The Rust Belt Theory of Low-Cost High Culture

The joys of taking advantage of once-grand cities’ still-grand cultural opportunities.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Joseph Meyerhoff Hall on Nov. 20, 2008.

Photo by David Harp/ via Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

One Friday evening this past summer, my friend and I arrived at Joseph Meyerhoff Hall, home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, for an all-Beethoven program. But we didn’t go straight in. First, we stopped at a stand outside for some Duckpin Ale, an excellent pale ale made by Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing. We had trouble deciding which of the five food carts to sample, but finally settled on the Smoking Swine. We polished off our plate and drinks just in time for the performance, though the latter was not necessary: Signs outside the concert hall announced, “At this performance, drinks are allowed into the theater,” and indeed, many in the diverse, nearly full-house crowd carried their cups in with them.

The beers cost $3 each. An order of ribs cost $9. And each ticket for “Beethoven and Brews,” in which one of the better orchestras in the country played the composer’s Fidelio overture, his third piano concerto, and his sixth symphony (“Pastorale”), cost all of $15.*

I’ve come to expect this sort of affordable cultural opportunity in the year since my family and I returned to Baltimore after five years of living in the suburbs of Washington. In fact, Baltimore’s strikingly affordable arts scene is one of the many reasons why we decided to move back, even if it was going to mean a longer commute to our jobs in D.C. Soon after returning, my wife and I signed up at a booth at Artscape, the annual downtown arts festival, for a subscription to the city’s premier theater, Center Stage. The cost for each of us attending all of the season’s seven productions? $100. Soon afterward, I snagged two subscriptions to the symphony’s regular season at a special rate for 40-and-under patrons, for which we (just barely) qualified. The cost to attend a nearly unlimited number of concerts, most of them featuring Marin Alsop, one of the most dynamic conductors in the country? $75.

Other venues in town cost even less. Last fall, I caught a recital at Loyola College by a jazz quintet made up of some of the city’s best musicians playing 10 pieces by local composers. Price of entry? $5. Meanwhile, the Second Presbyterian Church puts on top-notch chamber-music recitals every few weeks featuring, among others, members of the symphony. The recitals are free—other than whatever bills you feel like dropping in the bowl on the way out. Also completely gratis are the city’s two art museums, the Walters and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

What gives? Call it the Rust Belt theory of low-cost high culture. Baltimore is one of a handful of cities where the economic might and urban scale of a bygone era (Baltimore was the sixth-largest city in the country as recently as 1960) created both premier cultural institutions and a foundation of local wealth—aka old money—that, however dissipated by time, lingers to this day and continues to provide support for the institutions. At the same time, however, these cities’ decline in population and prominence has left these institutions perpetually on the hunt for new patrons.

The result is a disequilibrium that represents a kind of golden middle: On the one hand, these cities have a richer cultural legacy than younger but more economically ascendant cities such as Phoenix and Charlotte; meanwhile, their offerings are far more affordable than those in creative-class capitals such as New York and Boston, where theaters and concert halls can fill seats with deep-pocketed local elites and high-spending tourists. (In New York, the Philharmonic’s special deal for under-35 patrons works out to about $40 per performance.)

Examples abound in other postindustrial cities. Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery is one of the finest museums of modern art in the country; while it was being built, in 1900, Buffalo was the nation’s eighth-largest city. (Now it’s the 69th, and membership is $50 a year.) The Cleveland Orchestra, one of the best in the world, offers a “young professional” package, with regular concerts and special events, for a mere $15 per month—$20 for a couple. When I visited the St. Louis Art Museum, a monumental building deep within verdant Forest Park, I was stunned by its wealth of German expressionists (it has the world’s largest collection of Max Beckmanns)—all for the entrance fee of $0. In Milwaukee, I spent hours with my laptop at the café in the art museum’s Calatrava-designed wing—looking directly onto Lake Michigan and with plenty of tables to choose from. In Detroit, friends and I got a prime table at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, its oldest jazz club, for a $10 cover.

The Milwaukee Art Museum.

Photo courtesy Mike Willis/Flickr Creative Commons

Now, I’m well aware that even at bargain-basement prices, high culture remains out of reach for many in these cities. But let’s face it, plenty of us are spending as much on our monthly phone or cable bills as one of these annual subscriptions would cost, or regularly dropping half as much on a single dinner out. And yes, those, like my wife and me, with young kids at home need to factor in the cost of the sitter. But at the prices we’re paying for tickets, that add-on is more tolerable.

If there’s any downside to the deal we’re getting, it’s the occasional pang of conscience about under-paying for such a valued good from artists and institutions getting by on a tight budget. In its extreme form, after all, Rust Belt decline can lead to real troubles for their institutions, as it has in Detroit, where the symphony lost most of its 2010-11 season in a bitter showdown over salary cuts (it has since rebounded) and the art museum (free to all local residents) has had to fend off proposals to sell off its astonishing bounty to help the city get through bankruptcy.

Aware of such pressures, I wasn’t entirely perturbed to find that the terms of our deal at Center Stage had changed for the current season, doubling the per-production rate from an insane $14 (barely more than a movie ticket in many cities) to still-affordable $28. We snatched them up and kicked off the season with a superb production of Amadeus.

Some day, the bargains may vanish, once more people here in town realize what they’re missing out on, or once more people from overpriced and oversaturated cities like Washington discover what’s up the road. But for now, the deals are there for the taking, and we’ll be first in line, making the most of our happy singularity.

Correction, Jan. 2, 2014: This article originally misidentified “Pastorale” as Beethoven’s seventh symphony. It was his sixth. (Return.)