Arts & Literature

On the Horizon

The arts community rallied for natural disasters in 2011, but will it face dangers of its own when a casino comes to town?

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

New England doesn't exactly have a reputation as a likely setting for disasters. We aren't dead center on a faultline; we're well out of reach of most hurricanes; tornado alley is far away. It's hard to find a poisonous snake, even. Outside of a good shellacking via snowstorm, catastrophe is hardly commonplace in our pleasant hamlets.

All the same, 2011 saw Springfield (and points east and west) inherit a strange new scar, an area where roofs are still in need of repair and trees are limbless thanks to a tornado last June. August brought the remnants of Hurricane Irene far north, and the massive flooding that followed brought plenty of misery along, too. When, days earlier, a small earthquake hit just before I was due for a straight razor touch-up in the barber chair, I'd already started to wonder what was up.

Bookend all that with last winter's crazy amount of snow and accompanying ice dams and this year's mad Halloween snow , and you have to wonder if we've unwittingly angered a long-slumbering deity of some kind—if some ancient and hideous slab of Lovecraftian monstrousness has stirred beneath the gnarled hills of fair New England. (It's worth noting that the earth is still shaking: another quake, though much smaller, hit the Valley Dec. 5 and was centered in Northampton.)

When any disaster hits these parts, the same thing happens: benefits and more benefits. If ever a region had the gumption to gather its artistic forces to solicit funds for unfortunate neighbors, it's the Valley.

When arson hit Northampton, musicians raised money. When the tornado whirled through, Angry Johnny put on shows at Easthampton's Cellar Bar to raise funds. When flooding hit Vermont, business owners in Wilmington joined forces with musicians from all over New England to create Floodstock.

It's a great trend, and one that's been in evidence for a long time. It's also a good indicator of the vitality of the arts and music scene. Despite the pressures of a down economy, artists of all kinds have carried on with as much fervor as ever. It's a good thing in a region whose economy thrives on that vitality.

In the very near future, the terms of the equation may change. Instead of the arts community rallying to help friends and neighbors in need, it could well be the arts organizations themselves reaching out a collective palm.

There's legitimate cause for concern in some corners of the local arts world: a new casino will arrive somewhere in the region. It was hard to miss the mix of resignation and concern in the voice of Brian Hale, who's long helmed the effort to restore Springfield's Bing Theater as a local arts center, when he spoke to me for last week's cover story ("Here Come the Casinos," Dec. 22).

It's organizations like Hale's, entities whose programming doesn't generate big profits, that stand to lose the most when such a large competitor for audiences and discretionary income shows up.

It's often true that people speak of arts organizations as they do of any standard business, and claim that they should sink or swim on their ability to do what's popular and lucrative. That view is limiting, since arts organizations serve a higher function than mere income generation. The gambling legislation that recently passed does address issues of competition, and offers ways for arts organizations to seek funds to help offset the inevitable impact of a casino.

But the potential problems of organizations like the Bing, places that don't offer big-name entertainment and aren't in the business of making money, aren't addressed in the legislation. If the extraction of discretionary income affects them, they are more likely to go under. Enough of that, and the nature of the Valley changes, and not in a good way.

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