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On audience-building, public funding, and the role of the arts administrator: A conversation with Marc Scorca, departing general manager of Chicago Opera Theater

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Marc Scorca is charming, a personable man, a man with a way of maintaining eye contact at all times that makes you feel guilty for glancing away occasionally to check out your fettucine Alfredo. He's just as charming at 9:15 at night, interrupted in the midst of washing his dog for a followup question, as he is on company time, and he's just as ready with a speedy, educated answer to virtually any question about the arts and their funding.

Scorca, native of New York and graduate of Amherst (class of '79), worked in various capacities with the New York City Opera under Beverly Sills. For the last six years he's worked at Chicago Opera Theater with founder and artistic director Alan Stone and an ever-growing staff, coming in as managing director, then becoming executive director, and finally moving up to the official title of general manager. (I first encountered him while singing in a COT production several years ago.) During those six years--under his financial guidance and Stone's artistic guidance--COT has lengthened its season, more than doubled its audience, and just recently become a union theater, coming to an agreement with AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists.

Chicago Opera Theater, devoted from the start to presenting opera in English and providing employment for American artists, has come a long way from its beginnings in 1974, when COT--then Chicago Opera Studio, Inc., or "COSI," both an acronym and after its first show, Mozart's Cosi fan tutte--gave one production a year at Jones Commercial High School in the south Loop. COT has entered into a long-term lease arrangement for the Athenaeum Theatre, on north Southport, which it will renovate and use for office, rehearsal, and performance space. The company has also made efforts to reach out to new audiences, by giving Where the Wild Things Are, an opera aimed at children based on the popular book by Maurice Sendak, and this year Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, a first attempt at "classic" musical comedy. (Both of these shows were presented at more-accessible downtown venues.)

Scorca, a man with a habit of asking questions and then answering them himself, has served on the Illinois Arts Council and is a wheel with the National Endowment for the Arts, serving most recently as head of the NEA advancement-grant panel, which gives funds to promising developing arts groups. At the end of the summer he will leave COT to serve as executive director and CEO of OPERA (Opera Producers' Entity for Related Activity) America, a trade association for professional opera companies in North America, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Bryan Miller: Isn't the role of the artistic administrator a relatively recent one? Even as recently as Carol Fox's day [at Lyric Opera], there was a sense that the creative person was the one really calling all the shots. Now that's changed--the bottom line seems to be much more in the foreground.

Marc Scorca: Certainly throughout this century, there have been impresarios--Diaghilev is a major example, a creative individual with a point of view--who acted as catalysts to put on a season. I think in many ways the role of the arts administrator has grown as business and information have grown through the century. It's been an evolving situation--we have had to develop skills based on the growing complexity of business life in general.

You know, at the turn of the century, the concept of advertising didn't exist; it was in the early part of the century that advertising developed. In the early part of the century, when deficits occurred [in an opera company], they usually fell within the discretionary budget of one or two patrons. Today, where the world advertises and markets, so too do arts organizations have to do that. Today, when our annual-fund need far exceeds the discretionary budget of any one individual or any ten individuals, then we need to fund-raise. Which means that you have to have a staff, and suddenly you're managing a staff, so that the number of office personnel grows organically.

BM: What's it like to be the business end of this creative/business partnership?

MS: Like all things in life, there are two answers to that question. I am delighted that, with the hard work I'm putting into my very business-based job, the end product is something I love. I don't know what it would be like in my life to have no relationship with the product around which I was working. If I were in advertising, and I had to come up with an ad campaign for something I would never buy, how would I make myself be creative in that instance? How would I make myself work an 80-hour week if I had no personal identification with the product I was trying to sell?

On the negative side, it's an art and it's not a product, and trying to deal with an art in a straight businesslike way is difficult. And sometimes I get frustrated with the art form because it won't fit, and sometimes I get frustrated with the business world because it doesn't adjust to the art form. There is no doubt that the pay scale in the arts is lower than in business; I do think that, to attract and keep the kinds of employees that arts organizations need to thrive, we'll need to address that at some point. We need to address the entire benefits package for people who frequently put their lives into the arts but don't have any kind of pension plan or retirement plan.

So in material terms, sacrifices are made; in spiritual terms, there's frequently a great reward.

BM: As an arts administrator, is your mission more to make great art or to fill the auditorium? What if it comes down to one or the other?

MS: My mission, personally, is to fill the auditorium in direct response to the greatness of the art. My desire is not to fill the auditorium because we've come up with a nifty subscription campaign or written a wonderful radio-ad copy. My desire as an arts administrator is to have them breaking down the doors because the art on the stage is so great. What is required of me is to be very sensitive to the art form, and to be skilled in manipulating the resources of the opera company so that what we put on the stage becomes something after which people clamor.

I don't believe than an arts administrator can be someone who doesn't love the art. I think an MBA or a businessman can run a business in a generic sense. And in many instances, the product is incidental to the running of the business . . . . While I would love to have on my staff as my director of finance someone who is passionless about the art, so I [can] have reliable systems analyses and reliable budgets and projections, I think that to be the chief administrator, you have to be very passionate about the art form.

BM: Have you developed any particular techniques for dealing with artists? Should they be insulated from business considerations, or is it better that they should share them?

MS: If they're on payroll, they need to share them, because they are then a part of the whole delicate balance that makes up the opera company. If they are our guest artists, who are here doing their roles, I think they need to be insulated from them. My posture vis-a-vis artists is basically to stand in awe of them and in awe of the fact that they have a natural gift, that they have had the discipline to develop that natural gift, and that they have the guts to perform in front of thousands of paying people. I don't think they need to be treated like perishable fruit, but they have a talent, and they share it with us, and they need to be respected and made as comfortable as possible in the context of our doing a production.

BM: What changes have you seen over the last six years at COT and in the arts in Chicago generally?

MS: I would say there's been a steady increase over the years in the complexity of the company and of changes in the environment. One has to look as much at the changes in the environment as at the changes in the company. So in the past six years we have seen an increase in competition in the arts-slash-entertainment industry. What kinds of competition? There are more arts groups now than six years ago, arts groups behaving in ways that are much more sophisticated--so many people are doing four-color direct mail, so many people are doing telemarketing, so many people have learned how to fund-raise. So there's that whole segment of not-for-profit competition.

Cable--do you have cable at home? Did you have cable six years ago? How about a VCR? Did you have your VCR six years ago? Recently, when I asked the [COT] board how many people had VCRs six years ago, there were a few hands. When I asked how many people have VCRs today, every hand went up. The same with cable. So that in terms of the live-performance market, it's become more complex and more competitive; in terms of the electronic market, it's become a lot more competitive, because people have all these alternative ways of enjoying the arts.

There have been nights where I've stayed home, when I've had the opportunity to go to live performances, where people have said, "Here, I've got a pair of tickets to see something, if you want to go tonight." And even I have said sometimes, "No, I'm staying at home," and I've gone out and rented a movie. I've just wanted to stay in and watch a tape and eat popcorn. And if I feel that way, why not the rest of the world? It's something we in the arts have to deal with.

Philanthropically: You've seen tax-law changes during my tenure. We have seen real uncertainty in the business community as a result of corporate takeovers or the fear of corporate takeovers. We've seen stability in government funding, not growth, so if you do inflation adjustment, you have a decrease.

Even if we were the identical company that we were six years ago, it would be harder, it would be more complex to be around today. I think one might argue that we could not be the same company we were then, given all of these circumstances, that we have to deal with new things to continue capturing the public imagination. Hence Wild Things, hence Carousel.

BM: How do you respond to that electronic competition you mentioned?

MS: I think the answer is to put the best possible work on stage. You know, one of the reasons that electronic media (records, compact discs, or videotapes) of operas are so successful--in addition to the fact that there's a comfort level in being at home while you're enjoying this--is the fact that, in a recording session, they can have singer Smith approach the third act after three days off and a good rest. They can do a retake if soprano Jane Doe gets some phlegm on that high note. There is a "perfection," albeit perhaps an unexciting perfection, but a perfection nonetheless, to these recordings that we're getting these days. In terms of what productions are being videotaped and marketed, they're the international, star-studded productions of the best companies in the world, so that in a certain way the quality of what is out there electronically is really high.

What do we have to do to compete? We have to make what is on our stage theatrically riveting, whether it's a 19th-century piece or a 20th-century piece or a Baroque piece. We need to make it so good as a live experience, given the interaction between audience and artists in our intimate theater, given the interaction between our artists built over a long rehearsal period, given creativity in concept, creativity in execution of the concept--sets, lighting, costumes. We need to compete with excellence and excitement and creativity, so that people will leave the kind of canned perfection of the recording, and come and enjoy the live experience.

BM: Do you think that the two different things help to build each other's market?

MS: I do. Now the fanatic who's always gone to the opera can be more fanatic, because when there's no performance in Chicago he can stay home and listen to a record or watch a video. On the other hand, people who have a marginal interest can experiment with it through electronic means, and if their marginal interest is developed, they can be members of a live audience. I think the awareness level of the arts, and interest in the arts, has increased geometrically because of the ability to buy it and bring it home.

BM: Is it my imagination, or has there been a huge increase in the audience for live performing arts in the last 10 or 15 years?

MS: Absolutely. There has been a tremendous increase in the arts audience. If we look at the OPERA America statistics, there has been a tremendous increase in audience, both subscriber audience and single-ticket audience. There has been a tremendous growth in diversification of the repertory, including premieres and revivals of infrequently performed operas; the repertory has expanded, in that we are exploring the works of the 17th century more than we used to, and we're exploring the works of the 20th century more than we did ten years ago. So I think that at both ends there's a greater diversification. And all of this is before we talk about mass media.

I have the statistic right here: OPERA America was begun in 1970 by 17 founding companies, and the constituency today has 123 companies. So a substantial portion of the OPERA America membership is companies formed in the 1970s.

BM: So this is a national phenomenon.

MS: Absolutely. And I think part of it has paralleled the spread of American cultural life and business life throughout the country. It used to be that the business center was in the greater northeast, which includes New York and Chicago, and that the cultural institutions were where the business hubs were. But today, thanks to air conditioning and irrigation, the business of the United States has spread all over the country. And where businesspeople go, quality of life becomes a concern for an entire community that is growing. With young people you're concerned about education, and with older people you're concerned about the arts and culture. So I think we've seen a real maturing of the United States coast to coast, in terms of sharing in the business life, the educational life, the cultural life of America.

BM: Is this a permanent change?

MS: I definitely think so. I really think that we are seeing arts becoming integrated into our society, the way the arts have been integrated into European society for a long time. I don't think there's a city that boasts of itself without including cultural offerings. If I go to a hotel in any city, and look at the "Welcome to this city" book, the arts are always prominently promoted. As cities develop identities of their own, an integral part of that identity is live arts experience.

BM: A lot of not-for-profit theater groups, including opera companies, seem to be chasing rather eagerly for popular success. Could doing something like Carousel be an example of that?

MS: I associate the notion of chasing after success with doing things that are not part of your mission. And I think that one's programming, one's service to the community, should always be consistent with the reason that one was incorporated in the first place, or the reasons that one has decided to continue in existence after a careful review of the mission statement. So if an organization were dedicated to 17th-century ballet, I would find it difficult to see them doing a Nutcracker at Christmastime. If a company were dedicated to the full spectrum of ballet, from the 17th century to the 20th, I think it would be perfectly appropriate for them to do a Nutcracker at Christmastime.

In terms of Chicago Opera Theater, where we have such a dedication to opera in English and work by American composers, works of the 20th century, it is for us a logical [part] of our mission to [present] American musical theater. So, do I call that chasing after success? No. I do think it is a legitimate exploration of everything within the universe of our mission. And the other aspect of it that really pleases me, and one of the things that's really behind much of this, is that what we're really dedicated to is making opera accessible. In having a production like Where the Wild Things Are two years ago and this coming season again, we are giving families with children an opportunity to test music theater as a life component. Carousel is the next step. People have brought their children, but they've also just left their children at home and come out to have a good time. What we want to do is build a relationship with these new audiences who have experimented in these more accessible pieces, in which they will be open to the possibility that the operas we do at the Athenaeum in English, although they haven't heard of them before, are as enjoyable as what they have heard of, and what they've tried with us. If there is one word that is the mission of Chicago Opera Theater, it is "accessibility." And Carousel is the next step after Wild Things in building a bridge that gets people to enjoying our kind of opera, and opera in general.

I think Chicago Opera Theater serves the opera community to a degree that is disproportionate to its size. When one measures the cultural life in a city, I think one measures its breadth--as in, does it have dance, orchestra, opera, theater--and one measures its depth: does it have more than one point of view in those areas? Chicago is unique--and Chicagoans should know it and be proud of it--in having two opera companies that serve the opera public in as many ways as the Lyric and Chicago Opera Theater serve their public.

BM: I've always seen COT as playing English National Opera to Lyric's Covent Garden. What is your relationship with the Lyric?

MS: [Laughs.] It's a great relationship, because we are so complementary. Everything they do, we do differently. So they're in a big theater, we're in a small theater. They're in the fall and winter, we're in the winter and spring. They're in the original language, we're in English. They do grand opera, we don't. So at every point, there is a reason for both of us to be doing what we're doing. I don't think there's any duplication of effort; I think that both companies are something that should be invested in philanthropically.

Were we subsidized by the government like Covent Garden is, or English National Opera is, perhaps Chicago Opera Theater would be bigger. There is a reality to what we can do, based on the fact that there's such an efficient and successful Lyric Opera doing opera. There are a lot of people who do have an attitude of, "Well, we do support opera" (i.e., the Lyric). "There's no additional money in our budget to support another opera company." But because we're smaller, I think there are things we can do that a bigger company couldn't. I like the way we complement one another.

BM: As it happens, government funding is one of the things I wanted to ask you about. Do you think it's a good thing?

MS: That's such a hard question. I think government funding is a good thing, within reason. I think our government sets an example, and by funding the arts, the government is saying, "Support of the arts is important." And since the arts depend on private philanthropy, it's important that our government gives out the signal that says, yes, arts support is important, and if we do it, you should do it.

Traditionally, the government has made it possible for people to support the arts by making those contributions tax-deductible. That's one way that the government helps. The other way that they help is to set the example for giving by having a National Endowment for the Arts. It is sad when [the arts] becomes a political football.

BM: But isn't that inevitable? If you take the king's shilling, isn't the king going to expect to be able to call the shots?

MS: I don't think it's inevitable. For so many years now, we've had an NEA that has encouraged creativity of all sorts, and right now, lo these 25 years later, members of the right have seized upon a couple of controversial exhibits out of thousands that are uncontroversial and are playing political football with them. I'm confident that we will come out of this with an affirmation of free expression through the arts, and that, once again, the NEA will be setting a great popular example for private philanthropy.

BM: But why should somebody who has objections to, say, the Mapplethorpe exhibit, have to have his tax dollars, her tax dollars subsidizing that? I give to the arts, but just as I don't want my tax money used on stadiums, why should somebody else's tax money go for subsidies for an art form they don't care about? Is this really government's job?

MS: I think, finally, what you have in a democracy is the notion of the common good, and we all pay taxes and we have delegated to our representatives--and their definitions of the common good--certain authority. And my tax dollars build highways in states I'll never visit; my tax dollars build defense systems I may or may not believe are well-guided; my tax dollars pay for sports stadiums. And there's a degree to which, in a democracy, you have to rely on the fact that the people making those decisions have the common good in mind. I would ask those who have a problem with a particular exhibit or two to look at it in a larger context--of creativity and artistic expression in the United States--and recognize that no government policy can reflect the individual sensitivities of every individual in the country.

Some people might say, "How do you feel about arts funding when there are homeless people on the street?" And when it's a question of arts dollars versus food, you have to take a deep breath, but I think society must progress on many fronts simultaneously, that you can't take the problems of the world sequentially. We have to take a look at the whole breadth of society. The way we can solve some of the problems that are non-artistic is to get as many people out there creatively and with imagination, putting their minds to it, as possible.

BM: When you're talking about government funding, how do you guard against the kind of thing you see in Germany, where the theaters are government funded and have carte blanche--but still have high ticket prices--and put on wretched things that nobody wants to see, whether they're extreme examples of modern opera, or things like a Traviata I saw in which Germont wore whiteface and spent the entire opera in a tree, coming down only to sing his arias, or the Peter Sellars version of that sort of dreck that you get in this country? Isn't more government money going to lead to more "Public be damned--we've got the money, we can do what we like"?

MS: I can never imagine government funding getting to the point in this country where it took us out of the public arena or the fund-raising arena. I wish that we had more funding to keep our ticket prices perhaps a little bit lower, to be a little more experimental. But I think there is a good blend between keeping us from being on the brink of life or death on a daily basis--the bad low side--and the bad high side, where we wouldn't have to care about our audiences. And I would hope that we would always have to care about our audience--and not be threatened with death if this show isn't a hit. Someplace in the middle would be my idea of the ideal.

BM: How do you balance the demands of the critics and the academics, who always want to see more experimental things, with those of the people who are paying for the tickets and prefer more conservative choices?

MS: The way to do that is to build trust throughout the entire community. Do you know what I mean by trust? I mean that for an audience that may have a more conservative collective taste than the critics, we need to--and we have done--bring them contemporary pieces that somehow grow naturally out of the idiom that is their preferred idiom. So that our contemporary works have not shocked. Things like Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, and Of Mice and Men, Virgil Thomson's Mother of Us All, [Lee Hoiby's] Summer and Smoke, are works that have a very accessible musical language, so that even though they are contemporary, they do not shock. After years of doing that, we have an audience that comes to look forward to that new experience, because we have built trust.

On the other side, the critics are pleased that we devote at least 25 to 33 percent of our season each year to contemporary works and are pleased to see us continue in the path of challenging our audiences once we've built trust. The critics have come to trust that we have a real goal here, which is to continue a dedication to works of the 20th century, to challenging works of the 20th century. I would say that in Chicago we are also blessed with the fact that our critics are also enlightened as to the realities of how far we can go and still exist. Better to do one piece a year and do 20 years, than to do three pieces in one year, and do two [seasons]. If you do the arithmetic, you come out way far ahead.

It's a constant challenge. And that's in a way what distinguishes the for- profit from the not-for-profit communities. In the for-profit community, you do a survey. If the survey says people want more raisins in their raisin bran, you put more raisins in their raisin bran. The not-for-profit world always walks a tightrope. At one end is, "Give the audience what they want," and yet we in the not-for-profit who have this protection of not-for-profit status also have a responsibility to broaden the horizons, to expand the experiences of our audiences. Otherwise, let's just put on mud wrestling, if that's what people want. We're being pulled to market, and being pulled to an artistic position. I think that's good, that's a healthy balance. I wish that funding were easy enough that we didn't have to struggle every time we make a decision--"What will the impact be on our donor base or our subscriber base?"

BM: I'm interested in knowing how the money is distributed at the NEA. Don't arts people have a lot to say about who gets money from the NEA? Obviously, you need people who are informed about the arts to make these decisions, and that's a pretty inbred world.

MS: The panel process at the NEA is a very good process, where artists and citizens gather to talk about institutions and specific proposals. The same basic process is also used by the state and city arts councils. The panelists--I'd say there are usually about 15--are people who are incredibly committed, incredibly well-versed. Doing a panel is something that people should hope to be asked to do, because it's just wonderful. The panel is a group of artists, experts in the field, and citizens with a great deal of exposure to the field, who gather for a couple of days once a year to review the proposals in that discipline. Discussion is based on the proposal, the personal experiences of [the panelists] with the organization, and reports from outside visitors who have gone out to do formal evaluations.

The panelists base their decisions on a general quality level and general standard of excellence and the merits of a specific program or project, and they don't go deeper into it than that. With the general operating support they receive from the NEA, an institution may, in its wisdom, choose to do an exhibition that is controversial. The NEA doesn't necessarily know what every one of the exhibits is that is planned in a given year, but given an institution's general standard of excellence, we'll deem it worthy of funding. And in a way the NEA is then expressing its trust in an institution to maintain its standard of excellence and live up to that.

BM: But isn't there a danger of conflicts of interest with artists or institutions nominating their friends for these awards?

MS: There's a very, very firm policy of disclosing any conflict of interest, and any panelist who has any conflict of interest must leave the room during the discussion of the proposal, so it just doesn't happen.

BM: How do you get to be on an NEA panel?

MS: Well, the panels are a mix of practicing artists in the field, professionals in the field--i.e., administrators--and informed citizens. I've encountered a mix.

BM: But how does one go about getting recognized as an "informed citizen"?

MS: That really varies; it's different for the federal, state, and city agencies, and you'd really have to ask the agencies for their specific guidelines. But there's usually a nomination process. The city takes nominations; at the state, [Illinois Arts Council chair] Shirley Madigan has to approve each panelist.

BM: Does it help to be a big donor?

MS: My sense is that it's more people who have served well on local committees for the arts. I've never had the sense that there was anything political to it. It's not a plum job--it's a lot of hard work. You've got to read a ton of proposals, and learn about the groups that are applying.

BM: Does COT get much NEA money?

MS: Mmm-hmm. The NEA directly gives us annual support as a professional company each year, and for these past four years we've had support as a challenge program; before that we had a grant from the advancement program. We have had money from OPERA America, which is some money regranted from the NEA; the Illinois Arts Council received some money from the NEA, so by virtue of having Illinois Arts Council money we have more NEA money. So yes, it's been a significant source of absolute support, and programs like the NEA advancement and challenge [grants] are important signs of excellence for the philanthropic community in general. So those funds are leveraged contributions, and they leverage a great deal of support for us.

BM: I've heard accusations of political dealings in the Illinois Arts Council funds. Have you heard the same accusations, that only well-established groups or well-connected groups seem to get money from them?

MS: I was on the opera-choral panel for three years, and I was just tremendously impressed by the responsibility of that panel in distributing money, as I saw, fairly and evenly throughout the state. And there are artificial limits on the amounts that the big organizations can get, so that there is enough money to distribute it evenly. I don't buy any rumors of politics playing a role there. People always have to justify not getting what they've asked for. And rather than recognizing that there are limited funds, or that there may be some other excellent organizations out there competing with them, they come up with self-satisfying excuses that there were indeed politics.

BM: Tell me about OPERA America.

MS: It's a membership organization that is serving professional opera companies in the U.S. and Canada, with some international associates. The range of services is extreme: seminars and workshops to inform, educate, expand the expertise of our members, information exchange, set rentals and costume rentals, annual conferences where we give people the opportunity to come together and to plan together a cooperative production, discuss problems that they've had and ideas they have, on fund-raising and marketing. There are regrants, and a scholarship program for promising young singers.

Advocacy is an important aspect of OPERA America; I'll be working to get as much support for the NEA as possible. But advocacy also happens in promoting the industry and the arts through the media so that the nation is more receptive to our call to tickets and to contributions.

I'm excited to be going there; I'll be able to deal with some of the issues of making opera more central to our society. I won't be worrying about subscription campaigns per se, or marketing an individual opera, but will be thinking more about making more central the operatic experience in our society.

BM: How are you going to go about bringing opera to a larger portion of American society?

MS: I think there are a whole lot of ways. At Chicago Opera Theater, we do it by presenting opera in English, at reasonable prices, in a noninhibiting environment. Beyond that, I really look to media. I think we really need to be creative in our use of the media, not only in the dissemination of performances, on television or radio or film, but I would really love to see--the way we see network sportscasts every night, and the weather report--I would love to see a cultural report, on national news and on local news, so that people understood that their cultural activity was as much a part of their day as their local sports teams or the weather.

The "artistic experience," for me, is key to creativity in the society. Whether they're social problems or health problems, the source for solutions to problems is imagination and its creativity. And imagination and creativity are born in arts experiences. Imagining yourself swept away by the dance, the music, the song. Imagining yourself doing it--those are the images that are created through the arts. Personally, I get in touch with my love for my fellow man very much in relationship with a moving arts experience. After a great performance, I feel at one with everyone in that theater, and I walk out of there embracing the world. I remember walking out of the Met one night after a wonderful Jon Vickers-Katia Ricciarelli Otello--after an experience like that, talk about having sentiments of generosity, love, and forgiveness!

But the arts experience opens up all of those charitable sentiments to us. I don't see the arts as peripheral: I see the arts as really central to the issues of our society.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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