High arts, low turnout

Who's to blame for Atlanta's chronic cultural indifference?

You can't accuse this town of not having a cultural scene. But you can accuse it of — like Rhett Butler — not giving a damn.

A few weeks ago, soprano Susan Dunn, who's not only had a major career but has recorded what many feel to be the seminal Verdi Requiem with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, gave a Friday evening recital at Emory's Performing Arts Studio. About 45 people came. I counted. And the concert was free.

Sometimes sticker-shock is to blame for audiences staying home, but certainly not all the time. That excuse, and 15 bucks, will buy you a Three Tenors CD.

This is not a new situation for Atlanta's performing arts scene. Some years ago, the excellent "Great Pianists" series brought Sunday afternoon recitals to the Woodruff Arts Center — not lightweights but legends like Earl Wild and Ivan Moravec, who could (and did) sell out the venerable recital halls of New York.

When Wild performed, 50 people showed up. And I wasn't surprised when the series was eventually cancelled — because the feeling was that Atlanta was clearly not a recital town. And after seeing Dunn this fall, I can't say that things have changed much.

This ambivalence isn't just toward music. Last year, the Atlanta Ballet gave one of its most important anniversary performances, with a tribute to founder Dorothy Alexander. It was incandescent. It was a weekend night, and attendance was pathetic.

I'm not exactly sure what's going on here — and I'm not saying it isn't going on elsewhere, because it is. But does the fault lie with the fickle arts public, or with the arts organizations for failing to consistently offer a quality product — and charging top dollar for it?

Or is the local media to blame for not letting the public know that these things are available to them?

Unless there are union strikes, Atlanta's dance, opera, theater, recital and symphony performances are virtually ignored by local television news and several of the city's newspapers. Yet the New York Times sent its pre-eminent critic, Bernard Holland, to Atlanta to cover an ASO concert a couple of weeks ago. Go figure.

The upshot of all this is that arts management is going to be so desperate for revenue that some of them will be willing to do anything — even compromise quality — to bring in new blood. The line of demarcation between so-called "high" culture and "low" culture already has evaporated into a thin shadow. Case in point: A recent ASO summer-series concert sported the title "Sex and Music." To arts management, this sort of programming might seem the only alternative to closing — since the Old Faithful have turned fickle.

In recent decades, Atlanta has become a town of transients — and they don't come here for the Woodruff Arts Center. Many come here to climb the corporate ladder, rather like soldiers of fortune with no allegiance to any particular place, and they often leave as soon as they're transferred elsewhere. We've become like a baseball team with a helluva lot of trades every season. And those who remain are, like the fickle Old Faithful, not turning up for events.

The question is whether Atlanta's arts scene needs the major overhaul some are proposing — complete with new state-of-the-art performance halls and classics-for-the-masses-style programming.

Are Atlanta's performing arts organizations to blame for not having — and delivering — what it takes to bring in audiences? Or does the fault lie with us for not showing up???