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For the arts, opera brouhaha raises tough questions

If the Pittsburgh Opera's controversial decision to honor Gov. Tom Corbett with a "Lifetime Achievement Award" on May 12 showed nothing else, it proved how vital funding arts education is. Because apparently, we're suffering from an epidemic of tone-deafness. 

I'll confess: I'm not outraged, or surprised, by the Opera's move. I abhor Corbett's policies, but if arts groups snubbed everyone who was a jerk at their day job, well ... this town would be short a couple museums. And while Corbett has pursued harrowing budget cuts elsewhere — namely in education — state funding for the arts has been stable. No surprise an arts organization wants to stay on his good side ... and that of other well-heeled donors who probably voted for him. 

But it's also no surprise when those who have been hurt by cuts take exception. Especially because the Opera's announcement struck an off-key note by singling out Corbett "for his early work as a teacher" — precisely when Pennsylvania schools are facing dire shortfalls, and balancing their budgets by cutting arts education. So as the opera held its gala for the well-heeled, hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside, rallying on behalf of the more modestly shod.

That might have been the end of it ... except by then an arts leader had struck another sour note.

One day before the protest, Mitch Swain, CEO of Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, fired off an "Arts Council Advocacy Alert" about the debate. Swain wrote about Corbett's arts-friendly budgeting, and the cultural credentials of the governor's wife, Susan. But Swain then asserted that "anger over what is perceived as cuts to education by the Governor fails to take into consideration the fact that the previous administration used $1-billion in one-time stimulus funding to fund education and then took $800 million out of education for other uses." As for those laid-off art teachers? Those choices are "not being made ...by the Governor, but at the local level by school boards." 

That's a little like blaming firefighters for not rescuing everyone when an arsonist torches a building. And Charlie Humphrey, the ever-outspoken head of Pittsburgh Filmmakers who helped found GPAC, noisily resigned from its board to protest Swain's memo. 

"This was pandering," Humphrey says. "We're not in the business of defending politicians." While GPAC supports arts funding, he says, any time it advocates a political position, "that is discussed with the board's advocacy committee. They weren't consulted here."

Swain acknowledges sending out the letter on his own, to correct "misinformation out there that indicated cuts were being made to arts funding. I felt we were presenting facts without bias, and not taking a position. I can see now how it could have been viewed differently." 

Such contrition was in short supply at the governor's office, though. Asked by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to comment on the memo uproar, Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley struck the harshest note of all: "Mr. Humphrey, who pays himself a six-figure salary from his nonprofit arts organization, has the luxury of resigning in protest whenever he doesn't get his way."

It's true: Humphrey earns more than $130,000 a year, according to Filmmakers' records. And while quitting an unpaid board position is a luxury anyone can afford, it's a nice change of pace to see Republicans objecting to six-figure salaries. I look forward to seeing Tom Corbett at a future drum circle.

Or not. As Swain's memo noted, Corbett can't be blamed for dried-up federal stimulus funds. But he can be blamed for a "no new taxes" pledge that worsens the budget crisis. Throughout this opera drama, some of the principal villains — like natural-gas drillers and other corporate types who can count on light tax burdens — have been hidden offstage, while everyone else struggles for crumbs. 

"The arts community is now divided," Humphrey says. And the debate is fundamental: With the economy struggling, and with state government in the hands of hostile conservatives, should arts groups merely protect their own turf? Or do they have a broader obligation, to rally behind the educators and activists who have long supported them? 

That's the real question raised by the Opera's guberdämmerung, as Wagner might have called it. And it won't be over until — well, you know the rest.

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