Give a tad more, get a smidge less.
Given what The Smith Center for the Performing Arts has delivered to Las Vegas over the past 15 months, both tangibly and intangibly, perhaps that’s not much to ask.
So they’re asking.
First, the facts, starting with the smidge less: With the arrival of the new season in August, The Smith Center is modestly downsizing its schedule, cutting up to 15 bookings, down from the 457 shows that were spread out over its three venues (Reynolds Hall, Cabaret Jazz and the Troesh Studio Theater) in its first full season. Now the tad more: What the center calls its fund-raising budget, i.e., the goal for donations to solicit from Las Vegans?has been bumped up from $3 million to $3.2 million.
Neither adjustment is of earthquake proportions, yet they raise questions we should consider as The Smith Center cements itself deeper into our daily lives: What, in Las Vegas terms, is culture fit for a performing arts center? If you book it, will they come? Do we really know the difference between “culture,” a word we feverishly embraced as The Smith Center’s raison d’etre in the giddy days just before it opened its art-deco doors, and “entertainment”?
“We’re going to do a little less in Reynolds Hall of the kind of programming that didn’t find big audiences, and we probably programmed more classical music than we currently have an audience for,” says Smith Center President Myron Martin. Among the classical offerings were the BBC Concert Orchestra, which Martin acknowledges drew poorly, and others he didn’t cite as big or small draws, but are not widely known to the non-cognoscenti, including the Cleveland Orchestra, the London-based chamber orchestra Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and Chinese pianist Lang Lang.
“We’re going to have to grow that audience over the next few years,” Martin says.
Can they? Never mind Las Vegas—that’s long been a Sisyphean task across America, and it’s becoming more alarming. In March 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts released a study declaring that “omnivores”—described by sociologists as people who regularly engage in cultural activities, including patronizing dance performances, plays, classical concerts and art museums—are a shrinking demographic. Specifically, classical music has suffered a nearly 30 percent drop in concert attendance over the past 30 years.
Three decades of proof suggest a reversal is, at best, unlikely.
Fortunately, the local exception seems to be the Las Vegas Philharmonic, gauged by its first season as a resident Smith Center company. “Ticket sales were up an average of around 500 tickets and subscriptions increased about 20 percent, and we?re ahead of where we were last year with renewals and sales,” Philharmonic spokeswoman Jennifer Scott says.
“At [UNLV’s] Ham Hall, we were getting around 1,300 people, and now we’re getting between 1,600 and 1,800 at Reynolds Hall [which seats 2,050]. We’re not selling out, there is room for growth, but 1,800 people in that hall looks great.”
Having a long-standing local connection and an established fan base on which to build benefits the Las Vegas Philharmonic, an advantage not transferable to jazz at the exquisite Cabaret Jazz room. “That continues to be a head-scratcher,” Martin says. “People love, love, love the experience, and if you’re in the inner circle, you know everyone we?re bringing. But the average Joe on the street might not, and because we do both jazz and cabaret, they don’t know if they are a Broadway star or a guitar player.”
Call that a distinction without a difference. Esteemed pianist Kurt Ellenberger, in a 2012 post on National Public Radio’s jazz blog, A Blog Supreme, labeled attempts to grow that audience pointless and the obstacle “insurmountable,” explaining that the necessary interest has evaporated beyond hope.
“You’d no sooner be able to create a sustainable audience base for jazz as you could for medieval plainchant,” Ellenberger wrote. “If a solution existed, wouldn’t one of the thousands and thousands of creative artists, agents, managers and the many jazz collectives, societies and alliances have found it? I don’t think it is helpful to continue pretending that there is a solution out there somewhere, just waiting to be discovered.”
Apocalyptic analysis notwithstanding, Martin is plowing on but, as with classical, cutting back. Though he’s not slashing the number of Cabaret Jazz performers invited here, he is shearing the performance schedule. Most of the room’s acts brought in from out of town will now play only two shows over two nights, eliminating the late-night option.
“The notion of having four-show weekends, which we originally thought was a good model for Las Vegas, frankly, hasn’t worked well for us,” Martin says.
While their cultural programming recedes a little, should your donations expand a bit? Unless we’re total hypocrites, the answer would have to be yes.
Collectively, we crow about “culture” as a Smith Center priority. Still, our wallets, credit cards and checkbooks favor the same entertainment genres—musicals and headliners—available on the Strip (though other eclectic acts do well) and the center obliges with affordability. Comparatively, the Smith Broadway series is a steal.
Now a resident production at Harrah’s, Million Dollar Quartet prices its cheapest tickets at $69, but at its pre-Strip tour stop at The Smith Center a year ago, they began at $27. Rockin’ to Jersey Boys at Paris Las Vegas sets you back at least $55, while the recent Catch Me If You Can at Smith started at $24. Explaining the increase in their fundraising goal to $3.2 million, Martin says that selling well on those Broadway visitors also contributes to a misconception among some patrons and potential donors.
“There is this perception that The Smith Center was expensive [$470 million] and we’re selling out all the Broadway shows so we must be making a fortune,” Martin says. “But as long as we make ticket prices affordable, and continue to do all the educational programs and community outreach we do, we will always have to rely on community support. It’s going to take a while for people to clearly understand that a great community asset like this requires some care and feeding.”
Exactly how much care and feeding? “We’re going to ask a few more people to give another $10 here and $100 there so we can do all the mission-critical things without tripling ticket costs,” Martin says, adding that fundraising is a “different conversation” now with consumers than it was with million-dollar contributors while the center was under construction.
Whether that also makes it a more difficult conversation with middle-class patrons watching their pennies in a still-uncertain economy will be a crucial issue as the new season draws near.
Damn that word, “culture”—at once a selling point and a turnoff, connoting sophistication but smacking of snobbery, a valued ideal at odds with mass appeal. In that ancient, eternal pull-tug between art and commerce, how do you convince people to embrace it?
“If I don’t know who the performers are, it’s all the more reason for me to go,” urges Patrick Duffy, president of the Las Vegas Art Museum, a member of The Smith Center’s board of directors and a major donor. “It blew my mind on around 10 occasions. I’m like, ‘Am I glad I got off my ass to see these performers.'”
Ideally, that’s a philosophy to which every Smith attendee should adhere, but many can’t, having limited leisure dollars to spread around and doling them out cautiously for the performers they consider sure bets for a good time.
Is the answer in an approach to programming that’s autocratic, or democratic? “It takes mining some data and finding out what our constituency wants,” Duffy says. “It’s not the few speaking for the many.”
Counterintuitive as it seems, should, in fact, the few sometimes speak for the many, pouring more cultural offerings into the schedule and promoting them heavily until the populace finds its artistic footing? Isn’t that part of the underlying mission of a performing arts center—to persuade us to appreciate what we never expected we could?
Come August, culture at The Smith Center steps back a bit.
Can’t we step forward a little?
Theater lovers at a glance
Musicals provided the muscle for The Smith Center’s opening year, with a new batch on the way beginning in August, including Les Mis’rables, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Sister Act, Evita, Once and, notably, The Book of Mormon and Kinky Boots.
Who’s going? Who isn’t?
While no demographic studies on Broadway tourgoers have been conducted locally, the Broadway League, a theatrical trade association, issues a biennial report with national statistics.
Says Smith Center President Myron Martin: “My guess is that attendance at Broadway tours [in Vegas] is similar demographically to the national average.” With that acknowledgement, but with the caveat that The Smith Center did not open until March of last year, here are some of the League’s findings, released last month, on the 2011-12 touring season:
- 12.7 million people attended tour shows, the lowest number since the 2004-2005 season.
- 89 percent were white.
- 70 percent were women.
- 50.5 was the average theatergoer age.
- 46 percent reported an annual household income surpassing $100,000, compared to 21 percent of all Americans.
- 78 percent held a college degree, and 30 percent had a graduate degree.
- 14 percent said they were influenced by a critic’s review.
- 65 percent said they would be more persuaded to attend by incentives, such as discounts to nearby restaurants, free merchandise and backstage tours.