Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mayoral Candidates Weigh in on the Arts

Posted by Bruce Miller
Phil Whiteway, Tony Foley, Jeanie Rule, Janine Serresseque, Brad Tuggle and I (all staff members at Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV) attended Tuesday night’s second Mayoral Forum, hosted at the Virginia Historical Society by Style Weekly and the League of Women Voters. Jason Roop, Editor of Style, did a great job as Moderator. Brandon Reynolds from Style, Sandra Jones from WTVR-TV Channel 6, and Michael Paul Williams from the Richmond T-D ably assisted as panelists, asking their own questions of the candidates and vetting questions from the audience.

The theme of the debate was Education and the Cultural Landscape, so lots of arts and culture professionals turned out. The five candidates (Paul Goldman, Robert J. Grey Jr., Dwight C. Jones, William J. “Bill” Pantele, and Lawrence E. Williams Sr.) all presented themselves well. But none of them seemed to have a real handle on the arts and cultural issues facing our city.

In an effort towards full disclosure, I mention that Robert Grey is a former Board member of Theatre IV, and he noted this credential during the debate. I appreciated the mention.

There was no mention from any candidate, however, of the large arts funding disparity that exists between Richmond and Norfolk, where the mayor has been a true champion of arts and cultural organizations, with significant success. There was talk from the candidates about Richmond being the cultural capital of the region, but it sounded more like well intentioned but uninformed cheer leading than anything else.

Most objective observers believe that Norfolk eclipsed Richmond as the “cultural capital” several years ago, and now functions as the arts flagship of Virginia. The five major things that will help Richmond catch up and re-establish its preeminence would be:
* a committed and vocal mayor,
* a committed and vocal business leader,
* an appropriately functioning Arts Council,
* an effective cultural plan (progress may be on the way on these last two fronts), and
* about an extra million per year in local public funding.

No candidate seemed to be aware of these issues. But then again, the panelists also seemed somewhat uninformed, and failed to ask the candidates to address any of the above.

There was only one real gaffe that I noticed, and it occurred when Jason Roop asked each candidate to name an arts event that had taken place in Richmond during the last five years that had particularly impressed him. Roop exempted last weekend’s Folk Festival, since that event had been so prominently featured in recent media coverage.

A couple candidates talked about First Fridays without mentioning any specific arts component. It was as if they’d heard about or perhaps experienced First Fridays as a festival designed to draw crowds to Broad Street, but they hadn’t actually connected with the art. A couple candidates mentioned public art in general, without discussing any specific work beyond "the fish project." Basically, all five candidates seemed a little stumped, unable to recall and describe a single performance or arts experience that had truly captured their imagination.

The gaffe occurred when Dwight Jones said, “The theatre at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts makes it onto my calendar every year.” He was referring, of course, to TheatreVirginia. As you know, TheatreVirginia went out-of-business mid-season in 2002, drawing significant media coverage. However, Jones otherwise presented himself well.

Another regrettable comment—the word “regrettable” obviously reflects my subjective perspective—was when Robert Grey said that we all needed to be proud of “our major organizations—the Symphony, the Opera, the Ballet, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.”

I certainly agree with that sentiment, but I regret that the word "theatre" was not included. Working in a permanent alliance with Theatre IV, Barksdale is somewhat larger in terms of annual budget, and significantly larger in terms of annual ticket sales, than either the Richmond Symphony, the Richmond presence of the Virginia Opera, or the Richmond Ballet. And yet, as is so often the case, no theatre was mentioned among the “major organizations.”

Again, otherwise, Grey presented himself well. He spoke of having appeared in a production of Women of Manhattan at the Firehouse, and mentioned his Board service not only at Theatre IV but also at the Richmond Ballet.

Clearly, those of us who care about theatre need to keep working hard to inform our mayoral candidates and all other community leaders that our art form is indeed a vital part of the mix. Barksdale/Theatre IV has an annual operating budget of $5.2 million, and enjoys annual Richmond attendance of over 82,000. Also, we tour extensively to schools throughout Virginia and 32 other states. Until everyone understands the impact that Barksdale/Theatre IV has on our community, the historical funding gap that continues to exist between Barksdale/Theatre IV and Richmond’s other major arts organizations will continue unchanged and unchallenged.

If you are a Richmond resident, be sure to vote in the upcoming mayoral elections. The candidates are good and capable men. I hope and believe that our next mayor will offer a step forward for our city.

--Bruce Miller

(Photos: The candidates pictured are: [top to bottom] Robert Grey, Dwight Jones, Bill Pantele, Lawrence Williams, and Paul Goldman.)


Anonymous said...

Interesting perspective. I'm sure you meant to qualify your recommendations, read "endorsements," with a statement that any recommendations in the posting are your personal opinion, and not necessarily the views of the two 501(c)(3) organizations by which you are employed; such an organizational opinion would be viewed as the intervention or participation (directly or indirectly) by a charitable organization in any political campaign, and would be an egregious violation of Federal Law for you to do so. Of course, that does lead one to the question of why you are using the resources of one of those non-profit organizations to espouse your personal opinions - hence the reference to "indirect" participation or intervention in any political campaign contained in the Federal Code.

Dave T said...

Thank you for your recap for those of us who could not attend. Too often, arts organizations are faulted for not thriving when the environment in which they operate is not given enough scrutiny for fostering growth and expansion of the arts. Our public officials in general -- and the next Richmond mayor specifically -- need to be reminded repeatedly that a thriving arts community translates directly to a thriving economic climate and burgeoning cities. Keep up the good work -- and let us supporters know what we can do to hold our leaders accountable.
David Timberline

Bruce Miller said...

I have taken the anonymous comment noted above to heart and rewritten two sentences from the original post. It was not and is not my intention to endorse any candidate, nor do I believe I did so.

I did state a personal opinion regarding which three candidates I believed to have performed the best in the debate. I qualified that opinion with the words "I thought ..." and "In my opinion ...'" but I did not include the rest of the legal language recommended by the anonymous commenter.

Rather than include that language now, I have amended two sentences of the original post to remove any and all personal opinions that may seem to favor one candidate over another.

I have no desire to jeopardize the nonprofit status of Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV, and I realize now that it was inappropriate for me to state a personal opinion about any political figure's debate performance on this blog.

I won't do so again, and I apologize to any and all whom I offended.

Hopefully, the blog post as now amended delivers only the facts that may be of interest to those who read this blog and care about public management of the arts in Richmond.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing all that you have to go through everyday in your job. I second Dave T's appreciation for your comments. I didn't read the original post, but the amended one certainly doesn't endorse any candidate(s). All of us who read this blog know full well that you state your opinions as your own, not as corporate positions. Too bad that the lawyer who wrote in anonymously chose to value his own interests over and above the interests of your readers, who are actually interested in who you thought won the debate. None of us will vote based on your opinion, but all of us who couldn't make the forum value weighing your opinon beside the other opinions that are out there. Thanks for your hard work, and long live freedom of speech.

C and S Specter

Anonymous said...

I'm not a lawyer, but I am well versed in the IRS code, and my own interests were in fact to protect the theatres. (Why else would I bother to read the blog of a theatre?) The orginial comments could have been construed by political rivals of several candidates as intervening in their campaigns, and, as Mr. Miller mentions, could have jeapardized the non-profit status of both theatres. Sadly, when one is so closely identified with an institution, it becomes impossible to distinquish between the personal opinion and sanction views of the institution, and due care must be taken not to endanger the well being of that institution. If you don't like that he must curtail his comments, I would suggest you speak to your representatives in Congress to have the IRS code amended.

As for my anonymity - sometimes one must remain anonymous in order to protect professional relationships, both among individuals and agencies.

Bruce Miller said...

I actually respect the IRS code as written, and thank the first anonymous commenter for returning my attention to regulations in the code that govern my right to make political endorsements. As nonprofit entities, both Barksdale and Theatre IV must, by law, be respectful of a broad base of political opinion. During our run of "The Little Dog Laughed" I wrote extensively on this blog about my personal dismay regarding the marriage amendment that previously had passed in Virginia. I believe I was within my rights to discuss my personal opposition to this amendment after the vote had been cast. I'm curious now if that belief is in fact justified, or must I keep those political opinions to myself as well, so as not to place Barksdale's nonprofit status in jeopardy. If our anonymous non-lawyer is still reading, I'd appreciate his guidance.

Rick St. Peter said...


As the Artistic Director of my own 501-c-3 not-for-profit theatre, and as someone who has long admired your leadership of Theatre IV/Barksdale and the way you express your views, I would heartily encourage you to continue to do so. While I rarely find myself in agreement with the clergy of right leaning religious organizations, I have recently been following with interest their attempts to blatantly circumvent the IRS tax code restrictions that prevent them from openly supporting political candidates from the pulpit. Regardless of your personal views of who they endorse or not, I do applaud their right, under the First Amdendment of the Constitution to exercise their free speech. If their congregation do not want to hear their political opinions expressed, they are fully within their rights to remove them as pastors (unless they're Catholic I guess)...My larger point being, I do not believe the IRS tax code should be able to circumvent the Constitution of the United States and as theatre artists, I believe it is incumbent upon us to speak up about political issues. I applaud your willingness to do so and I hope you will continue to speak out about injustices such as Virginia's ridiculous marriage amdendment. We have an obligation to speak to our audiences. There are some who could argue that director's notes in playbills would violate the tax code. It is clearly a slippery slope and I hope to see it one day overturned. This is not intended as an attack on the anonymous poster, either, and I thank him/her for bringing it up. Bruce, it may make for an interesting blog topic one of these an artistic director, how do you balance your need to be an artist with your need to be in customer is a lesson I have learned the hard way over the years and one I continually have to re-learn...

Rick St.Peter
Artistic Director
Actors Guild of Lexington