Stop Blaming Philanthropists for the Opera and 2015 Meltdowns - Voice of San Diego

Balboa Park UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Stop Blaming Philanthropists for the Opera and 2015 Meltdowns

If the board members and employees trying to orchestrate a dramatic rescue of the San Diego Opera do not succeed, it will not be because of San Diego’s philanthropic community.

The other day, John Lamb at CityBeat wondered what happened to the San Diego Opera and whether it could be linked to what happened to Balboa Park Celebration Inc., the entity charged with putting on a grand party to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the 1915 Panama California Exposition.

Scott Lewis on Politics LogoWe investigated the 2015 meltdown here.

Lamb pointed to some fascinating data about San Diego’s philanthropic community.

That, he wrote, is what’s to blame:

The report found that “the overall philanthropic climate in San Diego is under-resourced as nonprofits are highly dependent — actually, disproportionately dependent compared to their counterparts throughout California and the nation — on government support and earned revenue.”

And the kicker: We’re not even close to as generous as San Francisco and Los Angeles. Lamb writes that the money being donated in San Diego is going too much to “medical wings or biotech centers emblazoned with the names of their generous benefactors.”

“Perhaps in today’s what’s-in-it-for-me world, such generosity has become endangered, leaning toward extinct,” Lamb wrote.

The data may back him up on this point, but it’s not why the Opera and 2015 parties failed.

I am actually becoming convinced that it would have been a disservice to just bail the Opera out and let it continue.

• The general and artistic director, Ian Campbell, wants to quit. The company is facing a daunting deficit, has depleted an endowment and is simply out of money. Attendance is plummeting.

Campbell does not want to reform — to downsize it into something he thinks would embarrass the institution. But he also doesn’t want someone else to pilot it.

Were he to quit, he may also relinquish part of his contract.

As has finally come clear, Campbell can now line up as a creditor to the organization as it initiates a fire sale, and he might get some part of what’s left.

• Had someone come in and bailed the Opera out with a giant, multi-year donation or endowment, I don’t think we would have concluded that San Diego was an exceptional city of great philanthropy. In fact, we might have derided the decision to simply preserve an institution in which the community was so rapidly losing interest.

I don’t agree that the measure of a community’s commitment to culture is in its willingness to bail out failing institutions whose leaders are dead-set against reform.

Organizations do not downsize easily. I think there is money for a dramatically different opera in San Diego, but we may never know how much.

If the board members and employees trying to orchestrate a dramatic rescue of the San Diego Opera do not succeed, it will not be because of San Diego’s philanthropic community. It will be because the people in charge wanted the Opera they had and would rather see the whole thing die than get a new version.

And they had the power to make sure that happened.

As for 2015, I’ve decided that the main problem is that nobody ever knew what it was going to be.

They started planning for a Super Bowl, but they didn’t have a Super Bowl.

They started trying to raise money to host the World Cup, but they didn’t have a World Cup.

Ultimately, they started to get something of a vision, but it was hardly clear and whatever it was, it was derailed by relentless turnover and political mismanagement.

And even when they realized it was probably not going to work, people like then interim-Mayor Todd Gloria let their emotions take over and continued to pretend like whatever was going forward still had a chance.

By the time we all woke up, it was a year away and we had nothing to show for it.

This isn’t a problem with philanthropists. Organizers never developed anything worth selling to philanthropists.

The city may indeed be crippled by a smaller civic sector intent on using its wealth to bolster our culture.

But that’s not what doomed the Opera or the 2015 celebration.

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