Sue Lobrano had expected to face a tough bunch of customers when she set out for a Rotary Club luncheon in the rural Mississippi Delta to drum up support for the International Ballet Competition.
Although the competition, known as the “Olympics of Dance,” is a world-class event and Jackson is the only city outside Europe honored as one of the four rotating host communities, Lobrano feared such distinctions would not mean much to the cotton planting and catfish farming Delta Rotarians.
But right after she had made her pitch, one of the Rotarians stood up and won his colleagues to her cause. He had attended the event out of curiosity while in Jackson on business, and then went back for a second and third night.
“There’s something taking place in this state that I hadn’t known about, but people from all over the world were coming to,” Lobrano recalled him saying. “Gentlemen, this is something that should be supported.”
Southerners have long yearned to recapture their glory days before the Civil War, when cities such as Richmond, Va., Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans were thriving centers of culture and refinement, with opera houses, theaters, concert halls and art galleries rivaling many of those in the North.
Yet not until recent decades--with the new-found prosperity created by the Sun Belt economic boom and the dramatic changes in the intellectual and social climate brought about by the civil rights movement--have they been able to make much headway in fulfilling that dream.
Today, as Lobrano’s story illustrates, the South is a far cry from the cultural wasteland that journalist and social critic H. L. Mencken once characterized as the “Sahara of the Bozart,” playing on the words “bozo” and “beaux arts.” Just as the region has emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the nation’s economic and political landscape, so it has begun to make its mark on the country’s cultural scene.
Charleston, the cultural pacesetter in antebellum Dixie, has gained new fame as home of the Spoleto Festival USA--the so-called “Gucci of arts festivals.” Atlanta, a city better known for its love of bucks than of Beethoven and Bach, boasts a symphony orchestra that is among the tops in the nation and is winner of almost a dozen Grammys for classical music.
Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, is the site of a nationally acclaimed Shakespeare festival headquartered in a palatial $21.5-million theater complex.
Indeed, one measure of the South’s reintegration into American society at large has been the growth of arts organizations in the region that compare favorably in size, scope and mission to their counterparts up north.
It is not clear how far this reflowering of the South’s artistic and cultural life will go and what its ultimate contribution to the nation may be. Its financial roots are still fragile: The Sun Belt economic boom has slowed, and arts organizations in the South are in a scramble with other charitable causes for increasingly scarce funding.
“The arts community in the South is at a really important crossroads,” said Adrian King, executive director of the Atlanta-based Southern Arts Federation. “The situation is not unlike that in any major industry that has grown and developed but finds that its beginning stimulus has greatly changed.”
But even being known as a major industry is a triumph for Southern arts.
Houston, for example, was born a roughneck and long eschewed refined diversions. Today, it is one of the few cities in the country that can boast of nationally recognized companies in opera, ballet, symphony and theater.
“During the 1960s and 1970s, major corporations moved to Houston from places like Chicago and New York, where they expect to have cultural activities” said Mary Anne Piacentini, executive director of the Cultural Arts Council of Houston. “Business leaders made a conscious decision to turn around the image of Houston. . . .” Houstonians also felt they had something to prove. “Houstonians knew they were cowboys,” said Eugene Loveland, a retired oil company executive and former chairman of Houston’s Corporate Arts Council.
Even the recent oil bust has not set back Houston’s ambitions. Two years ago the $72-million Wortham Theater Center opened. It is the only major American opera house to be constructed since the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1971, and is the permanent home of the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet.
“Surprisingly, the economic bust helped in some ways because it helped people realize that the arts are a big plus for Houston,” Piacentini said.
Durham, part of North Carolina’s affluent, high-tech “Research Triangle,” is emerging as a major preview center for Broadway-bound plays--a role once played by cities such as Boston, New Haven, Conn., Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore.
A 3-year-old project at Duke University called the Duke Drama Pre-Broadway Series has turned the campus into a testing ground. Two current Broadway productions that previewed at Duke are the revival of Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle,” starring Rex Harrison, Glynis Johns and Stewart Granger, and Tom Stoppard’s newest play, “Artist Descending a Staircase.”
Others have included “Metamorphosis,” starring Mikhail Baryshnikov in Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of the Franz Kafka classic; Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” starring Jack Lemmon, and Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods,” starring Sam Waterson and Robert Prosky.
The series is the brainchild of Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg, winner of 29 Tony awards for such shows as “Biloxi Blues” and “Children of a Lesser God.” Azenberg first visited the campus when his daughter was a student there. Six years ago, he became a drama professor--commuting from New York 22 weeks a year--and proposed the idea of the Broadway preview project to the university.
David Ball, Duke’s director of drama, said a play can be produced at Durham for much less than in many Northeast cities. At the same time, the audience is “not a bunch of hicks,” he said. “This area has the highest concentration of Ph.Ds and MAs in the country. So the artists get a fairly good gauge.”
The arts rebound is even penetrating the rural South. In the south Georgia community of Tifton, for example, the Arts Experiment Station headquartered at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College has worked with local arts councils in a five-county region to develop a lively and varied cultural scene.
Created in 1976 with the help of a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the station last year coordinated more than 150 activities and events that served 58,000 people--almost 40% of the total population in the five counties--at a total cost of about $500,000.
The way up was not easy. “When we first began programming, our arts exhibits had to be shown in bank lobbies, in automobile showrooms and, in one case, in an appliance shop,” said Syd Blackmarr, executive director of the station, whose name was designed to be reminiscent of the agricultural experiment stations that helped develop the South’s farm life.
“The Atlanta Ballet had to perform in unair-conditioned gyms in 90-degree heat in summer, and the auditorium at Abraham Baldwin was the only facility we had that could be used as a theater.”
Since then, several newly constructed or renovated facilities in the various counties have been provided for the arts, including an 850-seat theater, a 2,000-seat auditorium in a civic center and space for visual exhibits at four libraries.
The South arts revival is also boosting black culture in a way that many blacks compare to the role Harlem and Washington played in previous decades.
Last year, for instance, Atlanta inaugurated a National Black Arts Festival that attracted more than 500,000 people. More than 120 activities and events were held over 10 days in eight artistic disciplines, including theater, dance, film and folk arts. Among the cultural offerings were the world premieres of playwright Charles Fuller’s “Sally” and George Faison’s “The Apollo . . . It Was Just Like Magic.”
This year, a similar biennial festival devoted to black theater was launched in Winston-Salem, under the impetus of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. The seven-day event provided an unprecedented showcase for black theater groups, ranging from New York’s Negro Ensemble Company to San Francisco’s African-American Drama Company to Atlanta’s Jomandi Productions.
“I’m a native New Yorker, but I find the South affords us many more possibilities and opportunities than the North,” said Thomas Jones III, Jomandi Productions’ co-founder and artistic director.
Like many major arts organizations elsewhere in the nation, however, those below the Mason-Dixon Line often are staggering under heavy budget deficits that pose a constant threat to their survival.
Eight of the 10 major symphonies and almost half of the leading theater companies in the region operated in the red this past season.
Several ballet troupes are also in dire financial straits. The 60-year-old Atlanta Ballet, which bills itself as the oldest performing ballet company in the nation, was forced this year to do away with its 61-member orchestra as part of its effort to erase $1.6 million in red ink.
Only eight of the 25 opera companies in the South operated with a surplus in the most recent year for which figures are available.
Last year when the Nashville Symphony Orchestra declared bankruptcy and shut down in the face of a projected $700,000 deficit, the collapse sent shock waves through “Music City USA,” one of the most economically competitive communities in the South.
“Corporate interest in Nashville stopped dead when the symphony went out of business,” said Anne Jordan, the symphony’s former marketing director. “Companies who were interested in moving here or in expanding their facilities here started having second thoughts about what kind of community Nashville was if it couldn’t support a symphony.”
That prospect helped propel state and city governments, along with the business community and a wide array of private individuals, to raise more than $1.5 million to revive the 85-member ensemble.
Several country music stars then lent a hand, performing for reduced fees at the symphony’s pops and cabaret concerts. One of them, Michael Martin Murphey, a country-pop singer whose hits have included “Wildfire” and “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” said that although symphonies often suffer from a “stuffed-shirt image . . . it would be a tragedy if we lost that classical heritage.”
Martha Ingram, a Nashville businesswoman who heads the symphony’s board, said that the company is not totally out of the woods yet. “What we need--and what all arts groups need--is a reliable economic base. You go crazy when you make up budgets on certain assumptions, like how much corporate giving you’ll get, and those assumptions don’t hold up.”
Her complaint is common among arts organizations in the South.
In North Carolina, for example, backers of a new $38-million performing arts center in Charlotte that is slated to open in 1992 say that the state Legislature promised to pay $15 million of the costs but still owes $3.5 million on its pledge.
“I don’t think there’s any question, whether you’re talking about local, state or national governments, arts are not among the top priorities,” said Betty Chafin Rash, a Charlotte businesswoman and arts center board member.
Legislatures in the 11 states of the Old Confederacy are now appropriating a total of more than $48 million to fund the arts--almost three times what they were only five years ago. But arts leaders in the region contend that that amount is not nearly enough to keep up with rising costs, program development plans and the increasing number of arts organizations.
The total also is deceiving, they note. Florida alone accounts for almost half the amount--$21 million.
Still, growth in the arts in the South is such that it is pushing up against available staging space in many of the region’s big cities.
In Atlanta, for example, the Atlanta Opera’s plans to expand its season and repertoire have been stuck because of the lack of a facility with a seating capacity of between 2,000 and 2,500 that would be available on a year-round basis.
At present, the opera is confined to a brief summer season at the 874-seat Alliance Theater just north of downtown.
The only other facilities that could be used--the Atlanta Civic Center and the downtown Fox Theater, each of which seats 4,600 people--would be too big for the opera to fill “even if I staged the second coming of Christ with the original cast,” said William Fred Scott, the opera’s artistic director.
“Atlanta could be a truly distinguished cultural hub,” said Helen C. Smith, an arts writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But lack of appropriate facilities and lack of dollars are holding it back.”
But not all the problems of arts organizations in the South can be blamed on outside factors. The organizations themselves do not have the tradition and depth of their Northern counterparts, and therefore can suffer from poor management, failure to develop broader audience support and lack of professionalized fund-raising efforts.
“I’ve seen some of these organizations spend $50,000 to raise $10,000 at a big lavish party,” said an observer of Mississippi’s cultural scene.
Opera in Jackson took a giant step backward this year when the board of the Mississippi Opera fired the company’s general manager and artistic director, Franklin Choset, who had brought in guest artists with international reputations and staged dazzling productions of “Aida,” “Tosca” and “Salome.”
Choset, a New Yorker, rubbed some board members and wealthy patrons the wrong way.
Choset had plenty of defenders. “He’s not rude,” one supporter said in a letter to the local newspaper, “he is just from New York.” But no amount of pleading on Choset’s behalf availed.
“It’s very important to have the social graces in addition to being talented,” said H. Muller Addkinson, a prominent Jackson businessman who was the opera board’s chairman at the time of Choset’s discharge.
No replacement has been hired, however, and for the first time in years, the opera season opened this fall without a full production. “They’re back to where they were 15 years ago,” complained one opera lover.
Times researchers Edith Stanley in Atlanta, Lianne Hart in Houston and Lisa Romaine in New York contributed to this story.