When 9/11 is History
From the Executive Director
By Ben Cameron
Knowing that this editorial will appear in September—when editors and writers reflect on the first anniversary of 9/11—makes this a more daunting task than usual. How will others make sense of these events? How many of these stories will emphasize the reasons we have to be thankful—that the wide-scale war predicted by many has not materialized (yet?); that the early fears that the World Trade Center fatalities would exceed 60,000 or more were unrealized; that the event—to date—remains one of a kind? How many will proclaim a national loss of innocence and a permanent change in our national identity?
I, for one, am still grappling to find a sense of meaning; I share in the sense of thankfulness but find myself increasingly skeptical about pious proclamations that 9/11 has changed us as a nation forever. Annoying inconveniences in air travel aside, how are we changed? The air of mutual civility that briefly permeated sidewalks here in New York has vanished, leaving us with a pre-9/11 dynamic of pedestrian confrontation and ill-concealed intolerance. Greed, deception and mismanagement tend to make front page headlines with each successive corporate scandal. And, frankly, the theatre community again has failed to unite and transcend sector lines—witness the campaign that urged people to go to a Broadway show (not to theatre as a whole) and the government subsidy benefiting commercial theatres but bypassing not-for-profits. Not a whole lot of change there.
Indeed, we as a nation are repeatedly urged not to change. A Jeff Danziger cartoon, reprinted in the New York Times, shows a bikini-clad woman, drink in hand, floating in an inner tube and saying, “If I have to get out of the water and go listen to the news and read the paper and get all gloomy and scared about wars and stuff, then the terrorists have won.” Our opportunity to mobilize for significant change—much as an earlier generation mobilized during World War II for recycling and victory gardens, for employment opportunities for women, even for planting the seeds of new interracial cooperation—was missed.
If anything, 9/11 was catalytic—speeding changes already afoot, intensifying already held values. Last month’s editorial discussed the state of theatre post-9/11; this month’s report on Theatre Facts 2001 makes clear that the trends now causing us distress were already well in place in the fiscal year that ended before the events of 9/11 occurred. The decline of subscriptions and the dependence on single tickets as earned income grew in ’01. The gap between expenses and earnings—and our increasing dependence on contributed income—widened. The percentage of theatres experiencing negative annual shifts in unrestricted net assets increased from 31 percent in FY ’00 to 44 percent in ’01. The growth of field assets was the smallest in five years. Clearly, our financial stress is not the result of terrorism; rather our financial situation has been tied to the state of the national economy—and with the slowing of the economy, so have our own fortunes diminished.
In order to survive, we must think in radically new ways about who we are as a nation, how we envision ourselves and how we congregate. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, we must be increasingly articulate, not merely about the quality of our work, but about the value of doing the work in the first place.
We’ve heard many of these arguments before—economic stimulus, educational improvement, job readiness skills. Add to the growing list the arguments in Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, a new book that links future civic vitality to the presence of a creative class—scientists, engineers, ad executives and artists of every stripe. Community vitality, Florida notes, will spring from intellectual receptivity, creative practice, political openness and diversity—the latter measured in part by population but even more meaningfully by diversity of ideas and embrace of difference. Florida finds a correlation, for example, between prospering communities and large, openly gay/lesbian populations—not because gay people are inherently creative but because the openness and acceptance of the community is a signal of embrace of difference, of openness to diverse ideas.
On the arts front, true diversity suggests not a community with a symphony, a museum and a theatre, but one with a range of organizations in each discipline—a thriving jazz and rock and fusion scene along with the symphonic; the contemporary and avant-garde visual arts along with the museum; and a range of theatres exploring the canon, articulating voices from many communities, exploring the unknown through the creation of new work—not merely a single dominant institution with a traditional profile, no matter how important or outstanding that institution might be.
Tying civic renewal to creativity is an earmark of future thinking. Cities that have historically linked civic growth to sports, Florida notes, are limited by past visions. A number of cities with professional sports teams also have declining populations, he points out, and the most rapidly growing ones have not a sports team in sight.
It is up to us to position not only the theatre but the arts as a whole as pivotal for success in thriving, healthier communities. And perhaps if we do our work well—and especially if we move to participate more in the international community—9/11 will remain a one-of-a-kind event for many, many years to come.
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