Community Forum: Doug Anderson, Precious access to arts at risk

This week’s writer is Douglas Anderson, executive director of Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater.
An ex-student of mine recently built a magnificent $30 million theater in the Chicago area. I’ve done a little theater-building myself, but nothing on this scale, and although I hadn’t seen Michael Halberstam in 35 years, I wanted to know how he pulled it off.
So I went to Chicago to find out.
After leaving the University of Illinois in the early 1980s, Michael started a theater company in the back room of an Evanston, Ill., bookstore. Not an ideal space by any means, but he did astonishing work in that little room, and over the years the company’s reputation soared. The Writers Theatre is now one of the preeminent theaters in the Chicago area.
That success doesn’t automatically translate into a sparkling, new, state-of-the-art theater, but that’s exactly what Michael recently opened in the northern suburb of Glencoe. I checked into a hotel in Evanston, hopped into my rental car and drove off to see Michael and the new building.
That drive was instructive. Heading north, I saw for the first time the communities commonly called the North Shore, and they are extraordinarily beautiful. And — let’s just say it — wealthy. Travelling through Winnetka and then Glencoe I saw nothing but street after leafy street of tasteful, well-manicured mansions.
Without taking anything away from Michael’s achievement, I will say that if you’re going to build a $30 million theater it’s a good idea to build it in a wealthy community. Michael’s theater is a wonder, with ideal performance spaces and a bold, breathtaking design. There was so much to see and admire. But what struck me the most was the donor wall in the lobby. The list of multi-million dollar donors left me weak in the knees.
Hold that thought.
The next day I drove to see my 94-year-old mother in Ohio. MapQuest told me I’d get there sooner if I avoided the highways and took old Route 30, slower than the Interstates but a more direct route. MapQuest was wrong.
I was grateful for the mistake, however, because it took me through the little towns and villages of northern Indiana and Ohio. These are severely depressed places. Once-proud town squares are boarded up, with maybe only a tattoo parlor or a tanning salon open for business. Housing is deteriorating. Abandoned structures dot the landscape. Trump signs still litter front yards, and it’s not hard to see why. This part of the country is suffering.
The contrast between affluent Glencoe and these run-down counties could not have been more jarring. After about a hundred miles I couldn’t shake a troubling thought. These people along Route 30 won’t be getting a $30 million performing arts center. Not now, not ever.
Which brings up a very thorny question. Who has access to the performing arts in this country? The unavoidable answer: people with money.
It’s not that way elsewhere in the world. Many other countries see the arts not only as a cultural heritage but the right of every individual. And they support that notion with government-funded agencies that do in fact build theaters in poor barrios and rural towns and otherwise underserved areas.
The numbers are shaming. A 2000 study says that Germany spends $85 per capita per year in arts funding. Here in America, it’s $6. Not even the cost of a movie ticket. Other industrialized countries spend an average of $50 per capita; Finland leads the world with $91. If you like numbers, here’s another way to look at that: Finland spends 2.10 percent of its budget on the arts and arts education. In the USA, it’s 0.13 percent.
As sad as this seems, it will get worse, much worse, if this administration follows through on its plan to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. That paltry $6 per person will shrink to $0. Town Hall Theater, and thousands of other arts organizations in the country, will suffer.
It will hit us hardest in our education programs. It’s not widely known, but THT is in over 20 schools in three counties. We serve literally thousands of children each year with innovative programs in theater, dance and film. These programs have been supported by the Vermont Arts Council, but — little known fact — 50 percent of the VAC budget comes from the National Endowment for the Arts. The loss of the NEA will damage countless programs in our state.
Cut to a small plaque next to the elevator at THT, a gift from an anonymous donor. It says, simply:
“Celebrating equal access to the arts.”
Clearly, this country isn’t living up to that dream. Perhaps we’ll find the political will to change this. For now, all we can do is support the local organizations that matter to us, not only Town Hall Theater but the Sheldon Museum, the Folklife Center, the Middlebury Community Music Center and presenting groups like the Middlebury Community Players, the Middlebury Actors Workshop and the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival.
We’re so lucky to have such groups in our community. We’re lucky to have institutions that weave the arts and humanities into the fabric of our lives. But it will take some real commitment if we’re to survive these strange days, when access to so many things can be lost with the flick of a presidential pen.

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