For a city its size, Knoxville is blessed with a richness and diversity of cultural offerings. Its symphony and opera company stand head and shoulders above their counterparts in most similarly-sized cities. The Clarence Brown Theatre and the Knoxville Museum of Art also compare favorably. And a diverse array of smaller dance, music, and theater groups as well as museums and visual artists also enrich and enliven the local scene.
Nearly all of them, however, are struggling to make ends meet. And while there's plenty of room for all to develop larger audiences, the competition among them for precious funding resources—both governmental grants and private contributions—is fierce.
Over the past year, about $150,000 of these resources have gone to support the development of "A Cultural Plan for Knoxville" by the Boston-based consulting firm Wolf, Keans & Co. About 30 arts group representatives and civic leaders have served on a steering committee that advised Wolf, Keans on this well-intended effort. If the recommendations contained in its recently-issued report held promise of creating more diversity or patronage for arts offerings, the expenditure and effort would certainly have been worthwhile. But its central thrust is to create or reconstitute an "umbrella" organization that would act on behalf of all the performing arts groups both in marketing their events and in seeking governmental funding for redistribution.
Unfortunately, staffing such an umbrella entity would create yet another set of mouths to feed; and there is little basis for believing that it could do much to enlarge the size of the pie from which more slices would have to be cut. An anonymity-seeking stalwart of the existing Arts Council who had taken vigorous exception to this viewpoint reported back after attending a gathering of counterparts from other cities that Atlanta's and Lexington's recent experiences with similar entities have been deemed disastrous.
The performing arts organizations can tell a much more compelling fund-raising story on their own behalf than an intermediary attempting to represent them collectively. The same goes for marketing their offerings, at least locally. Where a collective promotional effort makes sense is in reaching out to prospective visitors, especially in terms of conveying that Knoxville as a whole has a lot to offer. But this should be the primary responsibility of the Convention and Visitors Bureau from its established funding sources—and it's one for which the CVB is now clearly on the uptake.
To be sure, there are many types of joint support that can prove helpful to performing groups, especially the smaller ones that most need nurturing. And the Wolf, Keans report puts its finger on several of them. The list includes training programs to develop the enterprise skills of artistic entities; joint provision of services such as accounting, human resources, procurement, and ticketing; identification of exhibit, performance, and rehearsal space; and the maintenance of a master calendar of events to help groups avoid scheduling conflicts. Actually, the final draft of the report substitutes the word "service" for "umbrella." If the thrust of the report had been changed accordingly, Big Brother might have given way to an entity more accountable to the performing groups, whose collaboration has been commendably encouraged by the planning process.
Wolf, Keans and its steering committee make the Art Council something of a whipping boy for having "lost its original vision as a facilitator and coordinator for the ACE [Arts, Culture and Entertainment] community." And the report proposes "to completely restructure and rename the Arts Council...so that it can become a powerful support agency for ACE organizations." In order to do so, "the Arts Council should shift its mission from a programmatic orientation back to its original policy and planning focus." Yet in one of many inconsistencies in their report, the consultants propose that the Dogwood Arts Festival "be operated as a project of the restructured Arts Council..."
Festivals in general, and the Dogwood in particular, are regrettably among the weakest links in Knoxville's chain of events and much in need of strengthening. But if the Arts Council takes on responsibility for running festivals, that will inexorably become its top priority and just as surely divert attention from all the service functions that need to be provided even-handedly to many (perhaps too many) masters. The Dogwood Festival's own board of directors, whom the consultants from Boston presume to pre-empt, has already been addressing the need for revitalization of its flagging enterprise. And it's now collaborating with the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership whose Central Business Improvement District has made the staging of more and better downtown events its top priority.
The consultants' credentials for festival needs-assessment are further undermined by their recommendation that "an international festival that focuses on the traditions and cultural expressions of the many ethnic communities that flourish in the region should be considered." In fact, Jubilee Community Art does its utmost to put on just such a festival each year. Conversely, the report fails to give any cognizance to what may well be Knoxville's singularly most compelling ACE need: a children's museum worthy of the name.
Both large and small fry are apprehensive about vesting an unproven entity with the self-anointed authority to allocate governmental funds among them. Large organizations, such as the symphony and the opera, are fearful they would suffer from allocations that try to be all things to all people. Smaller ones, such as Jubilee and the Tennessee Stage Company, worry that the large and better-connected groups would gain control of the allocation process to their own advantage. A concern that's shared by all is that the extra layer of staffing costs incurred by a new fund-raising middleman would divert money from the line organizations that do the performing and exhibiting.
Any movement in that direction should be stopped before it starts sucking up precious resources from organizations that are already strapped for funding.