«The Role of the Performing Arts in Postwar Phoenix, Arizona: Patrons, Performers, and the Public by Michelle Lynne Bickert A Thesis Presented in ...»
Arizona Republic critic Thomas Goldthwaite suggested the board was angry that Taylor was unwilling to take the necessary steps to build audience and reputation and bring the PSO to major orchestra status, namely through recordings and tours. Regardless of Jeanne Williams, “ART Provides Creative Outlet,” Arizona Republic, May 25, 1965; ART Box Office Report – “Virginia Woolf,” March 18, 1966, Box 9 Folder 14, Stephen C. Shadegg Papers; Box Office Report – “Dollface,” February 24, 1966, Box 9 Folder 14, Stephen C. Shadegg Papers.
outcome, the Guy Taylor controversy illustrated the community’s investment in their local symphony – precisely the PSA’s goal when they dismissed Barnett twenty years earlier.173 For two seasons the PSO featured guest conductors, none of whom advanced quality or ticket sales. One of those conductors, Eduardo Mata, became Principal Conductor for seven seasons (1971-1978), during which time he only conducted 40 of 93 subscription concerts.174 Musicians and critics agreed Mata significantly improved the quality, but his other commitments made it difficult for the community to see him as their conductor, and not a guest.175 Mata forged relationships with the Hispanic and Indian populations in Arizona, making periodic trips with musicians to perform for families on reservations. A Mexican native, he wanted to demonstrate the importance of Mexican composers in the classical music canon. Yet Mata had other professional obligations that made it difficult for him to build community presence, reminiscent of Barnett’s tenure.
The PSA made decisions based on what they thought would drive ticket sales – a series of guest conductors, an internationally popular conductor, and blockbuster operas. They were stuck in the same dilemma plaguing other Valley performing arts groups: quality or popularity?176 William E. Gary, letter to the editor, Phoenix Gazette, June 19, 1968;
Hampton, Statement to Phoenix Symphony Association Board of Directors, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra Collection; Goldthwaite, interview.
Stoneburner, “Phoenix Symphony Orchestra,” 61.
Stoneburner, “Phoenix Symphony Orchestra,” 61; Herberger, interview;
Devon Leal Bridgewater, “The Midas Touch of Mata: Eduardo Mata and the Phoenix The performing arts scene grappled with the art of criticism. The local media was disenchanted with the PLT by the 1970s, no longer allowing it use the amateur excuse.
Critics wanted the theater to do well and live up to its potential, but when it didn’t, they felt betrayed and reacted personally to its lack of success. Reporters could not guarantee the quality of productions, so they did not bother to publicize an upcoming production too much for fear of being embarrassed over encouraging people to attend what turned out to be a poor show. The impact of critical review also affected the PSO. Some musicians felt the local critics were unsupportive, and by taking their role as critics too seriously they poorly introduced the PSO to the public, discouraging attendance. The musicians described critics as inconsistent: some understood musical criticism, some recognized the symphony was still developing, some were too easy on the group, and others hated it no matter what. Jeanne Herberger blamed the inconsistency on the lack of leadership in the press, arguing they needed to have the goal of enhancing the artistic value of the community. However, the musicians (speaking after their tenures) conceded that once they had professional, quality performers, critical and community support would follow.177 Giving the people what they wanted in order to generate profit proved even worse for cultivating culture, evidenced by PLT’s financial struggles during the late 1960s and 1970s. This consumption-driven mindset permeated postwar America, affecting much Symphony Orchestra, 1969-1978) (master’s thesis, Arizona State University, 2009), 80Vetrie, “Phoenix Theatre Concept,” Phoenix Little Theatre Collection; Agnew, interview; Filigenzi, interview; Cummings, interview; Herberger, interview.
more than arts programming.178 The PLT formed during the Progressive Era’s Little Theatre Movement, supporting non-commercial, reform-minded productions, but profiting during postwar consumerism allowed audiences to dictate programming by voting with their dollars, forcing groups to pander to audiences’ personal tastes.
Midcentury Americans were unsympathetic to highbrow tastes, but paradoxically had upward cultural aspirations. A 1975 Gallup poll found 46 percent of those surveyed identified their tastes as upper-middle brow, and only 6 percent claimed highbrow interests.179 Groups controlled their programming, but they were too afraid of failure to exhibit challenging pieces. The PLT continued staging comedies and musicals like My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. If Phoenix was going to develop a cultured, educated audience with a critical eye for quality art, groups needed to show them something that required more than attention, but real thought. The semi-successful formula quickly became stale, and season subscriptions and ticket sales dropped in the 1970s. Meanwhile Phoenix continued to grow at a rapid pace and by 1976 there were five other little theaters in the Valley, saturating the region with community productions. Although the PLT had provided Phoenix with theater for half a century, its audience, critics, and patrons – rapidly growing and always changing – remained unconvinced the amateur theatre could hold its increasingly sophisticated tastes. Regardless of whether it paid its actors, it was difficult for the PLT to escape the Lizabeth Cohen discussed postwar consumption and how it enabled consumers to affect political and social change in A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003).
Kammen, American Culture, 42-43.
pattern of staging light, popular works in order to stay afloat while swimming in debt, contributing to its reputation as a substandard theater.180 Recommitment to the Arts Groups struggled to maintain a reliable audience through the 1980s because Phoenix still lacked large-scale support for the arts. Without support from the old civic leaders, which included donations, advertisements, season tickets, and general boosterism for these groups they cared for, the performing arts relied on the government for support.
The 1988 bond measure presented Phoenicians an opportunity to decide their city’s cultural future. After the 1984 bond measure failed, city leaders had to be especially careful when presenting the public with a new proposition. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc.
surveyed 603 county residents on their willingness to donate to various community causes and found people favored giving to education, hunger relief, and people with disabilities over meeting the needs of arts and culture or downtown development. Voters feared that too much focus on downtown development would neglect their needs in the rest of the city. Bud Jacobson presented the city’s new ventures as a chance for citizens to lay the brick and mortar for the cultural climate. A key supporter for the 1988 bond measures was the Phoenix Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which could usually be counted on to oppose tax increases. The group saw the bonds as crucial to the city’s future, with spokesman Kevin DeMenna saying, “Do [voters] want the city to provide the cultural amenities to make this a great city, or do they just want the city to pave streets Oldendick and Uithoven, “Phoenix Little Theatre,” 54; Mike Petryni, “Up and Down the Community Stage,” Arizona Republic, November 7, 1976; Vetrie, “Phoenix Theatre Concept,” Phoenix Little Theatre Collection.
and build sewers? Frankly, there are two schools of thought out there, and I’m not sure who will prevail.” 181 The 1988 bond measure passed because leaders like Mayor Goddard and Jacobson were able to garner the support of influential groups like the Chamber of Commerce, Valley Partnership, Junior League, and Greater Neighborhood Association of Phoenix. Supporters echoed the same rhetoric used by postwar boosters. David Bixler of the Valley Partnership recognized cultural institutions would help transplants finally identify Phoenix as their home, while Kathleen Eaton of the Greater Neighborhood Association felt a city Phoenix’s size was obligated to develop its cultural programs.
They just had to convince the voters. A coalition of groups established an office on Central Avenue, operating phone banks and mailing fliers. The Arizona Republic published a series of articles in the weeks before the election supporting the bonds.
Jacobson printed 30,000 buttons (he believed that was the number of votes necessary, though it was too low) at personal cost and with the help of the Junior League and Central Labor Council passed them all out. Arts advocates had finally convinced Phoenicians why the arts were important to the city overall. 182 By the 1980s specific performance groups and larger arts organizations began taking a more careful market approach and hired the Behavior Research Center to better understand their audiences. Often these surveys were done to answer very specific Charles Kelly, “Education, needy lead charity poll,” Arizona Republic, October 9, 1987; E. J. Montini, “Panel Frames Design to Upgrade Art in Phoenix,”
Arizona Republic, April 14, 1985; Dee Michaelis, “Chamber’s Tune Changes Pitch:
Bonds Crucial,” Arizona Republic, April 10, 1988.
Michaelis, “Chamber’s Tune”; Marshall, “Cultural District Formation,” 118questions, such as determining the best time to start shows or learning why season ticketholders opted not to renew. Based on the survey responses the average patron for symphony, theater, opera, and ballet performances during the late-1980s/early-1990s was a male, age thirty to forty-nine, earned more than the state median income, attended at least two years of college, and attended at least two events per year. Civic leaders
understood the demographic they wanted to attract. This patron was prime human capital:
young, educated, and with a good job. He enjoyed cultured evenings in the city, and was willing to attend a couple times per year (women also had these same characteristics, they just attended less frequently). If Phoenix wanted to retain and attract more patrons like this, they needed to continue investing in and developing the cultural scene.183 In 1985 art critic Lynn Rigberg wrote, “Indicators are amassing that Arizona and Phoenix are becoming committed to developing the arts.” She cited the increased funding to the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the 1 percent allotment from capital building funds for the ACA and the city’s bond attempts and cultural committees as evidence of changing attitudes. She quoted a friend who asserted Phoenix’s Western identity was sufficient, and that modern architecture or oriental art would detract from an already clear culture. Supposing many others felt this way, Rigberg argued Phoenix’s increased diversity merited multiple tastes and styles; assuming millions would share the same culture was “elitist and unrealistic.” Organizations like the Black Theatre Troupe and El Teatro Bravo! diversified the performing arts scene, making it easier for Phoenicians to see themselves in the arts. Increased funding allowed for more performances, more Arts/Entertainment Projects, 1987-1993, Boxes 2-3, FM MSS 144, Behavior Research Center, Inc. Records, 1965-2006, Arizona Collection, Arizona State University Libraries, Tempe, AZ.
venues, more diverse groups, and more community outreach. Phoenix was finally warming up to the postwar vision, summarized by Rigberg: “Virtually every city in which art has become an important community resource has profited mightily. It’s our turn, if only we’ll take advantage.”184 City government had found a way to support the arts after civic leaders had largely managed the task for three decades, and the city and state continued promoting arts and culture through direct funding, building and renovating venues, improving infrastructure to bring audiences downtown, and modifying zoning and rental fees to encourage more artistic growth in the city.
Conclusion Performing arts groups were tasked with exposing residents to culture, but the public played a large role in groups’ evolution, primarily through their dollars. In the immediate postwar years, the performing arts scene ran on volunteer power from the community. New Phoenicians supported amateur productions because they understood the arts scene was still developing. Since there were not as many options for evening entertainment, the audience’s expectations were lower than they would be once the city reached a later stage of development. As Phoenix grew, residents used taxes or bonds to help organizations and leaders build new auditoriums, and their community input influenced location and amenities to maximize venue use (and profits). When groups realized that audiences preferred fun, fluffy pieces to serious drama, they traded art for pop to maintain revenues. By the 2000s, the Valley hosted a myriad of performing arts groups and events, ranging from professional to amateur, high to popular culture, and Lynn Rigberg, “Coming of Age,” Phoenix Magazine, June 1985, 57, 129.
traditional to unconventional. Despite the range of performing arts options, Phoenix still lacked a clear cultural identity shaped by citizens and leaders who prioritize the arts.