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Operatic drive time

June 10, 2009 |  2:44 pm


Nothing could be more L.A. than the shiny new car that lives in front of the shiny Walt Disney Concert Hall, right? Hardly.

Walking past a new-model vehicle with its showroom sticker affixed to the windshield to get into concert halls and opera houses is a common international phenomenon.  Last time I was at the tony Salzburg Festival, a flashy Audi, if I remember correctly, was parked in front of the Grosses Festspielhaus.

And now the pristine, white new Opera House in Oslo, a year-old and already a landmark, has a pristine, white Mercedes messing up the building’s sculptural minimalism.  It’s a nice car and very nice building, but the combination looks cheesy, just as the Acura does on Disney’s door step.  Moreover, Oslo’s Mercedes, which doesn’t get great gas mileage, adds an extra dose of dissonance when you consider Norway’s reputation for environmental awareness.

DSCN2444 Still, we needn’t be too harsh on these automakers.  They’re still supporting the arts and doing so at a time when other businesses are pulling back.  And we have to hope they keep it up, given how car companies are currently faring. As much as I dislike the Acura in front of Disney or the Lexus at the Hollywood Bowl or the Mercedes at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, I dread the possibility of them being driven off these prestigious lots.

The German, Japanese and Swedish car companies, at least, understand the importance of culture in a way Detroit doesn’t, and that’s a worry. Volvo, for instance, has its headquarters in Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, and the company has long been the major supporter of the Gothenburg Symphony.  The orchestra, now headed by Gustavo Dudamel, has become a huge attraction and is in great demand internationally. 

On a recent visit to Sweden, orchestra officials told me that Volvo remains committed to its sponsorship, but they worry that Ford, which owns Volvo, will pull the plug. The economic downturn has now hit orchestras overseas, and the Gothenburg Symphony had to cancel a Japan tour with Dudamel next season.

Two years ago, I attended the first Manchester International Festival in England, and Saab was a major sponsor – attractively painted Saabs with the festival logo could be seen driven around town.  This year Saab, which General Motors owns and has bankrupted, is not on the list.

Oh, yes, and thank you Acura for those tasty brownies that you sometimes serve to Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences after concerts. Affixing your logo on them doesn’t bother me in the slightest and is, like Saabs tooling through Manchester, my idea of positive branding.  But Acura and Mercedes might rethink where they park their cars.  Interfering with Disney and the Oslo Opera House can create a negative impression.  I now wince every time I see a white Mercedes on the freeway.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Oslo Opera House after a peformance June 1.  Credit: Mark Swed / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (4)

here's a link to a picture of the Acura brownies if anyone is curious: http://mixedmeters.com/2007/06/advertising-with-disney-hall.html

Thank you very much for this article, Mark. I felt the same way a few years ago when a luxury car was slapped right in the middle of Lincoln Center Plaza, complete with splashy searchlights -- as if some kind of alien craft had landed and was emitting rays that sucked the energy from all around it.

It was galling to see such a storied center for the arts, funded by so many (not as well resourced) government and philanthropic programs designed to encourage access to the arts for all, so crassly turned into a car showroom. I had assumed this was part of some strong-arm sponsorship deal that my colleagues working in the arts would never offer unbidden, but later came to the depressing conclusion that it might not be so.

So I can't tell you how good it is to see you take a stand against such intrusions, and hopefully wake up the people who are imposing them on us. I think sponsorship deals that seek to do so with little or no consideration of the special character, context and needs of arts organizations are bound to be counterproductive in the long run.

I'm with you -- keep the money coming, I'll eat the brownies, but can you please consider why it might not be the greatest idea to park that car in our plaza?

They've also put a hot-dog stall on the roof of the opera (which is a major tourist attraction). Perhaps they use the Mercedes to tow the stall?

Of course it is sometimes difficult to balance the "crass commercialism" with the tasteful elegance of an evening with the arts. That said, car companies donate enormous amounts of money to support these arts organizations - without these sponsorships, much of the programming and/or services offered would not be available. So, while I agree that cars parked in front of these beautiful arts centers can sometimes cause me to roll my eyes, does it really take away from my enjoyment of the evening? Not really. I can see how it might bother you if you are an unrealistic idealistic purist who thinks art should be offered without any of this hullaballo, but let's face it, it's never been that way, has it? And we should remember that even with individuals who support these places, organizations often bend backwards to please them with their requests (which can remain unseen to the public).

I remind myself that were it not for these sponsorships (and other contributors) I would not be able to enjoy that art provided at the price I am getting it at, well, it's a pretty fair trade.


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