The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arts institutions and the ballpark mentality

When Dan Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999, he offered up naming rights to the stadium now known as FedEx Field (seen here after improvements in 2010). Is the New York concert hall formerly known as Avery Fisher Hall doomed to bear some similar corporate moniker? (Photo by Marvin Joseph /The Washington Post)
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The performing arts are like sports. I say it all the time. Both have ardent fans who enjoy trading insider knowledge and bits of information that seem arcane to the uninitiated. Both involve remarkable physical feats. Both inspire vocal reactions from their audiences, ranging from applause to jeers and booing. And both, often, involve large buildings — an opera house, a football stadium — payed for with a mix of taxpayer and corporate and private money.

So why shouldn’t arts institutions, more cash-strapped than ever, think like ballparks about naming rights?

New York’s Lincoln Center certainly appears to be doing so. On Thursday, the news came out that the organization plans to rename one of its flagship buildings, the concert hall that has been known since 1973 as Avery Fisher Hall. In the wake of the recent extensive renovation of the Lincoln Center Campus, the center is now turning attention to this ugly duckling of a hall, and proposes a thorough overhaul and modernization. It is, accordingly, looking for a new donor to help fund the project, and, as enticement, is offering the right to rename the building.

“Lincoln Center,” wrote Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times, “is essentially paying the [Fisher] family $15 million for permission to drop the name and has included several other inducements, like a promise to feature prominent tributes to Avery Fisher in the lobby of the renovated concert hall.” Given the notoriety of the hall as an unlovely edifice with problematic acoustics, one might think that Fisher’s descendants would be happy to lose their link to it.

Though I am happy to underline the connection between music and sports, I am not wild about this particular manifestation of the resemblance. The corporate names of ballparks tend to annoy me. OK, Wrigley Field is hallowed by tradition, but CitiField and Comerica Park and AT&T Park sound to my ear interchangeable and soulless (as does Verizon Hall in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, an even more troubling indication of where we might be headed).

And the current trend of dividing large institutions up into as many individual stages and galleries as possible, while dictated by financial necessity, leads to a tangled confusion of monikers. When you attend the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House in Dallas, you pass through the Annette and Harold Simmons Signature Glass Facade and take your seat in the Margaret McDermott Performance Hall. I had enough trouble staying on top of the Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage, Kreeger Theater, and Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, all part of the Mead Center for American Theater.

What we’re doing is trying to create permanent monuments, temples to our arts — monuments that offer at best illusions of permanency, given the parlous state of arts financing these days. Yet what the name change at Avery Fisher Hall denotes is the very opposite of permanence. The message that it gives, in fact, is that even the act of dedicating a building is something that can be revoked, or changed, like an old set. The key name here, it seems, is not Fisher, but Ozymandias.

Let’s just hope that the generous donor who eventually comes forward is an individual, rather than a corporation. It would be an act of philanthropy indeed to spare music-lovers the indignity of taking their seats in a Comcast Hall, or, heaven forfend, one named after Monsanto.

A coda to the arts-sports analogy is a nod to its most practical application: how both are covered by the media. Sports pages, in print newspapers, include news stories, features, opinion pieces, and game coverage. Arts coverage should also include all of these elements. If you stopped covering the games, you’d lose a lot of readers, and a lot of the point of the sports page. Why, then, do so many newspapers think reviews — the equivalent of game coverage for the performing arts — are expendable? I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, until I’m convinced everyone has heard it.

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