Friday, October 2, 2009

Slippery situation for the (Santa Fe) opera


| The New Mexican
"Philanthropic support for the arts often is best observed from a distance; look too closely at the source of support for this organization or that, and beneficiary organizations — not to mention the public — might not be delighted with what they find.

Historically, our country's robber barons — having fled the gutters of Manhattan or Boston — bought legitimacy, along with their new places in Newport and Palm Beach, with enormous, tax-deductible donations to museums, concert halls and opera houses. Suddenly they were elevated to where they could share the moral heights with those whose fortunes were honestly made. Between business titans, there might have been plenty of friction from the elbow-rubbing aspirations of the recent rich, but from hoi polloi perspectives, the patrons of the arts were all just grand ...

And so they were: Americans of succeeding generations benefited from the hard, if ruthless, work of Andrew Carnegie as well as from the shady dealings of John D. Rockefeller — and over the years, distinctions between the two, and so many others, faded in a hagiographic haze. The Carnegie Endowment, and all the public libraries it spawned, and the Rockefeller Foundation, provider of money for vast numbers of beneficial efforts, like so many other organizations, national and local, have done much for many — the arts prominently included.

Here in Santa Fe, locally based and national donors have been indispensable to the arts for which our community is world-renowned — and no one is more aware of that blessing than the Santa Fe Opera.

But its management and board of directors lately have discovered that the distance between donations and the delightful seasons they make possible can be too short for comfort.

Among the legitimate wealth accrued by the long-generous Shellaberger Estate were thousands of acres of mineral rights across the Sangre de Cristo from here. Those rights became gifts to the College of Santa Fe and, to a lesser degree, the opera. The rights, worth only a few thousand dollars a year to the opera, were leased this year to an oil-and-gas broker.

The drilling likely to follow strikes close to home: San Miguel and Mora counties. The sites might not be as scenic as the ones in Santa Fe County where other hydrocarbon companies are being held at bay, but the transaction has caught the attention of anti-drilling activists here and in nearby communities.

Some have begun vilifying the opera, putting new director Charles MacKay on the defensive. He says the company had no recourse other than marketing the rights. But we can think of at least a couple worth considering:

u Seek a way out of the gift — easily said by those who aren't involved in the grinding work of fundraising.

u Become an active recipient, using every opportunity to see that the drilling, if it happens, incorporates every new environmental safeguard. Opera leaders would be persuasive witnesses at land-use hearings.

The first choice would be a relatively inexpensive investment in public relations. But both are iffy: Can such a minority holder hold sway over whatever projects spring from the transaction? If, with its purchase of the College of Santa Fe, City Hall becomes a fellow mineral-rights owner, maybe there'll be some environmental clout.

Either way, the opera is on a momentary hot seat; one from which it should use its board of directors' considerable expertise to remove itself. " Link>>>>

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