Single Gal and Culture in San Jose

Yesterday’s excellent guest column by Andrew Bales reminded me of when I was having lunch with my uncle the other day and how we got onto the topic of culture in San Jose.  We talked about the theatre, opera, symphony and ballet, and how all of these various local arts groups have had a difficult time sustaining themselves in San Jose.

There has been much written and discussed about the San Jose Repertory Theatre needing a large subsidy to continue operations, as well as some smaller theatres, including The Theatre at San Pedro Square—all wonderful places with great plays—that simply could not make due without some help. 

There has also been much discussion about the ballet, symphony and opera here, and how they all face, or have faced, uphill battles when it comes to drawing patrons and making money. Why is that? Wasn’t there a day and age when going to an arts production was THE thing to do?  Nowadays we find most people—and maybe not just in San Jose—would rather go to Ultimate Fighting than put on a tuxedo and listen to the fat lady sing.

After our discussion, my uncle said he was convinced that these cultural outlets won’t even be around when my generation turns middle aged because we have no interest in them.  But, I was thinking: is this something you grow into? Or, if people my age aren’t taking in the cultural events that are offered in San Jose now, is there any hope for them to do so in the future?

If that is the unfortunate reality, what will be the fate of theatre companies, the opera, ballet and symphony in San Jose?  Should resources be put into something that might not be around in 10-20 years?  Or, is that all the more reason to start trying to influence the younger generation to keep an arts culture in San Jose? 

As Andrew Bales pointed out, with our world changing so fast, these difficult questions need to be faced and answered by our citizens, local arts supporters, and the new regime at City Hall. Otherwise, those tuxedos will get dusty and the fat lady will sing for the last time. 


  1. SG writes: “Nowadays we find most people—and maybe not just in San Jose—would rather go to Ultimate Fighting than put on a tuxedo and listen to the fat lady sing.”

    I don’t understand the value judgements here. Why is Ultimate Fighting “bad” and the opera “good?” What’s wrong with people attending Ultimate Fighting? it’s not my cup of tea, but if it floats your boat, so be it.

    Recently the Rep did a play “Christmas Story” based on a popular film. Is this somehow worse than some artsy-fartsy cutting edge stuff nobody can understand? I’m guessing Rep attendance was up last month. Anybody have any information on this?

    If our cultural institutions are not giving people what they want, they deserve to fail. If there not enough snooty types around here to sustain opera, San Fran is only 50 miles away.

  2. Perhaps this is not so much of an indictment of San Jose as a cultural wasteland, but the failure of arts education in our schools.  We do not bring up children in an arts culture anymore.  Children don’t have a chance to accept or reject the arts on their own merits because schools budgets don’t have the depth to expose children to the arts.

    Hold the state legislature accountable for this failure, not another failure of “downtown”.

  3. There are several venues surrounding San Jose where the arts and culture can be enjoyed.  These are successful operations. I’m thinking about Villa Montalvo, Concerts in the Vinyard above Saratoga, The theater at De Anza College, just to name a few as well as several wonderful museums with great collections.  I think the problem is the idea of going “downtown.”  Valley Fair began the demise of the downtown as a place of interest.  Pay to park!  I know there is free parking on weekends but all the venues I have mentioned above, parking is not an issue.  Downtown San Jose has some fine restaurants, the HP Pavillion, a rowdy weekend nightclub scene but then what?

  4. SG, things have deteriorated so much in the area of entertainment that today’s kids and a good number of adults simply can’t sit through any form of entertainment that doesn’t have things blowing up or crashing every few minutes.  Blame TV if you want, but parenting and education also must be factored in. 

    This is a big part of the problem.  There is no sophistication regarding entertainment anymore, just a visual and audio assault like a two-by-four over the head.  Heaven forbid any kid would have to sit still and follow the plot of a Thin Man movie or something.  Opera?  ROFLMAO!

  5. SG bemoaned: ” Nowadays we find most people—and maybe not just in San Jose—would rather go to Ultimate Fighting than put on a tuxedo and listen to the fat lady sing.”

    SG, would that be the “stilted world of a darkened theatre with too many mid-priced tuxedos staring back at you.” of which Mr. Bales wrote so disdainfully?

  6. The demography of the greater Peninsula and South Bay—and its concommitant cultural ‘folkways’—are the most determining factors in why certain cultural events work better in different parts of the Bay Area than othes. This concept that San Jose is an independent civic entity just doesn’t jibe with the way people live here, in which they cross multiple city boundaries all the time.

    Here’s the marketing truth: San Jose and the South Bay, broadly speaking, play the role of the residential areas for the mid/high Silicon Valley managerial class, and, on our eastern side, for some of the service class.  Because of our housing stock, the linking element is that we are also a place for people of multiple classes who are raising families.

    As a result, cultural activities that appeal to these classes (this would be family-friendly activities that are not too highly priced) will meet with high demand. And super high-end cultural activities will be more readily accepted in areas closer to the homes of the Executive Classes—those communities along the hillsides stretching from Los Gatos, through Cupertino and Los Altos, up to Palo Alto.

    This is not about value judgments, it’s about knowing where your audience is. And making the most of it.

    Example: I took my 9 year old boy to the Stealth Opening Night at the Arena and it was perfect for us: close, well-priced, and full of thousands of other dads with their kids.

  7. Everybody complains and we all do something other than support these institutions by attending them. Just asking, when was the last time any of us went and experienced the *arts* downtown?

    I had an AMT subscription last year. I didn’t buy this year’s because the shows did not appeal to me. In recent months, I’ve attended high school and college musicals (outside downtown). And I’ve been to the Improv a couple times in the last year. It’s low-brow but it’s something. The cost of most of what was offered downtown in the last year far exceeded the expected benefit.

    How about the rest of you?

    FWIW, Rose Garden Dad is right on. It’s all about the demographics.

    And RIPavilion #3, if the Legislature already spends over half the state budget on education, how much would be an appropriate amount? 2/3? 3/4? 90%? I blame them simply for hamstringing local districts, which could provide a great deal more than they do if their paperwork and the ed code were cut in half.

  8. It doesn’t seem to get much coverage here at SJI for some reason but the SJ Art Museum is truly top shelf and is always putting up high quality shows.

    A family membership is the best deal around.

  9. After attending San Jose Opera’s fall production, I can see why the arts are floundering in San Jose.  I realize that it is not the intent of SJ Opera to put on productions as in San Francisco, but the mediocrity of the experience was surprising.  My comment is not meant to reflect on Ms. Dalis, I have the highest regard and respect for her, her vision and accomplishment.  Perhaps my expectationas are too high for San Jose.

  10. #9 – I go back to the lottery initiative when I rail on school funding.

    Remember how the lottery take was supposed to fund the “extras” for schools?  To provide supplemental funding for things like, oh, say, arts education?

    There was a key loophole in the legislation.  The initiative stated that the funds apportioned from the Lottery “are not intended to replace state funding for education”.  Nowhere in the initiative was there a guarantee that lottery funds would fund the “extras”.  Nothing in the initiative prohibited the legislature from saying, “well, the schools have all this lottery money coming, we’ll deflect what we would have budgeted for the schools into some other pork barrel project because the schools have this guaranteed funding”.

    A friend of mine who’s particularly anal about his vote discovered this loophole when he read it and voted no on the Lottery for just that reason.  He saw this coming.

    And now the kids that were supposed to be helped by the Lottery are the ones suffering for it.

  11. No amount of Guvmint spending is going to cure this ‘problem.’

    San Jose is a very wealthy and very mobile city, and RGD above in #7 encapsulated what goes on with entertainment in San Jose and its environs.

    As long as easy access exists to the absolutely top-notch theatrical and operatic productions in SFO, anything done in SJC is going to (at least initially) pale in comparison.

    It’s been demonstrated over and over that, around here, people will drive the extra 1-1/2 hours to get a superior experience, or a superior value for their entertainment dollar.

    So, if the ‘arts’ such as they are in San Jose are going to aspire to SFO levels, then someone with major dollars is going to have to pony up a good chunk of those dollars – both for a new venue and for a company worthy of that venue.

    And since most of the folks with that kind of money live out in the West Valley, it is entirely possible that their preferences for such spending will lie 50 miles to the north.

  12. Looks like San Jose’s new crown jewel of a fake downtown, Santana Row, is on its way to being just like dowtown!  Why not pile police on top of police over there as well.

    Look at this from the Mercy news…..

    Three men are in jail awaiting charges for an alleged drive-by shooting at Santana Row that wounded a security guard early Friday morning.

    The 55-year-old security guard, whose name hasn’t been released, is expected to make a full recovery, Santana Row spokesman Ed Kiley said.

    San Jose police had asked two of the suspects to leave the upscale shopping and housing complex about an hour before the shooting, Sgt. Nick Muyo said.

  13. Mr. Bales, consider the demographics of downtown and the immediate surrounding areas.  I doubt if the majority of local residents are in the tax bracket to contribute to these organizations.  You’d need to tap possible corporate sponsors in the area.  The arts area not alone, those of us who attend Mass at the Cathedral are told that small weekly contributions are not enough.

  14. I drafted the “guest blog” on Monday but wasn’t able to touch base with it again until late Tuesday when I found the conversation continued by SG.  In the responses a factoid is being used in error that colors most of the comments.  I feel obliged to correct this data point. 

    The marketplace for the arts in San Jose is not the problem.  Attendance in San Jose theatres is generally quite high.  Not too long ago AMT had the highest subscription numbers of any theatre in America.  Last month while AMT was producing its new holiday spectacle to more than 20,000 paying patrons,  the Ballet was offering over 25,000 attendees its annual Nutcracker and the Rep far surpassed its goal for its month-long run there.  At the same time our Symphony concerts were completely sold out and the month before the Opera, with whom we share the California Theatre, was also sold out. 

    People willing to pay to attend the arts in San Jose has not been the problem here.  In any given year one or another group may have a difficult period, but overall attendance is not the challenge.  It is false to assume no one wants it or that we are facing the last audience we will ever have. 

    (A side-bar: There is a famous New York City reviewer who wrote that he was saddened as he attended a marvelous sold-out concert only to look around and see that the attending audience was so old that he felt certain he was in the last generation there would ever be for such a concert.  That was written in 1934 and I doubt we still have many of those patrons in our theatres today, so somebody must have decided to show up since then.)

    The challenge in San Jose is civic pride.  In other communities arts groups are treated as civic treasures to be supported with contributed dollars.  To be supported by groups who see this as their home and who want a full range of civic services here including the arts, sports, libraries, and parks. Certainly there are generous patrons in San Jose, but the relative level of contributed support falls far below that of other cities.

    Too often San Jose audiences think of an arts ticket as they do a movie.  A fee-for-service with the fee covering 100% of the cost of production.  It is entertainment   rather than culture.  It is seen as a fair trade commodity. 

    The arts are not able to sustain themselves on earned income alone.  This has always been true.  The arts are a labor-intensive form with those you see on stage trying to eek out a living in this high-rent region.  Why is it that a struggling rust bowl city like Cleveland can support one of the world’s leading orchestras, a major performing arts facility and some of the finest museums in the world, while the wealth of the Silicon Valley isn’t able to endow any of its major arts groups?

    It is a question of values and maturity.  I believe time will cure much of this, but it wouldn’t be bad to have some that comfortable wealth shared a bit earlier.  Capture some of the boom town economic gains, rather than wake up to the need when times are more difficult overall.  Attendance isn’t the issue,; management concerns are overused as a defense against being supportive ; pride of place in civic San Jose is the challenge.

  15. While I appreciate Mr. Bales’ further explanation, the bottom line is that if the “arts” are failing, then they have only themselves to blame.  We have seen in prior articles here stories on the long-term failure of SJ Rep, facilities woes for the opera, blah-blah-blah.

    Mr. Bales stated that “San Jose audiences think of an arts ticket as they do a movie.  A fee-for-service with the fee covering 100% of the cost of production.  It is entertainment rather than culture.  It is seen as a fair trade commodity.”  In that, he is absolutely correct. 

    If the “arts” cannot sustain themselves on the revenue generated at the box office, then they have two choices:  Raise prices, or cut expenses.

    San Jose has a Grand Prix that is being conducted on crumbling streets.  A light rail system that so far has proven to be quite adept at taking people from where they don’t live and moving them to where they don’t want to go, and doing so in a supremely inefficient manner.  A police force whose ranks are barely able to serve a city the size of Oakland, much less San Jose.  A mortgage on two city halls.  Shrinking and closing health care facilities.  Balkanized neighborhoods.  Etc. Etc.

    “Civic pride” can only go so far.  First, the basics of municipal governance must be taken care of fully and completely, and those basics have been ignored for the past eight years courtesy of Gonzo.  If, and when, those basics are being cared for properly, then we should start discussing the “arts.”  Anything else is placing the cart before the horse.

  16. Andrew – I apologize if I have misread you.

    However, having been a longtime resident of San Jose prior to leaving a couple of years ago, I have continued to watch with a gimlet eye many efforts to restore “the arts” to San Jose in general, and Downtown in particular, many of which drank deeply of the fount of money generated by the Redevelopment Agency, and yet foundered on the rocks of overly heightened expectation, being sold as the Last Great Step to making SJC a “World Class City.”

    Damn.  I used that silly phrase.  Now I have to go hit myself with a sack full of pennies…

    (whack) Ouch!  Mmfff…where was I?  Ahh, yes. 

    I think what you are getting at (and please forgive me if I am incorrect) is that San Jose right now lacks that someone who can, with their private finances, create that nucleus around which “the arts” can grow and prosper.  Of course, obtaining that sort of infusion of cash would be a Good Thing – the trouble is that such money like that is very mobile, and is able to better spend it elsewhere, to San Jose’s detriment.

    The thrust of my thought here is that San Jose is back in the midst of its quasi-decadian personality disorder, where the city in general (and the polity in particular) seem to get very uncomfortable in their own collective skin and try to transform themselves, and San Jose, into something it’s not.

    Such restiveness can have good outcomes – like the HP Pavilion, but at the same time can also have decidedly negative outcomes – like the ‘transit mall’ and Pavilion development, or even going back to the 1970s with the CPA.

    Perhaps if a closer relationship existed between the city and the University (with its extensive alumni listing), there could be found an easier solution to this problem.

  17. Mr. Bales, you are still missing the point of demographics.  Downtown doesn’t house Medici, Rockerfeller, or Carnegie.  Nor is it home to a Jobs, etc., etc.  Refer back to #7.

  18. Note to JD:  In getting my point you missed it.  Civic Pride is not about a government grant, it is about the personal priority that the citizenry places on certain civic functions.

    The arts have never been a pay-per-service venture that could sustain themselves.  Be it the Medicis of old or the Rockefellers or the Carnegies or many other patrons that are currently active in many parts of America, the arts have always had benefactors.  In Europe it is a governement support system, in America it is private philanthropy. 

    When we envy the riches of San Francisco you have to look at where the funds come from.  It stems from a heritage of major gifts that built endowments over decades.  Only a month or two ago the Menlo Park-based Hewlett Foundation deposited $25 million in those SF arts group’s endowments.

    The arts in San Jose, as was noted in today’s blog by Tom Mac, are not as fragile as all that.  When nothing could work in San Jose, the arts held on.  He noted the boondoggle of a grand symphony palace as a failed concept but at least that concept never spent any real civic money.  Many a for-profit venture drank at the well of redevelopment to find nothing viable to come from it.  Remember the grand shopping plaza once called The Pavillion with its many incarnations? And where did those funds come from and how many times were funds sent down that drain.  (Only yesterday an adjacent city parcel was given to developers to try to ressucitate a struggling downtown corner.)

    I don’t begrudge either the SF groups for their windfall or the City for trying to work on land use projects that don’t always succeed.  The arts by definition work on projects that have the opportunity to fail written all over them every day. However,  the ability to fight again and be part of the civic culture through greater and lesser works is part of making a community whole.  I do not consider the arts a failed effort here, far from it, they are among the most successful ventures in downtown.  But when an arts group struggles it is seen as a failure rather than a process.  I wish the value system that judges all these were set on a fair playing field.

    It was a cheap shot to think that the symphony hall concept of the old symphony was the poster child for bad planning – there are too many bad projects that actually burned money along the way, why use a trial balloon as your definiing project. 

    When you ask how healthy is the downtown, ask any restaurant owner how healthy it would be were it not for the arts in downtown? 

    When I speak of Civic Pride I speak to those who live here. If you accuse me of seeking City support ahead of other priorities then you betray a sense that being part of the city only means voting for elected officials and asking them to carry the entire burden.  That is democracy in abstentia. When more of us care about the city beyond the tax rolls then San Jose might grow to become a major American City.

  19. Anybody read the Metro story re how one man—Mr. Anagnostou—almost singlehandedly revived a part of downtown Redwood City?

    How?,He worked with the RDA and the City planning & building staffs, and (here’s the big difference) they worked WITH him!!! Duh!!

    A lesson for our RDA and planning & building staffs, who generally know how to put up incredible roadblocks, but often little else.  Maybe we should send our folks up there for some seminars on how to work WITH people for the betterment of the city.

  20. When I read of folks discussing the culture in San Jose I recall my childhood days of entertainment in being downtown.  Every Sunday the entire family would make the noon major feature at the Fox California Theater on South First Street.

    I remember this being a major outing for all of us, usually stopping in Pete’s Smoke Shop prior to buy candy and cigars for my Dad. If we weren’t running late it would be Carroll & Bishops on Santa Clara Street.  Back in the 50’s this was a “big deal” and I only hope that families can again appreciate the best kept secret in San Jose, that being the beautifully renovated California Theater. 

    Thank you again to all of those talented people that made this possible and for hopefully bringing back some historical culture for the next generation.

    For those of us raised in San Jose the theater is definitely a nostalgic trip down memory lane.  I only hope that others can take advantage of this “gem”.

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