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9/11/02: Art And Culture

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Sep 09, 2002
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Before 9/11, few New Yorkers had heard of the Flea Theater, just north of the WTC site; after 9/11, people across the country --teachers, mothers, and businessmen -- knew about this experimental theater space. The attacks shut down the theater for a month, and brought attendance down to five percent through the fall. Then the theater mounted The Guys, written by the journalist Anne Nelson about her experiences helping a captain compose eulogies for his fallen men. The play has been running with a succession of celebrity actors to sellout audiences here and in Los Angeles, and the film version is already in production. On the anniversary, a free performance will occur at Lincoln Center.

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The Flea's financial roller coaster -- from financial devastation to unprecedented commercial success -- and its artistic path -- from feeling completely unmoored to creating what has become a ritual of healing -- mark the wide parameters of experience in the cultural community since the attacks.

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The first and most far-reaching effects of the attacks were financial: 57 percent drops in earned income; cuts to city and state funding; and tapering off of corporate, foundation, and private donations. A year later, however, it's clear that the events of 9/11 have only sharpened the fiscal picture that has been emerging in the arts economy over the past few years.

Most institutions have recovered from the dramatic drops in attendance sparked by the attacks, yet longer-terms trends show that audiences are increasingly buying single tickets rather than subscriptions or memberships, depriving planners of a reliable revenue base. This has as much to do with lifestyles as it does with the economy. Loyal subscription audiences are aging, and younger consumers tend to be choosy and hesitant to commit themselves to a season or an institution.

The weak economy has hurt arts institutions of all sizes, but the larger institutions with cash reserves and the ability to downsize will be able to weather the hardships. Mid-sized organizations, which like many middle-class Americans bought into the stock market during the 1990s, have had to switch gears from building endowments to struggling to stay in the black. Even during the flush years of the 1990s, many smaller organizations struggled with rising rents and other costs; in the current economic climate, many are likely to close their doors.

Individuals and companies aren't abandoning arts philanthropy in droves, but corporate and private giving are down significantly, and foundations may not be able to take up the slack for much longer. With foundation payouts typically set on three-year cycles, current giving still reflects the late 1990s rather than current trends.

For all of these reasons, and according to recent surveys and anecdotal accounts, arts groups are entering their rockiest period in decades: even if the national economy rights itself by 2003, as some predict, it will take a few years longer to lure back audiences and givers.

In addition to wreaking havoc on the arts economy, the terrorist attacks sparked a year-long conversation about the role of art in what's been called the post-9/11 world. The most concrete discussions have focused on how culture can help rebuild the WTC site and reinvent Lower Manhattan. Over the past 15 years the Downtown Alliance Business Improvement District has encouraged the growth of art galleries, museums, walking tours, and free performances. Arts leaders now want to further this agenda by creating affordable living and working spaces for artists, who have been priced out of the neighborhood over the past decade.

In the weeks after the attacks, cultural activities provided an outlet for emotion and an escape from nonstop media coverage. In arts pages, celebrity profiles made way for articles about the solace of an Auden poem or the serenity of The Met. Mayor Giuliani made a civic duty out of going to Broadway, where audiences cried more easily and laughed harder. In a city suddenly aware of its own fragility, some said, the arts might come to be valued "more than ever."

Artists themselves were torn between wanting to "do something" and feeling queasy about ripping tragedy from the headlines to make art. In the community I know best -- the theater -- friends and acquaintances complained that it felt even more "absurd" than usual to sit in dark rooms and make up fictions. This didn't last for long, however; theater people are used to reacting quickly and moving on. The week of the attack, members of the fledgling Epic Theatre Company went to schools to talk to students about what they were watching on the nightly news. "It was not like 'We've got to save the kids,' but 'We've got to create public forums,'" Epic's artistic director, Ron Russell, recalls. "If Epic had owned a space we'd have flung the doors open: 'Please come in, let's talk.'" The playwright Herman Daniel Farrell III argued in American Theatre magazine that "no one else on the planet is acting with restraint in their responses to this turning-point in time, so why should artists?" (This month, many different cultural events will commemorate the anniversary and several 9/11-inspired books, movies, music, and exhibits will come out. See Gotham Gazette's list of events.

As the country moved toward war, many artists turned to activism. The Refuse and Resist! network of artists staged happenings in public squares, wearing face masks and carrying posters that read: "Our Grief is Not a Cry for War." In November, 900 people gathered at Cooper Union's Great Hall for Imagine: Iraq, a reading of eight plays -- many in development well before September -- about American involvement in the Middle East and the EastÐWest divide.

Occasionally, rhetoric about the value of art lapsed into banalities, as in a School of Visual Arts poster featuring two potted plants in the shape of twin towers and the tag line "Art is. . . Healing." In general, however, conversations about art's ability to create public forums, spur debate, or provide forms in which to pour thoughts were intelligent and provocative. In the months after the attacks, as we returned to our media-and-celebrity-driven culture, at least people were also talking about art.

Brave New World Arts, a group best known for their marathon play festivals, is testing the theory that the arts can heal. For two weeks over the summer, the company led playwriting workshops with teenagers who either lost relatives in the attacks or viewed the attacks up close. The teens' plays will be read at the Public Theater on September 26 in a "Reflections of WTC Children" benefit performance. Producer Daniel Schreibman says that many of the plays are not specifically about the events of 9/11; overall, the project has been about "creating a voice for the kids" and "building community."




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