Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Who not to give money to

Wow, honey - for $500 million, this kind of blows . . .

Today's announcement of State Street Bank's $10 million gift to the Museum of Fine Arts is being greeted in the press with the usual encomia, but one wonders why, exactly. Have the folks singing State Street's praises actually seen the monstrosity Malcolm Rogers is planning to build? Admittedly, the State Street moolah will only fund the $500 million monster indirectly - but really, if it was ever appropriate to "starve the beast," this is just such a time.

Which brings me to a larger consideration of the role of the "critic" in this town. Money, of course, really determines what art is presented and what shows you see in this provincial burg - the so-called "critic" essentially enters at the end of a looong supply chain, one that often stretches back for years, and snakes through the power centers of the city. Our best-known reviewers understand this structure implicitly and accommodate themselves to it without ever having to be told to; indeed, their audience all but expects this essentially subservient stance, so they gladly "assume the position," take their place in the flow chart, and feel thrilled when, in exchange, they're invited to nibble on hors d'oeuvres at some local "do" or other. Sometimes, it's true, an account of real malfeasance does surface (as in the case of CitiCenter), but generally only when there are financial indiscretions to report.

In a more perfect world, one might imagine that critics would "review" projects nearer the front of the pipeline - just as local directors, curators, and administrators do. Alas, this would require a much higher level of ability in the local critics than we can currently boast (in general, the local arts presenters are far smarter than the people who review them). Some might see the situation as self-regulating, then; the smart people are making the decisions, the dumber ones are writing about them. Unfortunately, dumber ones are funding them, too - the old saw about the unfortunate gap between money and taste is true, I'm afraid, and the money in this town tends to chase celebrity (the BSO), pseudo-egalitarian gestures (the MFA), or alma-mater cliché (the ART).

So what's the solution? Damned if I know, gentle reader; but I do know there are some organizations in town you should never waste your donation on. These include:

The Boston Symphony Orchestra - squatting on a dragon's hoard of some $300 million, James Levine nevertheless has the temerity to ask for extra cash for vanity projects like this year's production of Les Troyens. And the Boston Brahmins, hungry for more New York-level celebrity, are only too happy to foot the bill (while simultaneously stiffing the on-the-ground staff). Sure, check out Les Troyens, if you have the stamina - just don't write these people a check.

The Museum of Fine Arts - Ack! The intelligence of the museum's exhibits has been dropping like a stone, and the proposed new wing (above) is godawful. No doubt Malcolm Rogers & Co. will soon be offering only a single major show per year, about clothes, cars, and guitars, or all three at once (can "The Art of the Cell Phone" be far away?). And I breathlessly await the decision to open the last locked door - to the loading dock, no doubt - to great fanfare. If you must give to this clown show, try to only target their decorative collections.

The American Repertory Theatre - Rudderless, almost actorless, yet hidebound by a tradition that seems to have petrified sometime in the mid-80s, this "repertory company" is anything but. Do we really need to fund a permanent stop on the boho-Soho circuit? If so, let Harvard pay for the damn thing - they've got the money!

Okay, enough bile for the moment - whom should you give your money to, you ask? Well, there are any number of small to mid-size arts organizations in town that regularly do fine work. $10 million would all but transform their operations, of course, but you could help out with a lot less than that. A short list would include the Handel and Haydn Society; the ever-improving Boston Ballet, or maybe Snappy Dance Theater; the Boston Secession; new play development programs at the Huntington, the New Rep, or elsewhere; the always-reliable SpeakEasy Stage; or even, say, the Devanaughn, or Whistler in the Dark, or the Charlestown Working Theater, scrappy local groups that are presenting edgier work than you'll find on any "major" local stage. This is, of course, a partial listing - the point is to get out there, find a small or mid-level arts group that lights your fire, and then give them money. The major players already have more than they know what to do with - in fact, they clearly don't know what to do with it. And there's no point in good money chasing after bad.


  1. And what, exactly, have you got against a BSO performance of "Les Troyens"? By an orchestra that's famed for all the rest of its Berlioz and has only the operas as a gaping hole in its repertoire? And here I thought you were only bothered by all the Carter and Schoenberg... Is there actually any music that you like?

  2. Les Troyens simply isn't all that great, and it's going to cost a pantload. The BSO, of course, can spend their money as they wish - but people should realize that their donations are better spent elsewhere.

  3. Wow. I feel completely different about the MFA.

    On Saturday, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the new Japanese art show, "Japanese Paintings from the Floating World 1690–1850" (especially the drawings of the men with huge, erect penises), and I can't wait for next month's "Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800-1815".

    Sorry that they've let you down so much.

    I have to say, you seem pretty miserable about all things, so really, is a negative review from you any surprise?

  4. Well, far be it from me to discourage people from contributing to exhibits of "huge, erect penises"! (Although you may be disappointed in Napoleon's.) Alas, most people don't give money to arts organizations to check out pretty pictures of stereotype-defying genitalia - if they did, think how much simpler arts criticism, and the world in general, would be! And needless to say, the MFA has loads of pretty pictures, not only of penises but also of boats and flowers and stuff, and the shows they mount will always have something in them worth seeing. But it's the "meta" content of these shows, i.e., their insights and analysis, rather than the straightforward value of the huge penises involved, that also counts when critiquing the museum's efforts. And in this arena the MFA has been in an intolerable slide for a very long time. Right now it seems clear that people's money would be better spent elsewhere; the MFA collection isn't going anywhere, the addition is dreadful, and the worthwhile blockbusters are becoming very thin on the ground. Also, as with the CitiCenter imbroglio, the only way to turn things around is by turning off the money tap. In short, we can have our penises AND fascinating, adventurous shows as well, if we just get a little ballsy.

    As for my misery - yeah, times have been rough recently, but "criticism" means telling it like it is. Perhaps a visit to "Japanese Paintings from the Floating World 1690–1850" will cheer me up.

  5. I have to say that I am with Mr. Garvey on this one, especially as it pertains to the Boston Symphony. The BSO already has indecent amounts of money in its coffers, more than any other American orchestra. Enough is enough. That money would be better directed elsewhere, I think. Amy

  6. I agree that the BSO and MFA are overfunded and not spending their money wisely. Furthermore, the Boston Ballet is trying very hard to provide a good service. Smaller and mid size organizations are a better use of funds.