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Mile High musings 

Denver hosts performing arts convention

Nearly 4,000 artists, arts administrators, journalists and top brass from the National Endowment of the Arts gathered in Denver on June 10-14 for a truly pioneering National Performing Arts Convention. Dance/USA, Opera America, Theatre Communications Group, Chorus America, and The League of American Orchestras were the national service organizations that made NPAC happen, with an additional 22 "National Partners" in attendance, including the Music Critics Association of North America, of which I'm a member.

Aside from the usual networking, big-name speeches, vendor exhibits, mini-courses, pep talks and self-congratulation, there was also an impressively systematic discussion of action goals. How can we mobilize to enable the arts to play a more central role in American society?

To facilitate discussion and the capture of ideas, all attendees at NPAC received caucus room assignments with their registration kits, meeting three times with colleagues under conditions carefully calibrated by AmericaSpeaks before the culminating town hall meeting. On June 14, over 1,200 of us powwowed at round tables in Korbel Ballroom at the Colorado Convention Center.

By then, the performing arts community had decided that our main objectives were to enhance ethnic/racial diversity in the arts, upgrade arts education and improve our advocacy on behalf of the perceived value of the arts among our potential audience. Armed with wireless handsets, we voted on action steps for each of these goals -- at the federal, local and organizational levels. Yes, there were nine votes swiftly tabulated by AmericaSpeaks, with bar graphs projected on large screens showing the results.

Amid all the purposeful caucusing, there were sour notes that underscored our sense of urgency. Hosting the opening session, "The Power of Community Building," playwright Anna Deavere Smith was downright contemptuous toward the press, telling her audience that the media couldn't be counted on for advocacy of the arts. At a panel hosted by Music Critics Association president Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun, newspaper columnists from New York, Denver and Seattle joined Smith in urging artists and arts organizations to redirect their displeasure.

Publishers are downsizing news holes for arts stories, decreasing the size and number of local reviews, discarding arts sections in favor of entertainment-and-lifestyle pabulum, and forcing arts critics to accept buyouts. Mean and lean is the new misguided orthodoxy in the ongoing crusade to be more relevant to New Millennium readers and compete with the Web. Exacerbating the crisis, dimwitted editors with no arts training are clueless about the importance of arts and culture in community life.

The coup de grace? Readers of these disintegrating newspapers -- a diminishing breed, these subscribers, to be sure -- are surprisingly apathetic to the precipitous decline in arts coverage and the liquidation of local critics.

Two time zones west of the Queen City, I felt uncomfortably at home. Less than two weeks had passed since Julie York Coppens had written her farewell theater column for the Charlotte Observer. She had accepted the position of editor at Dramatics magazine in Cincinnati, which would bring her closer to her family. Film reviewer Larry Toppman would expand his responsibilities and share the local theater beat with freelancers. No word in this farewell that the Observer planned to replace Coppens with a full-time theater writer. No outrage from Observer readers about Coppens' imminent departure -- and no consternation from theater artists in the lobbies of Spirit Square or Halton Theater.

I asked Coppens whether this was a buyout. "Yes and no," she said, the perfect response of a former employee who doesn't wish to burn bridges. Guess she hadn't noticed that fellow staffer Mark Washburn had been more blunt in a news brief listing Coppens among 15 journalists who had accepted the Observer buyout.

There's no telling how many local arts insiders were at NPAC, though I'd presume that representatives from Charlotte Symphony, Opera Carolina and Actor's Theatre would have hopped a plane. If they were in Denver, it's uncertain whether they brought back the fervid spirit of mobilization that ignited the caucuses or a properly informed sense of urgency.

After all, Steven Brown is still covering Symphony, Opera, and NC Dance back home. Toppman has two previous stints on the theater beat -- and Joann Grose may be on call at her dairy farm.

But if the astonishingly prolific Toppman ever lifts his finger to the wind, he may be surreptitiously scurrying about in search of a career parachute of his own. Reports flew back and forth among the NPAC critic panelists of -- would you believe it? -- newspapers that had discarded their film critics, relying on reviews distributed by wire services.

On the hopeful side, NPAC offered a few luminous examples that we could follow. Not the least of these was Denver's groovy mayor, John Hickenlooper, who played a few licks of honky-tonk piano at the opening session before issuing the host city's greetings and offering his outré vision of 2028.

Kim Robards Dance, still struggling to branch out and gain a foothold in Charlotte, must be pretty tight with that groovy mayor in their hometown. KRD was onstage during Hickenlooper's multimedia 2028 fantasia -- along with a Spanish/English theater troupe presenting excerpts from a production our McCrory and Myrick wouldn't be caught dead with: a bilingual, lesbian Romeo and Juliet.

Across the street from the NPAC HQ, I sampled a tasty variety of fare offered at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, a four-block wonder spanned by an 80-foot-high glass dome housing 10 performance spaces. In the audaciously renovated Ellie Caulkins, I saw a near-ideal production of John Adams' Nixon in China by Opera Colorado. Next door at the Boettcher Concert Hall, seated behind the orchestra, I saw a Colorado Symphony program that included music by Bernstein, Corigliano and Kancheli.

Further back in the complex, I snuck away from my music colleagues and attended a production at one of the four theaters in the Helen Bonfils Complex. The world's only exclusively handicapped theater group, PHAMALY, reprised one of their golden oldies, a production of Side Show that our Queen City Theatre Company will be hard-pressed to equal when they present their version next month.

So much is possible when people open their hearts and minds -- and strive together toward life-affirming goals. On the other hand, one more cynical, warmongering presidency could be the end of everything.

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