must have left the local modern dance community particularly perplexed, since it was already being all but totally ignored.
Then in June, Roy Dicks, speaking from the front page of a Sunday Arts and Entertainment section, summarily declared (on the basis of apparently undisclosed research) that there just wasn't enough audience, talent or funding to accommodate the region's "40 theater-producing organizations," and so it was high time to weed out a few.
Of course he never said which ones--at least, not directly.
He seemed about to nominate one in the sour first lines of his story, "Dramatic Entrances." But after liberally littering three short paragraphs with hints as he dissected a dissatisfactory show, he never bothered to mention its name. As a strategem, it seemed well-designed to play to the paranoia in an artistic community already under significant duress.
Forget the established companies for a moment. How do you make the maximum number of struggling theatricals squirm? Pan a show, but don't disclose which one it is you're panning. Let it be known, though, that such displeasure has a direct bearing upon that small company's future prospects of coverage--and everyone else's as well. Post a coy checklist with other clues just vague enough that they could be stretched to fit almost any group in the region. Publish with the headline "Could This Be You?"
In short, imply and insinuate. Let 'em wonder. What do they think this is, a communications industry?
Perhaps I go a bit far. On one level Dicks no doubt meant to provide needed guidance to struggling companies. On another level, though, his work was read as an apologia for the policy of fewer reviews: if there are "too many companies," and their work is disappointing, why, then it's okay for the paper to review fewer of their shows. Which ones shouldn't be covered? Well, that's a secret--but here's some hints...
A similar rationale could conceivably be applied to The N&O's useless opening tipoff for American Dance Festival: a mixed chorus of people who rarely go to it, had never been in the first place, or were a lot more interested in ballet than modern dance. If it's that bad, then, why, of course it shouldn't be regularly covered ...
One hates to dwell on the error of colleagues, but given the narrowing of the year, such gaffes have taken on ever-increasing significance.
Why? Once there were four major area publications where one could go for meaningful information on regional theater and dance. Now, there are only two.
The N&O, The Spectator, The Independent, and the Chapel Hill News were joined for several years by CitySearch.com in devoting significant space and resources to the region's local live arts.
Then Citysearch eclipsed local live arts journalism, just before the turn of the century. Shortly afterwards, The Chapel Hill News decided that its readers didn't want to know about theater outside the city limits of Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Alas, The Spectator is no longer with us.
If live arts coverage in the area gets any narrower, who knows what will happen?
Thankfully there are some positive signs. As we noted previously, the News and Observer's Orla Swift was apparently permitted to start writing about local modern dance in November, for which all dance lovers should rejoice.
Her initial column was a more than game first effort to cover months or years of lost ground. It even commented upon the difficulties regional modern dance has had building audiences in recent years. This was a particularly daring move, since some might observe that The News and Observer's own historic tendency to snub regional modern dance in toto might constitute the most significant challenge that group has faced to date in its attempts to build an audience.
The article also seemed a departure from a philosophy seen increasingly at that paper in recent years, one which holds that the local artwork in itself is insufficient, unworthy of coverage--unless it can be excused by the fact it somehow plugs into "deeper issues." Such a rubric has been repeatedly used to conveniently condense consideration of two or more pieces into a single article--which, naturally, takes up far less space than two or more reviews would if published separately.
By now it's obvious. Each of the six fine arts--film, dance, visual art, theater, music and literature--has enough going on in this region to more than justify significant coverage on a weekly basis. If our newspapers or information sources aren't fully covering them, it's a literal truth: we don't know what we're missing.
What will happen to local live arts journalism in the next 365 days?
It's a scary--but interesting--question.
Let's find out.