Ben Vereen, the Tony-winning singer, actor and dancer, was on the phone, telling me about his upcoming concert with the Spokane Symphony, when he said he wanted to thank the people of Spokane.
Really? What for? What have the people of Spokane done for Ben Vereen lately?
“I want to thank Spokane for supporting the arts,” said Vereen. “Across the country, a lot of these symphonies are going down, for a lack of funding for the arts. People seem to forget that the arts are the one thing that helps the country whenever it’s down, whenever it’s going through some sort of crisis.”
Music, he said, helped us through the Great Depression. It will help us get through this downturn, too – as long as the downturn doesn’t squeeze the arts out of existence.
And that’s what has me worried right now. Every time we have a recession, or a downturn, or even an economic hiccup, the arts in Spokane are among the first sectors to suffer.
Our local theaters, our live music scene, our repository of visual arts and history (the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture) feel the squeeze. In some cases, the squeeze has had all of the mercy of a boa constrictor. From an economic standpoint, the arts appear to be expendable.
With some help from Mr. Vereen, I would like to make the case that they are not.
I have lived in Spokane for 20 years, and the Spokane Symphony is one reason I never want to leave. I have heard some of the greatest pieces of music ever written – the New World Symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth – performed live, in a stunning setting. I’ve heard plenty of things I had no idea I’d love – an all-percussion concerto, a piece based on birdsong – until Eckart Preu brought them to my ears.
“You are truly blessed,” Vereen said, referring to the Spokane Symphony. He called the orchestra “magnificent.”
It’s true. We may be a Single A minor league city when it comes to baseball, but we have a major league symphony orchestra. It is – and I hope nobody takes this the wrong way – a far better orchestra than we deserve.
This is more than just a source of civic pride – the orchestra makes a tangible difference in our city’s livability and in the lives of thousands of people who value music. We fail to support it at our own peril.
So far, we have passed the test. The symphony has survived some rough seas without capsizing. But I know how fragile that boat can be. An arts executive once told me that every arts organization, no matter how established, is only one disaster away from extinction.
Here’s what really started me brooding about this. In that same conversation, Vereen reminded me that “the arts” are not merely a way to pass the time. The arts reach far deeper into our lives.
“A civilization without the arts is a civilization without a culture,” he said.
“Because the arts are our culture,” Vereen said.