The climbing cost of culture

The diva
We will spend a week in NYC in spring, and I've been scouting the cultural options. Two performances that interested me have dizzingly high ticket costs: Martin McDonagh's play "The Cripple of Inishmaan": $260 per (includes $50 "handling fee", ha!); "Così fan tutte" at the Met: $330. That is not Danielle de Niese hitting the high notes, it's me screaming "Eeeek!"

Same thing at other prestige NYC venues. There are discount ticket booths and rush tickets, but, if wanting guaranteed seats to a performance we want to see, we are stuck in premium-price stratosphere.

In the last decade, Broadway prices have vaulted beyond inflation; the reason is discussed in an Atlantic article by Derek Thompson, here

The columnist
I asked Le Duc, "What will happen when a whole class of people can't afford these kind of performances?" He referred me to a recent piece by La Presse columnist Pierre Foglia, who wrote about the deterioration of the relationship between the bourgeoisie and culture: (Translation below.)

"Ils sont partis où, les bourgeois? Nulle part. Ils se sont branchés sur internet et du coup, ils sont devenus un peu cons. Ils n'apprécient plus les tableaux des grands maîtres, n'écoutent plus de musique savante, ne lisent plus la grande littérature.

Les bourgeois avaient de la culture, les abrutis de consommation qu'ils sont devenus n'ont plus que des opinions, comme s'ils étaient tous devenus chroniqueurs."

Translation: "Where did the bourgeois go? Nowhere. They plugged themselves into the internet, and suddenly, they became rather thick. They no longer appreciate paintings by great masters, no longer listen to classical music, no longer read great literature.

The bourgeois had culture. The consuming morons that they have become have nothing but opinions, as if they had all become columnists."

Though stratospheric ticket prices deter all classes but the wealthy, Foglia takes aim at the relatively prosperous people who used to support the arts: they have instead become what he calls "turbo-consumers", spending their discretionary income on stuff, not performances.

The beer
I squirmed at Foglia's barb, but when I think of what $650 not spent at the Met will buy, I imagine a reasonably-priced dinner à deux and a few Rolling Rocks while listening to a bar band, after which I won't care that we're not at the opera that evening—and I'll have hundreds of dollars left in my pocket.  

And so proceeds the dumbing-down of my cultural life, at least on the most prestigious stages of NYC.

There are options: student recitals, off-off-Broadway shows and local musicians invite surprise and serendipity. I do not care if it's Alec Baldwin or Joe Blow on stage, as long as the performance enthralls. (In fact if it is Baldwin, it's a $150 per person surcharge.)

I am ever more grateful for our local theatre scene. Natty and I especially like  Infinitheatre, where the audience sits in a former city bath (the seats are in the tiled pool) to watch bold productions like the stunning Japanese musical "Hanafuda Denki". 

This show earned five stars at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; we saw it for less than $15 each, thanks to their $75 6-pack ticket deal.

I'm not worried about the Met, which had a very profitable 2013. But in Montréal, local dance companies, small theatres and music festivals are feeling the pinch, as people weigh the cost.

Companies who want to keep their older, loyal audience could offer friendlier pricing options. It's difficult for many seniors to make two trips on the day of a performance to secure rush tickets. A seniors' season subscription would sell more guaranteed seats and is much easier on elders. Hear that, National Ballet?


Anonymous said…
In NYC, consider the 92nd St. Y, Lincoln Center Theater, Off Off B'way. These venues are much cheaper and have higher quality, more discerning audiences. True, a Metropolitan Opera or New York City Ballet performance is special but most of what is on Broadway is garbage for tourists. Many of the halls at Lincoln Center are too large for the music performed within.
LauraH said…
Yes ticket prices are ridiculously high for many events and it's difficult to find the lesser-priced options when you're just hitting town for a short stay. I've been able to find enjoyable free events in Toronto, you have to know where to look and subscribe to email newsletters, etc. Easier when you're a native.

The comments by M Foglia are elitist and arrogant. The internet can open up new worlds of creativity and exploration...or not, as you choose. Going to the opera or ballet doesn't make him a better person, it's a matter of personal enjoyment. What Good are the Arts by John Carey is a fascinating look at this subject.
Duchesse said…
Anon: The fifth paragraph from the bottom describes such options. I agree that what is on Broadway is largely dreck, but knowledgeable tourists do know about, and seek other venues.

LauraH: Foglia writes to provoke, to nudge readers out of complacency, and his criticism, though squirm-inducing, questions what is happening. He's Québec's Christopher Hitchens, acerbic and not afraid to step on toes- arrogant, maybe, but I would not say elitist. Generally, people do not use the internet to partake of high culture.

When I lived in Toronto I found quite a bit of free entertainment or pay what you can theatre, as I do here.
une femme said…
Concerts too can have some insanely high prices. We don't go to the theater often but we are fortunate to have some local companies with lots of talented actors and great production. We saw "Cripple of Inishmaan" here a couple of years ago, put on by one of the small local theater companies, (also some Irish actors, may have even been from original cast?) and it was wonderful.

I don't know that theater, museums, opera are the only ways to experience "culture" or that not forking out for those things means we are being "dumbed down." I can't bring myself to spend hundreds of dollars for an evening's entertainment either.

Sometimes we are offered discount tickets to everything from amusement parks to opera through my employer, and that's how I was able to see Baz Luhrmann's production of "La Boheme" at the LA Opera a few years back.
Susan said…
We usually take in at least one Broadway play, carefully selected, when we go to NYC. And yes, the ticket prices are sky high. Add to that the fact that people show up dressed in clothing I would not wear grocery shopping., but that is another issue.

If you have never been to the bar at the Carlisle Hotel (Bemelman's Bar) consider going there for the jazz and a drink. The artist who illustrated the Madeleine children's books painted the murals in the bar and those murals, together with the music makes for a delightful evening.
Kristien62 said…
I am with you on this. Ticket prices certainly do keep the average viewer away. I have to confine my theater experiences to our Broadway Theater League, where for $350 a year, you can see the road trips of 5 Broadway shows. Because we have a magnificent venue, The Stanley Theater, some companies have been doing "tech shows" in our town. These are the first presentations of new or Broadway revivals. This year we had the tech show of "Flashdance" and "We Will Rock You," both great fun.

I will be heading to Boston for a week and will doing the same as you, looking for some affordable experiences. The Museum of Art is definitely on the list, but I am looking to Berklee School of Music for some other inspiration.
frugalscholar said…
Mr FS and I are culture vultures and cheapskates, so we give a lot of thought to this issue. I have no suggestions on NYC, except to note that museums remain great bargains. Many museums have evening performances that come free with admission. One thought--there are zillions of great music schools there: why not see if there are faculty performances?

One of my opera-loving colleagues got season tickets to the Met (they schedule two operas on weekends): he and his spouse used to fly out! Now they have season tix to the Houston Grand Opera and drive.
materfamilias said…
My parents raised 12 children, but managed by the time I was in my early teens (I'm the eldest) to have season's tickets to the opera every year. Material sacrifices were clearly made for this to happen but we, their children, never felt deprived, were always dressed decently (often in second-hand clothes), fed well, happily housed, and all had music lessons. ON a single, civil-servant salary. We were nowhere near bourgeois, but the cultural life was hugely important, and we've all picked that up in some way.
Now Pater and I subscribe to the Vancouver Opera (our 7th or 8th year now) and while the tickets, especially bought that way, are nowhere near the Met cost, it's a yearly ouch. Plus having season's tickets means being hit up for a donation annually, which I can never resist. The productions never pay for themselves, even at the high cost of the tix and even though the VOA has been managing to fill most seats through really clever advertising and building community relations. But oh, the number of creative people they employ! What hope this can give to young people who want to believe a career can be built in the arts! I feel good about every dollar spent on the opera and any other cultural event I squeeze my wallet for. Similarly, we buy memberships for several of the local public art galleries, doing really good work on shoestring budgets.
And it's all very well to watch these programs online, digitized, but at some point, unless animation is what you want to see, someone pays to get the show off the ground, right?
Glad to see you raising the issue. It's so important.
Anonymous said…
I can't agree that the net doesn't offer culture . We have an annual subscription to concerts broadcast live by the Berlin Philharmonic . This also gives access to over 250 archive concerts which are added to regularly . All this for £120 . We watch this via Internet TV . YouTube also offers countless classical pieces , some of great historical value . Plus classical radio stations are available from all over the world via the net - Seattle has a very good one . Yes , we still have subscriptions to our local concert halls but the net is a valuable resource.
Wendy (uk)
Duchesse said…
une femme: I regret not publishing Foglia's entire piece (and it is not available in English) as it is more nuanced; it talks about people's drift away from live performance and cultural events. While like you, I doubt this is a single-cause phenomenon, the classical music and theatre have long noted the greying of its audiences.

I am also aghast at what some people will pay to see a professional sports team play a game, jammed into a massive arena.

Susan: I have indeed visited Bemelmans, so long ago I had fake ID!

Kristine62: Last year we found "Brits off Broadway" and saw a magnificent performance for $35 each. There is great entertainment in NYC at a relative bargain if you search.

One of the best concerts of my life was a student/teacher program at Berklee.

frugal: I'm reasonably able re scouting venues like music schools; my comments in the post are more about the cost for treating yourself to the prestige stages, the cost of which has risen way beyond inflation.

materfamilias: What a remarkable family! Many opera and theatre companies offer very reasonable tickets to children and students- to bring along the younger generations as both patrons and performers.

The look of wonder on my sons' faces as they sat at the Young People's Theatre, or later at other theatres, was well worth the scrimping it sometimes took to buy the tickets.
LPC said…
And I don't think it's culture that's on the way out, just the staged, high production value, live performance. I found Breaking Bad, for example, to be one of the best instances of classic Greek tragedy I've witnessed.

I miss the days of living in New York, or London, when one could get down to the TKTS booth and see something live.
Duchesse said…
Wendy: The internet delivers culture, no one is saying it does not.

When pay for for archived or streamed programming, they are making a consumer choice, and diverting their cultural dollars to those choices. It's hard for local events to compete- but such is the nature of technology.

While I have enjoyed some streamed concerts, it is not the same as being in the room.
LauraH said…
I'm glad to hear that M Foglia's piece is more nuanced. It sounded as thought a certain group of people were being blamed and insulted for their choices and interests.
Duchesse said…

I too have used TKTS and when I looked at the site now, very little appealed to me. (In my youth, would get rush seats, another great way to get in. But Le Duc has hearing impairment and needs to sit close.)

To see Bryan Cranston on stage in "All the Way"? $170 per ticket.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: Ah, I seem to have put the velvet golves on a man who would not intend that. Actually he is being deliberately snarky and provocative. Foglia is a •social critic• who doesn't hold much back. I was hoping to examine the kernel of hard truth in his barb, as I too have seen people abandoning live performance for canned product- and have done so myself.
LauraH said…
Abandonment of live would be interesting to see some research. What types of performing arts are suffering from this? What are people looking for when they decide where to spend their time and money? Who is attending what and why?

Apologies if I'm responding too many times.
Anonymous said…
Please do not abandon live performances. The Met and Broadway have very different business models than the small, cutting-edge performance companies in theatre, dance and music. A lot of great art is created in the latter, and sometimes championed by the former. As a playwright (avocation) and fundraiser (profession), I think about shrinking audiences all the time. A lot of it has to do with the ease of access our various "screens" (TV, computer, smartphone) give us to entertaining experiences. People have more ways than ever to amuse themselves. Stratospheric ticket prices don't help, but there is more competition for people's discretionary time than ever before. The future of theatre and playwrights like me does not look promising. Some of us think a great deal about this and how to adapt. I don't think raising ticket prices is the answer.
Anonymous said…
I thought Foglia said people were no longer listening to classical music due to the Internet & I begged to differ . Of course streamed music does not compare to the concert hall , which we attend regularly - Almost weekly in the winter & incidentally , many of the performances are well attended by local university students , albeit in the cheapest seats . Surely it is good that everyone has access to classical music however inaccessible their nearest concert hall is & , indeed , despite their own inability to travel . An interesting discussion
Wendy (uk)
Duchesse said…
LauraH: While much of my claim is anecdotal- friends on boards of Toronto theatres and dance companies talk about declining houses, rising costs and deep cuts re government funding, you might also gain some answers from three reports by Hill Strategies :
The relevant Hill Strategies (
1. Patterns in Performing Arts Spending in Canada in 2008
2. Cultural and Heritage Activities of Canadians in 2005
3. Provincial Profiles of Cultural and Heritage Activities (2005)

The comment by Anon@11:19 describes the root cause: the competition for discretionary time and the vast supply of entertainment material available, especially by new technologies. We can, in our part of the world, get cheap calories; we can get cheap culture too, but those products, the fast food of the arts, does not usually support local cultural institutions and artists.

Anon@ 11:19: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. The big-name/big-house world was always a special treat... and now I find it's totally out of reach. But I, (and I hope all readers( will continue to attend kind of performances of which you speak- including your play!

One of the things we will see the guitarist David Lindley play at the Iridium. While it's not the opera, he is a "revered musician of choice" in the family- so much so that my nephew and his partner are flying up from Dallas to go with us.

Duchesse said…
Wendy: He says that instead of attending cultural events, they are becoming "consuming morons"; instead of buying season subscriptions, they buy stuff. I suspect he is generalizing, but his scolding is, I believe, worth pondering.

In my experience, I hear far more people discussing the latest episode of "Game of Thrones" than discussing the most recent live concert by the Berlin Philharmonic.
Susan said…
My husband is on the board of our city's opera and they are struggling. AND prices are sky high. He took his mother to a performance recently and the total ticket price exceeded $400 for decent, but not the very best tickets. No wonder many people are not attending.

I don't know the answer here. The costs (including up keep of a fabulous new venue in the arts district) are very high. Interest in opera is not universal. I enjoy it, but one performance at these prices is plenty for me in a season. What to do.

For my opera dollar, I prefer Santa Fe and their partially open air venue where I can see lightning in the distance on a good not quite stormy night.
Duchesse said…
Susan: There have been many attempts to address the cost of attending a live performance, including showcases in schools, subsidies and endowments. Just like any other consumable, the arts come with varying price points and I am living with that more keenly now.

All: Those who read in French might enjoy this collection of Pierre Foglia's columns:
Anonymous said…
Haven't performances at the grand venues always been rare and expensive treats for middle class audiences? I suspect that most of us patch together subscriptions to local or visiting symphonies and dance companies, community and fringe performances, televised and taped productions, with the occasional special trip to Broadway or the Met. That seems good and reasonable--and not at all "thick"--to me. Cosi Fan Tutte (my favorite!) would be such a treat--I hope you will be able to see it. But if the cost is prohibitive, I highly recommend the DVD of the 2006 Glyndeborne production, if you haven't seen it. Absolutely gorgeous.

MJ said…
I suggest New York Theatre Workshop and/or MCC Theater as wonderful options for new plays. Music schools are a great idea, especially for faculty concerts, and there are lots of other options at reasonable prices(C4, for example). Have fun in "my" city!
Anonymous said…
I occasionally get to enjoy the Boston Ballet and the occasional play but honestly, the pleasure of the performance is lost when I add up the cost of the evening. Good, not great seats, can easily cost well over $180 each. Add in dinner and parking and you have 1/2 a mortgage payment. The critics can complain but high culture is too expensive for most.
SewingLibrarian said…
I think this move away from live performance has been going on for a long time, at least In the United States. I once organized and curated a collection of performing arts programs for a local history collection in Dayton, Ohio. The programs were mostly for performances that took place in Dayton in the first half of the 20th century. There were also programs from the Met in NYC. I was stunned at the variety and quality of performances available to ordinary Midwesterners in the 1920's and 1930's. First films, then television, now the Internet, all have chipped away at live performance. Yet, there is nothing like sitting in a darkened hall with the musicians or actors and watching them perform their magic. That's why we take our children to the family concerts that the San Diego Symphony offers.
Duchesse said…
C.: Foglia says (how I wish I had translated the entire piece!) that, because they are not attending- or attending fewer- 'high culture' performances, they have become "rather thick", not that they are "thick" in their choices. In other words, they are dumbing down.

I see this in myself: do I spend $12 to see a movie, perhaps an 'art film', but still a movie, or at least $85 for the ballet? The movie wins more often than I like to admit. And that means I am losing my impulse to attend, and also my knowledge of such works.

I do have options such as local choirs, theatre and dance, and will go to nearly anything with a moderate ticket price. But I had longed to go to the Met again and it's just not on.

MJ: Thank you, I'll check the calendar for these venues!

Anon@10:22: I just noticed that our excellent local company (Les Grandes Ballets Canadiens) has a Groupon offer for 40% off for any category of ticket. I'm jumping on it, b/c like you, I find usual prices expensive.

SewingLibrarian: I have noticed what you describe, when I visited Le Duc's family in a remote area of Québec and leafed through their scrapbooks from the 20s-40s, full of local or regional recitals and theatre, in which many members of the family performed. If people wanted culture, they had to make it themselves, and attend performances of the occasional touring company. I'm delighted to hear you are taking your children to concerts.

Marla S. said…
OH BOY. So many things to say.

I thought that the Foglia quote was also arrogant and twitty, but he does have a point. I've been on a local chamber music board, and network a lot for my business, and it is HARD to get people to go out and do things all to often. I love the connections and ability to hear and see things that the Internet offers me, but at least I "try" to get out, many don't. The culture of "bowling alone [on Wii]" has taken hold.

That said, there are some classical performances I won't go to anymore - often - either if I know that I'm in for a very stuffy, stiff evening for my $75 ticket. Not all culture is actually enjoyable to take in. I am looking at you, stuffy music ensembles that manage to evoke the worst feeling of Sunday in mandatory church (silent, chair shifting discomfort, eventual tepid applause, someone sleeping in a middle row).

Define bourgeois (M Foglia). When the bougie is economizing for tuition, or to start a new business (my case), $200 tickets are out of reach. For that, a night out equals a month of law office rent or two months of very high end research tools, and just isn't in the picture now. NOT because I just bought a $700 handbag, or gadget.
Duchesse said…
Marla S.: I have found that defending the social class you're in, when it is criticized, is a mug's game.

The definitions of "bourgeois" are available and, in the six or seven I read, quite consistent.
I think he is talking about a small group of people far more affluent than the category in which one could peg Maria.

He is a columnist, and former journalist, at a daily in a major city. He obviously isn't poor. He does come from deep poverty; his parents were Italian migrants to France in the postwar period. And he moved on to Montréal.

Fortunately, due to government policy and student struggles, tuition remains more accessible here in Québec than in most of North America.

The aspect I found "twitty" was the Internet as shorthand. Obviously he works on his computer, and Internet (as I do). "Dumbing down" is a reality, but it is rather more complex than that.
Anonymous said…
Duchesse, I want to teach my 14 y.o. daughter how important the arts are. Although we can afford the price of the tickets to see The Nutcracker at The Music Center here in L.A., I still could not bring myself to spend the hundreds of dollars for it. We settled on The Nutcracker performed at UCLA. It was still a great experience (even without a live orchestra). She was pleasantly surprised - she is not a great fan of ballet, opera, or theatre. Next up is an opera. I am trying to decide which one, and after a little more research I am sure we will find one that won't empty my wallet! Thank goodness for museums.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Because you have commented in the past on your concerns for the survival of the arts, I hope you can take the time to read his entire column.

Anon@10:33: Good for you! Exceptions aside, it is us we who must introduce children and young adults to the arts. I hope your city, like those I have lived in, have pay-what-you-can performances. Those and family subscription series were our primary way to get them into performances. Museums are wonderful for knowledge and discovery but not so much as venues for live performance.

One of my happiest memories is of the time we dragged (and I mean dragged) our 14 yr old sons to "Amadeus". Much complaining. Before the end of the first act they were enraptured, on the edge of their seats.
Oh, I certainly will. I'm involved in such an effort right now, but don't spam other people's blogs with such lobbying.

I couldn't stop thinking about this silly video clip about spoiled youth from one of the wealthiest districts in Amsterdam:

You don't have to speak Dutch to get it. The Rijksmuseum, several other art museums and the Concert Hall are all located in this area, but I don't think these kids are into those.
Anonymous said…
I have been using Goldstar almost exclusively to buy tickets to theater, music, and museum events. (And a ghost walking tour, and a boat ride.) Here in DC, they have a surprisingly wide range of offerings and I see things in venues I would not have found on my own. I am not sure the economics of services like Goldstar are great for the arts companies, but it says a lot that shifting the price point increases my consumption by five-fold or more. [On a practical note, Goldstar is also present in NYC, and I have signed up for ticket alerts from the NY Times and saw some wonderful things on a theater trip buying tickets through their links. Last but not least,I have been getting some incredible offers for NYC combined ticket/meal packages from of all places, although the tickets are usually mid-week and very mainstream Broadway productions.]
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: Thanks on behalf of all readers for this tip. I've signed up (though I had to give my old US zip code) and look forward to checking offers for the time I'm in NY. (Groupon also offer discounts to some cultural events though they too tend toward the mainstream.)

Participation is definitely tied to price, and though I love my newly-earned senior's discounts, I often want to go with younger friends.

Marla S.: So true that some "high culture" events are stultifying; Your comment took me back to some chamber music recitals that made time stand still.

Anonymous said…
All the more to value the Met Live in HD performances which mean we get to see the opera just as the NYC audience. Also Bolshoi and National Theatre London. We used to support our local companies but can no longer afford to, unless we chose to sit in the "gods".
Duchesse said…
Anon@3:58: We too have that at local cinemas, and it is a way to see world-class performances live- a wonderful option. And as a visitor to New York, I will want a real stage in front of me.
Philippa said…
Good grief. I could book tickets for The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House in May right now, for £8 (up to £178! ... 40% of the tickets at the ROH are less than £40). Or the English National Ballet in Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet at the Royal Albert Hall in June for £10. And of course our National Gallery, British Museum, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain, V&A and Tate Modern are all free.

Wow, we are so lucky here.
Duchesse said…
Philippa: Cheaper tickets to the Met and NYC shows I mentioned are available, but my husband is hearing impaired; unless he is in the high-priced seats-the performance is not enjoyable for him. But ticket prices for such venues have climbed far beyond inflation.

I was not discussing museums in either Montréal or NYC in this post; in both cities, museums provide free evenings, and here, several museums' permanent collections are free at all times, but you pay to see special exhibitions.

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