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ANALYSIS : ARTS SUPPORT: LACK OF RISKS

San Diego County Arts Writer

Despite the city’s reputation as home to high-tech industries that thrive on innovation, when it comes to support for innovation in the arts, San Diego businesses and financial institutions rarely make the connection between their own innovation and risk-taking and that required by the arts.

Most San Diego businesses underwrite arts events based on popular appeal. Instead of helping to bring contemporary music, theater and art to the public, most corporate philanthropic and marketing dollars are pumped into tried-and-true fare--like the San Diego Symphony’s summer pops concerts, Starlight’s staging of hit Broadway musicals of yesteryear and Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre.

Local firms have been decidedly reluctant to fund projects that smack of innovation. National corporations, however, have shown no such qualms, and have backed productions of new works at the Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse.

AT&T; has produced a major television and print advertising campaign for the La Jolla Playhouse’s new musical, “Shout Up a Morning.” It is tied to AT&T;'s marketing strategy to establish a presence in Southern California.

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Associating AT&T; with a world premiere by the progressive La Jolla Playhouse “portrays us as a company that’s in a different ballgame, a company that’s taking risks that it didn’t have to take five years ago in a monopoly environment,” said AT&T; Vice President William Clossey. Clossey heads the firm’s promotions in Southern California.

The company will also underwrite any deficits incurred in the transfer of “Shout” to its AT&T; Performing Arts Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington this summer.

AT&T; also is sponsoring a concert series for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, featuring works by six 20th-Century American composers. Its American Encore series pays for the costs of researching and rehearsing works that have not been played since their premieres.

Clossey said the firm’s support is diverse and includes such obviously no-risk events as the sold-out French Impressionist exhibit this summer at San Francisco’s M.H. de Young Memorial Museum.

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But in San Diego, a show’s potential popularity can be more important than quality or critical appraisal when a business decides to underwrite it. A $250,000 financing package for the Dr. Seuss exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art was put together in a matter of weeks, an amazingly brief period, and included $50,000 each from two corporations. The show is described by museum director Steven Brezzo as “meaningful, popular and accessible.”

However, the last three exhibits at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, which historically draws smaller crowds than the Balboa Park museum, were underwritten by individuals or foundations, not by businesses.

One of the city’s top corporate contributors to the arts is Great American First Savings Bank. Great American primarily funds events which are likely to attract large crowds, such as Starlight and the pops concerts, chief executive Gordon Luce said. Last year, Great American helped underwrite the Old Globe Theatre’s 50th anniversary Jubilee Season as part of its own 100th anniversary celebration.

Luce said the company is interested in promoting a diversity of arts events, not just the most popular, but he must answer to the company’s 18,000 stockholders.

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“We have to be careful of controversy,” Luce said. “We prefer not to do things that are controversial in terms of morality . . . but we should take more risks, too.”

One reason Great American hasn’t supported more innovative arts programming, Luce said, “may be that we just haven’t been asked.”

The Old Globe Theatre has developed perhaps the broadest base of business support of any local arts group, but Managing Director Tom Hall was hard-pressed to name local corporations that have offered to underwrite a new play. (Rams Hill developers and the De Anza Corp. property management firm, along with NBC, are partly underwriting the Globe’s premiere of “Emily” this summer.)

“Great American is actually a very progressive bunch. As long as they think it is good for the community, they tend not to shy away from new things,” Hall said. But even they have not underwritten a new play at the Globe.

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Developing new works is essential to theater’s vitality, Hall said. “When Shakespeare did his plays in his day, they were new works. If no one did new works, there would be no classics,” he said. “Even if a new work isn’t as complete as Shakespeare, it’s still important. Doing new works, in a sense, is research and development.”

Allied-Signal Corp., although comparatively new to San Diego, made its presence known immediately through employee participation in volunteer activities and large donations to charities ranging from educational, to health and social service groups, to the arts.

“Businesses tend to sponsor established organizations if they do get involved in innovative work,” said Allied-Signal spokesman John Bold. “We can evaluate an established organization. . . . Theaters and museums are established.”

Business did not underwrite the San Diego Opera’s series of lesser-known operas, which opened recently at the Old Globe with “The Lighthouse,” by Peter Maxwell Davies. Instead, the Parker Foundation, a major arts underwriter, funded the two-year series, which includes next year’s production of “The Telephone” and “The Medium.”

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“It is easier to get funding for traditional operas,” said Anne Spira, the opera company’s development director.

San Diego Opera General Manager Ian Campbell said that, when new works aren’t produced, audiences tend to develop conservative tastes.

“Opera, like theater, should not remain stuck in a rut,” Campbell said. “The history of opera . . . was always innovative. . . . But opera gets bogged into the classics.”

Getting people’s ears and eyes attuned to new works in the performing and visual arts is one of the hardest tasks arts administrators have. It’s tough finding an audience for the unfamiliar. As Clossey said of the motivation behind AT&T;'s American Encore series, “People like to hear the things they know.”

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When businesses can underwrite new exhibits, new plays or perhaps the second performance of a new symphony, they are following in the tradition of the enlightened princes of the Renaissance. They are helping develop the art of tomorrow.


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