Apologies to my regular PopCult readers. Yesterday we didn’t post a PopCult Bookshelf. The truth is, I was so stunned and shocked at the passing of my friend Tom Medvick that I simply didn’t have it in me to sit down and write anything else.
Today we’re devoting the PopCulteer to one topic: Population density, or the lack thereof in Charleston and in West Virginia.
Our area has a thriving arts scene. We have more than our fair share of original art, music, theater, literary events and other cultural enrichments. However there is one thing that we have a desperate shortage of–audience.
This state is losing people. Folks are dying (or moving) to get out of the Mountain State. We’re not just losing people. We’re losing people who support the arts.
I’m beginning to wonder if we have enough people to go around to fill the auditoriums, venues, galleries, and bars where art and music happen. Recently, we’ve lost Community Music Live, the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra has drastically cut back on their performance schedule, and Kanawha Players is in the process of divesting themselves of their theater. Kanawha United Presbyterian even discontinued the Kanawha Forum series of lunchtime concerts.
The bar scene in town, which consists of our primary small venues for live, local original music, has suffered of late. If one bar has a show that draws a huge crowd, that usually means three or four other bars in town are playing host to tumbleweeds. For a variety of reasons, it seems fewer people are going out to bars to hear live music.
Quite simply, we have too much culture and not enough patrons of the arts.
Much of this is due to economic realities. The coal industry has held a stranglehold on the workforce of this state for over a century and coal barons have successfully manipulated politicians to block other industries from coming into West Virginia. Now that coal is dying, we have no other industries and it’s plunged West Virginia into a downward spiral of declining population and declining wages.
We used to have a chemical industry, but when Dow bought Union Carbide, they shipped thousands of jobs out of the Kanawha Valley and that meant thousands of educated, affluent supporters of art and music disappeared from the area. We’ve suffered a brain-drain, and it’s especially hurt the Symphony.
The state Legislature has just demonstrated that even with a change of the parties in power, creating jobs and attracting new industry is the lowest priority of our elected officials. The future looks bleak for our state.
It’s a shame when our brightest hope for the future of West Virginia hinges on a meteor taking out the State Capitol while the Legislature is in session.
Just so I don’t depress everyone, there are some things that can be done to maximize the available audience for art and culture in this state. It’s going to take a conspiracy of common sense and a level of cooperation that’s usually not found in nature.
The bars in Charleston need to communicate so that they aren’t bringing in similar bands on the same night. In an ideal world, if the Empty Glass has a blues band, the Blue Parrot should have a metal band, the Boulevard Tavern could bring in an art rock act, and Sam’s Uptown Cafe could book a singer-songwriter. Right now, we’re seeing as many as four bars program heavy metal on the same night, dividing that crowd, usually unevenly, and leaving fans of other genres of music out in the cold.
Another factor that hurts the Charleston bar scene is our aging populace. Fans of live music are getting older. Tastes are changing. Money is tighter. The idea of going out, dealing with parking, folks drinking and worrying about personal safety becomes easier to resist. With no all-ages venues in this town to speak of, we’re not replacing the audience members who simply “grow out” of going out. Kids are growing up with very little exposure to live music. The late start times of shows in Charleston don’t help matters any, but so far experiments with starting earlier simply haven’t paid off. Healthy competition can be a great thing, but needless competition is hurting the music scene.
The same goes for community theatre. Last summer, the Alban Arts Center staged a wonderful production of Neil Simon’s “Lost In Yonkers.” They did this during FestivALL. It didn’t draw the crowds that it deserved. There is no reason in a town this size, where virtually everybody involved in community theatre knows each other, that any stage production should be running opposite another, let alone an entire festival that includes several theatrical components.
There are fifty-two weekends in every year. Most community theatre productions only run two weekends. I know we don’t have more than twenty-six live theatrical productions being staged in Charleston and the surrounding areas in any given year. There is no excuse for the theatre groups to compete directly with one another. Not only does it keep the casts of shows from attending each other’s performances, it also forces some economically-challenged fans to pick and choose which to attend. A lot of folks who love live theater simply cannot afford to pay fifteen bucks for a ticket twice in the same weekend.
This problem even affects the art scene. The downtown Charleston ArtWalk is a wonderful monthly event. Every third Thursday of each month, the galleries in a tightly defined walkable area of downtown Charleston stay open late and have show openings and wine and cheese receptions and create a wonderful, communal atmosphere. It’s a really cool idea and it makes sense that this would spread to other cities with vital art scenes.
What doesn’t make sense is that when Huntington decided to have their own ArtWalk, they decided to do it on the third Thursday of each month-the same night as the Charleston ArtWalk. Art patrons from Charleston would gladly support the ArtWalk in Huntington if it were any other night of the month. Likewise, it’s sad that so many familiar Huntington faces no longer show up to join in on the Charleston art party circuit.
There is a sense of competition among the cultural communities in West Virginia that is self-destructive. We have to have a much higher level of communication between our cultural entities. FestivALL is a wonderful celebration of all the various arts disciplines that we have to offer. But even it can be frustrating, because so many cool things are happening all at the same time.
The unfortunate aftermath of FestivALL is a giant cultural crater in July and early August. That would be the perfect time to have a live theatrical production or bring in a really cool, cutting edge comedian, or even create a great local outdoor music festival. But nobody tries to do that. And during the rest of the year, we still have scheduling conflicts that are simply inexplicable.
I try to remain upbeat about Charleston. We have a wealth of creative people churning out vital and important art, music, theatre, dance, and film. But that wealth may be an overabundance. We need to be realistic about our lack of population density.
There’s a reason we don’t have Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s in this area. It’s because we don’t have enough people with high enough incomes to make either chain even consider locating here. In order for Whole Foods to be successful, they require a very stout population of folks who have more money than brains. Whole Foods is ridiculously expensive and most West Virginians are notoriously poor. A luxury grocery store is not going to succeed when 99 out of a hundred people walking in will take one look at the prices and say “screw this, I’m going to Walmart.”
We don’t have the population density for Dave and Buster’s. That’s a restaurant and video arcade chain that requires a very large, very immature group of people who make a lot of money but are still young and dumb enough to blow it on video games and bar food.
These are simple economic facts. In West Virginia, the people in the correct age range for Dave and Buster’s don’t have the disposable income to support that restaurant. I know a lot of folks around here who’d love to have a local Dave and Buster’s. Many of them don’t own a car.
That’s why we don’t have a lot of things in the Charleston area. The dominant industry, coal, is a lumbering, dying beast. In order for West Virginia to suddenly have enough attractive customers for a business like Trader Joe’s (or whatever other trendy businesses there are that people drive to Columbus to go to) to consider locating here, we’d have to import them. Given our current Neanderthal-leaning Legislature and state government, it’s highly unlikely that Google or Apple are going to decide to relocate their corporate headquarters to Pinch or Nitro any time soon. No decent business is going to move to a state where the priorities of our leaders seem to include legalizing discrimination, making gun ownership mandatory, repealing all water safety laws and removing real science from school textbooks. Growth industries are going to avoid this state like the plague for at least the next year and a half, and unless we can actually get smart people to vote, they’ll stay away for longer than that.
So we have to work with what we’ve got, and that means working together, not stepping on each other’s toes, and finding clever ways to counterprogram so that loyal audiences are not divided.
Don’t schedule your plays at the same time. If a bar books a band that appeals to the same crowd as another bar’s scheduled band, consider having them play early so that fans can go to both shows. If you are an art gallery that is NOT downtown, don’t hold a reception during ArtWalk. Hold it the next day and go to ArtWalk to promote it. If, due to some unavoidable circumstance, you have to run live theatre productions opposite one another, sieze the opportunity to team up and offer a package deal on tickets for the weekend.
This is not rocket science, folks. It’s simple common sense. We have a limited pool of people who have the enthusiasm, ability and disposable income necessary to support live music, theatre, art and all the other cool stuff that we are so lucky to have here. How about we try to make it as easy as possible for those people to attend as many cultural events as they wish. Let’s not put obstacles in their way or force them into making tough choices.
Next year, a group wants to start a Shakespeare festival on Charleston’s West Side. This is a wonderful idea. They want to kick it off with a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Alban is doing the same Shakespeare play in October of this year. Unless they’re going to use the same cast and essentially the same production, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have two productions of the same play months apart. It’s not like the guy only wrote one play.
Some of the ideas I’ve tossed out might not work. Outdoor festivals in the heat of summer aren’t really a great thing to consider, but we do have huge indoor venues that sit empty most of the year. Maybe the community theatre groups could come together and stage small productions for one weekend only, four weekends in a row, starting the weekend after July 4. I’m sure that Limelight, CYAC, CLOG and The Alban or KP could come up with small, two or three-person shows (or CYAC could just make Boxes part of this), that wouldn’t take up too many resources.
But what do I know? I’m the guy who thinks they need to hold an all-ages metal show in a downtown parking building during FestivALL.
Stuff To Do.
Still going on this weekend
That’s it for this week’s PopCulteer. Check back every day for all our regular features.