The arts in America are borne on the visions of private citizens. Wolf Trap , America’s only national park for the arts, was the brainchild of Catherine Filene “Kay” Shouse, a wealthy, well-connected Washington widow who had a property she loved and a desire to bring more arts to more people more of the time. On July 1, 1971, her brainchild first drew breath when Julius Rudel led the National Symphony Orchestra with Van Cliburn in Wolf Trap’s opening concert. This year, Wolf Trap is turning 40 years old. ¶ By some lights, Wolf Trap has held its own: With an annual budget of $28 million (not counting the National Park Service’s contribution to the facility’s upkeep), it presents about 99 shows every summer and breaks attendance records every year. And it hasn’t radically changed direction over the years. Now as then, Wolf Trap aims to present a range of art, from musicals to Chinese acrobats to Dolly Parton; now as then, it basically represents middlebrow taste. Terrence Jones, currently in his 16th year as president and chief executive of the Wolf Trap Foundation, describes the Virginia facility as family-oriented, a place where people should feel comfortable. ¶ What’s changed is the definition of “middlebrow.” In the 1970s and 1980s, people were eager to see touring ballet companies and Martha Graham, lighter orchestral concerts and well-known classical stars: Yehudi Menuhin, Jessye Norman, composer Aaron Copland conducting programs of his own works. Today, there’s no longer much of a market for ballet and opera company tours (the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, once frequent Wolf Trap visitors, abandoned their regular national tours years ago). And orchestra concerts are not the draw they once were.
“We used to sell out two nights of Tchaikovsky,” says Jones, referring to the early days when the NSO often offered the same program at Wolf Trap over two or more evenings. “Now we’re not even selling one.” The NSO’s all-Tchaikovsky program July 7 had banks of empty seats.