Guarded Optimism Is the Mood for '91

After the toughest year they can remember, arts leaders are taking a deep breath and hoping for a brighter new year

ARTS leaders are cautiously hopeful about 1991. They expect the rancor surrounding the big battles of 1990 - over Robert Mapplethorpe's sexually explicit photographs, Jessie Helms's assault on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the rap group 2 Live Crew's lewd lyrics, the alleged suicide messages in the music of the rock group Judas Priest, filmdom's hotly debated NC-17 rating, Milli Vanilli's bogus record album - to fade a bit in the new year. Though uneasy about the shadow of war in the Mideast and the slump in the United States economy, the arts community hopes the next 12 months will give it time to focus again on creative endeavors, rather than more lobbying, testifying, and answering accusations.

This community also believes the arts can help awaken concern about urgent social, political, and environmental problems and make a significant contribution to the quality of life. Those are the recurring themes from year-end Monitor telephone interviews with 10 artists and arts administrators around the United States.

Nineteen-ninety was ``an extraordinarily tough year,'' says John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif. ``In a weird way, it was recognized that art is very important - at least it can make some people furious. And we have to understand what's great about that and not just what's threatening about it.''

Gerard Schwartz, artistic director of the Seattle Symphony and music director for the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York, says, ``Obviously the NEA will now be a little more careful, but its position is not as a leader to cultivate the avant-garde. The avant-garde has to cultivate itself. In 1991, as always, there will be a tremendous opportunity for creativity in the arts. Communities want a great orchestra; they want a wonderful conductor. They'll support it if their orchestra has a real artistic profile, if they feel it's well-run. ... We're just beginning to realize there's an incredible public out there that cares deeply, whose pulse we have to feel.''

The visual arts are also responding to the public pulse, according to Patterson Sims, associate director for art and exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum. ``An enormous number of artists are making works which mediate between social circumstances and what a work of art might have been in the past,'' he says. The new works are ``issue-oriented, oriented toward political change.''

Julia Brown Turrell, director of the Des Moines Art Center, points to an ``internationalization'' in the arts. ``There's an awareness now ... that one must look at the history of important ideas as being larger than just the European history,'' she says.

Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, agrees. ``It wasn't long ago that plays were set in Park Avenue or Upper West Side apartments,'' he says. ``The people in the audience knew those apartments because they lived in them. That's forever changed. Today we have to find plays that embrace a wider view of what our society is. ... The answer is not in quotas for Asian, Latino, and African plays but creative leaps of imagination and opportunity.''

Ara Guzelimian, the music administrator who plans programming at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sees ``the pairing of the standard repertory with new works - where the new piece sheds light on the old and vice versa'' - as increasingly important now.

Edward Villella, artistic director of the five-year-old Miami City Ballet, says innovative work and international influences will exert a strong pull on his company this year. ``We are very, very interested in new work, and we've trained our audience from the beginning in what to expect,'' he says. The company is doing roughly four world premi`eres each season. One current project is an Andean work researched in Ecuador by the company's choreographer; another is a trilogy of pieces marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage to America, for 1992.

Harvey Lichtenstein, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and a moving force behind its Next Wave Festival of cutting-edge work, sees the arts ``more and more being draw together. Instead of the nice distinctions between dance, music, theater, and painting, there is a kind of mixing up that's going on - using hybrids in different ways, looking at things in combination.''

He considers the tightened economic situation to be this year's greatest threat to the arts. In New York and elsewhere, he says, ``there have been some serious budget cuts at the city and the state levels of money that had been appropriated earlier, that was counted as part of the operating budget.'' He predicts a period ahead when administrators will exercise great caution. ``I will continue to take risks, but maybe fewer than in previous years,'' he says.

Anne Murphy, executive director of the American Arts Alliance, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group for more than 450 professional, nonprofit arts organizations, also regards ``economics as the most significant force changing the arts right now. ... There are going to be a lot of one- and two-character plays,'' she says. ``Chamber music should do better than symphony orchestras. A lot of the services that arts organizations perform will not be able to be done.''

Dancer/choreographer Trisha Brown agrees that raising money will be a challenge for a lot of companies. ``Arts organizations seem to be in for a big test of endurance,'' she says. Her own company, however, has received several commissions and an NEA grant that will help it weather the storm.

The observers point to only two bright spots on the economic horizon: One is the return of some ``sanity'' to the art market with moderating prices, says the Des Moines Art Center's Ms. Turrell. The other is the one-year change in the federal tax laws, which allows collectors once again to deduct the current market value of art works given to museums rather than the amount they actually paid for the piece. ``If there is a great wave of donations, Congress will extend that provision,'' predicts the Getty's Mr. Walsh.

Conductor Schwartz laments the buying up of American record companies by foreign firms. The large companies that deal in serious music ``are completely European- and Asian-controlled now,'' he says. ``It's an unfortunate situation....''

As to further congressional efforts to censor objectionable works of art, Walsh says, ``I'd like to think Congress learned something about the kind of demagoguery that tied up so much time last year debating ... this completely false idea that large amounts of public money are going for pornography. ... And all this was going on while the budget was out of control and the S&Ls were sinking us.''

Walsh also sees the need for arts institutions to be more vocal about the role of art. Arts people need to get the message across: Art has to be tough sometimes, distasteful. It has to give us a lot of bad news ... if it is going to be vital.''

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