A Royal Shame

Royal Blanshard at Broughton.jpg

A lot of things are pushing fine arts to the margins these days, and honestly, a lot of those things are garbage.

Not that long ago, classical music, opera, and dance held prominence in popular culture. If you’re not an avid consumer of those art forms, and particularly if you’re under 30, you might be picturing, say, the beginning of the 20th century. No no. If you’re a millennial, I’m talking about your grandparents’ generation, who saw performances of classical music on late night talk shows, listened to opera on the record player, and read about famous ballet dancers in the news.

Over the few short decades since then, the fine arts have been elbowed out to the sidelines in a number of ways. Consider television for example, where you can find a performance by a symphony once in a while, but only on PBS. Or many newspapers, where “Arts” has transformed into the “Entertainment” section, and fine arts are frequently relegated to latter pages while movie reviews and celebrity gossip infiltrate prime real estate. Sure, there’s some good stuff on TV and in the paper in those pages once filled by the arts; but as I think we can all agree, where a void has been made on our screens, in our ears, and in our pages, there’s also a whole bunch of crap that’s come to take up space.

Sadly, such has also been the case this week in my city, Victoria, where our major downtown theatre, home to our city’s professional symphony orchestra, opera, and dance organizations, effectively booted all three. The Royal Theatre – a non-profit who ran a half-million dollar surplus last year – has doubled its rental rates, imposed unprecedented and unworkable booking restrictions, and effectively dared its three pillar organizations to leave. It’s a gut-shot to the organizations and to the cultural landscape of Victoria – an otherwise artistically-rich gem of a city that I’m usually proud to call my adopted home.

What’s behind The Royal’s drastic changes? The desire to book more touring acts which, management says, they currently have to turn away while the three major organizations fill up prime dates. In making this argument, I’ve heard and read representatives for the theatre use two words that, in their usage, I’ve found positively despicable: “accessible” and “diversity.” In the usages I’ve encountered, the representatives for The Royal mean that they wish to be able to have more dates “accessible,” and that they want to have a greater “diversity” of types of shows. I’ve seen both words used repeatedly by their people, and as a professional communicator, I see what they’re doing, and I find it repugnant.  

The usage leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it does the same thing so many populist leaders and movements do today: it tries to equate culture with elitism (not to mention abusing two heavily-used, even topical, terms in our society’s current human rights awakening). It likens the fine arts to things that are not accessible (meaning: easy to understand and enjoy), and not diverse (as in, only for rich, straight, white people).

Well, Royal Theatre, while you push the fine arts further out to the margins, let me tell you what these three organizations are trying to give the diverse people of our city’s core:

A place for a lonely senior to come and be uplifted by music.

A source of inspiration for a creative young person who feels like an outsider.

A couple hours of real beauty for people who need them.  

A tangible example of the continuous triumph of the human spirit.

A respite from the incessant garbage trying to fill our screens, our ears, our lives. 

That’s what you’ve pushed out of my downtown. That’s what you’ve told my fellow Victorians is less important than whatever touring acts come along (who, by the way, have several other options in the city that are not viable for these three fine arts organizations).

The symphony has already announced that they’ll be taking most of their concerts up to the University’s auditorium next year, which is sad but necessary for the organization given these circumstances. They will leave downtown, literally pushed to the margins of Victoria. And if there’s something we know about the edges of Canadian cities, they tend to be a lot less accessible, and a lot less diverse.

So much for the Royal’s mission statement: “To enrich the cultural life of the region.”

It’s a royal shame.