Who will help the arts?

September 19, 1994|By Andrew J. Glass

Washington -- THE GREAT Depression was under way and Franklin Roosevelt was president. So a federal make-work agency called the Works Progress Administration came to the rescue of thousands of idle talented musicians by funding a score of symphony orchestras in cities throughout the land.

One of the best of them was the Buffalo Philharmonic. Soon, however, the Philharmonic may be playing a final funeral dirge for itself. In recent years, federal, state and city subsidies have dried up, leaving the county government as its sole sugar daddy. And now it, too, may pull the plug.

Speaking to Malcolm Gladwell of the Washington Post, Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski explained why:

"Medicaid is killing us." he said. "It grows $15 million to $17 million a year and it's exhausting all of our discretionary revenue. We've laid off 800 people. We've consolidated five departments, and in the process we've still been able to preserve our cultural funding. But I don't know how long we can keep doing that.

Mr. Gorski makes it easy to see the link between the philharmonic's beleaguered players and the poor folks who stream each day into the county's emergency wards. But the stakes run deeper than the struggle of one orchestra to survive in a city on the decline.

Each year, the German government pumps the equivalent of $1 billion into that country's musical establishment. In Britain, everybody with a TV set pays about $150 a year to subsidize what used to be called high culture, including the BBC's fine orchestra.

In Washington, however, high culture is on life support. Neither President Clinton nor the Democratic-run Congress would dream starting a new WPA for the fine arts. Federal arts funding for traditional institutions slowly seeps away.

This is, in large part, an age issue. Baby boomers Bill and Hillary Clinton still have a string quartet on hand to play for their dinner guests during the cocktail hour. But there are no more Sunday afternoon classical concerts of the kind that graced the White House when Jimmy Carter was president.

The country sees it much the same way. Like Buffalo, cultural audiences are on the decline. And the people who still go to concerts and art museums are, for the most part, older.

Back in Buffalo, the November ballot will include a referendum that, if passed, would make it easier to raise county sales taxes by 1 percent. As one might expect, the key hearing on the ballot measure drew the directors of the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Historical Society and the Museum of Science.

While New York cuts back on the arts, the state has still found $50 million for Buffalo's new minor-league baseball stadium and for a new hockey arena to house the Buffalo Sabres.

So, in the end, it comes down to a matter of priorities.

When queried, most Americans appear to agree -- in theory, anyway -- that traditional art and music is a good thing. Yet fewer people get involved. And fewer still will pay.

When historians come to write of our times, they will deal with Disney theme parks, if only because they attract tens of millions of people each year. But what will they have to say of the Buffalo Philharmonic?

Andrew J. Glass is Washington Bureau chief for the Cox Newspapers.

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