time to change the way we view music and the arts

Can you take the heat?

Since it’s gray, dark, raining and cold outside, it can only help the mood to talk about how the arts is trying to spice things up in the media-elusive nation of Cuba. Though so close in proximity to the shores of southern Florida, Cuba has had it’s fair share of blockades up toward the United States in the past and present; political, physical and social, with US visitors still banned and trade prohibited.

To digress for just a moment,

It’s interesting to see that artistic performance is making a doorway through some of those walls. Not only in Cuba but in general these days. Music, Dance and Theater are things that appear to transcend other national differences between ruling parties. Anyone remember the New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea back in February of 2008? That visit went very nicely and a graceful carpet of musical diplomacy was stretched between two disconnected cultures.

but back to Cuba.

In a shout out and small representing wave to a colleague and friend of mine who works for American Ballet Theatre, the most recent olive branch extended to the semi-isolated island was a double performance presented by ABT last night in Havana at the Karl Marx Theater. The Manhattan-native dance company was last seen live in Cuba in 1960 for ABT’s 20th year celebration. Audiences marveled at the performances and dancers, with principal (and Cuban born) Jose Manuel Carreño “[drawing] loud cheers from the audience” [1] and with comments saying “[ABT] had performed as brilliantly as the Cuban people had hoped.” [Ibid. 1]

The interesting and somewhat confusing aspect I found among all this wonderful coverage (and I’m all for it I assure you) is the somewhat contradictory nature of how the two main articles I’m referencing here, frame ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, when it comes to the subject of politics. Not to mention the accidentally contradictory way our government gets framed when it comes to ‘ease of execution’ as far as these artistic exploits are concerned, which I will address in a moment.

On the one hand, McKenzie is quoted by the Wall Street Journal as being dodgy because of how he “deflected [a] question…about the political impact that [ABT’s] visit could have on the relationship between America and Cuba.” [2] with this response:

“We come equipped with a cultural depth to reach across all differences to a culture of like minds,” he said. “There is nothing that can judge a civilization’s imprint clearer than the artwork it leaves behind. So it is not our purpose here to do anything but to speak of our cultural sameness. That dialog is what will expand to brighter, more positive horizons.”

Honestly, McKenzie is the artistic director. In my opinion, he gave a very poised and artistically focused answer, without stepping on political feet. While it would be beyond a utopian miracle for this visit to overturn the current statutes between America and Cuba, I don’t believe so much pressure, in the form of that loaded media question, should be thrown on top of his shoulders. ABT is helping to carve a positively lined path, not being charged with digging it out single handedly, (despite the fact that their dancers are highly impressive)

What I was saying before about McKenzie and ‘ease of execution’ has to do with another quote I want to show. However, the point isn’t so much to highlight the artistic director so much as it’s an exposing of a non-profit arts quandary posed by what he said about the US government’s role in getting ABT to Cuba at all.

“Travel is not easy between America and Cuba, but we got our licences relatively quickly so there was clearly a willingness to make it happen on our government’s part.” [Ibid. 1]

I am not unhappy in the least about the success of this event. I just wish things had gone that smoothly for the NY Philharmonic when they were invited to visit Cuba as well, which was to happen just at the end of this past month, but was announced as cancelled in the beginning of October, due to a lack of adequate funds. I know some of you are probably jumping up screaming at me with something along the lines of “Kira, we’re in a recession, don’t be stupid.” The lack of sufficient funds was not because the government denied the orchestra cash. It was due to the NY Phil’s president choosing to cancel because “the United States Treasury Department said it would “deny permission for a group of patron’s to go along.” [4] Without money from the patrons, the trip was too costly and to sum up the crucial matter things, Zarin Mehta (President of the NY Phil) didn’t want to make the situation just about money and most likely “insult [the patrons.]”[Ibid. 4] Since governmental supporters of the NY Phil’s expedition were unable to revert the Treasury’s ruling about the patrons, it sounds as though this earlier trip was not about giving as much willingness as ABT’s more recent proposal.

I empathize with the rock and hard place Mehta was stuck in to make the plan work. He expressed a respect for his donors and their genuine interest and support for the art the NY Philharmonic produces with each performance. There in lies a serious dedication to Customer Relations Management. Traveling patrons might be financially ‘stronger’ than the average concert goer/donor, but emphasizing their value in the form of emotional appreciation and thanks for the person behind the dollars is no new method for maintaining a steady patron base or funding flow. Personalization makes a difference, as a lot of arts administrators will tell you. Regardless of whether it comes to cultivating dollars, donors, dancers or venue deals. I don’t know the micro details of why licenses couldn’t be distributed to the endowed supporters, but given my limited scope on the situation, it just makes for a disappointing loss of opportunity for more diplomatic melodies to hit Cuban shores.

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