The Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, CA (Photo by Jim Heaphy, via Creative Commons)

The Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, CA (Photo by Jim Heaphy, via Creative Commons)

A deadly warehouse fire taking the lives of 36 people during a concert in Oakland, CA has ignited a series of legal and political flames throughout the country. Known as Ghost Ship, the warehouse flew under the radar operating as a music venue and DIY live/work space for the city’s artists without proper permits. The tragic events have brought forward conversations about the crushing cost of rent in American cities, the primary hubs of artistic activity. In the wake of the fire, underground spaces like Ghost Ship are facing increased pressure to get their buildings up to code, spurring forced closures in Nashville, Denver, Los Angeles and Baltimore so far. A group of right-wing whistleblowers mobilizing on the 4chan message board, calling themselves the “Safety Squad,” is using the Ghost Ship tragedy as an opportunity to crowdsource permit and fire code violations in these “hotbeds of liberal radicalism and degeneracy.” The call to action may have resulted in as many as 16 closures nationwide in a push that recalls the alt-right’s attacks against artists associated with #Pizzagate and attempt to take over science fiction’s Hugo awards.

On the bright side, Ghost Ship has brought the dire need for affordable artist housing to the attention of public officials and foundations. Just days after the fire, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced a previously-planned $1.7 million grant initiative involving her office and three Bay Area nonprofits establishing a capital fund to acquire affordable spaces for artists. Elsewhere, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh announced a new task force to create “safe art spaces” following a shuttering of the Bell Foundry warehouse, and the Austin Creative Alliance debuted an $100,000 program to aid displaced arts and music venues.

Will Rocky “Make Art Great Again?” Wide-ranging cabinet picks have been appearing in the news nearly every day, which means that it’s likewise time for the incoming Trump administration to select a new head honcho for the National Endowment for the Arts. Donald Trump has reportedly floated Sylvester Stallone as a potential pick, causing many an arts administrator’s head to explode over the past few weeks. On the other hand, Stallone’s recognizability, deep connections, and career-long love affair with big-budget box office hits could bode well for shoring up political support for the perpetually beleaguered agency. Though the actor (and sometimes painter) has praised Trump’s “bigger than life” persona, Stallone stopped short of endorsing his run for President. Stallone, reportedly flattered by the idea, doesn’t appear wholly interested, feeling he’s better suited to a job in veterans affairs. Regardless of who gets the job, the new Chairman of the NEA could well push a conservative agenda, with implications unclear for the Endowment’s otherwise promising, newly announced five-year research agenda and new research projects.

Diversity, coming soon to a theater near you (if you live in the UK). Beginning in 2019, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) will no longer give prominent awards to films or television shows lacking diversity onstage or backstage. According to Slate, projects will need to meet diversity standards in at least two of the following categories in order to be considered: “on-screen characters and themes, senior roles and crew, industry training and career progression, and audience access and appeal to underrepresented audiences.” The UK equivalent of the Oscars is perhaps hoping to avoid a controversy similar to the #OscarsSoWhite (and subsequent #OscarsStillSoWhite) blowups of the past two years after consecutive years of all-white contenders in the Academy Award acting categories.  Further policy changes at BAFTA include a new rule about voting members, in which candidates no longer require an endorsement by two existing members, echoing a similar move by the Academy Awards on this side of the pond. Britain has likewise been criticized for a lack of diversity in live theater, noted by playwright Andrew Lloyd Webber in a new research report that calls the industry “hideously white.” A report from the Arts Council of England, however, cites a significant uptick in representation for people of color working on the staffs of Council-funded theaters.

A new law could help you get Hamilton tickets. Despite the unprecedented success of Hamilton, it should be making even more money. Approximately $30,000 per performance is going to third-party vendors, who buy up huge swaths of seats and resell them at astronomical prices. Unlike ticket reselling services like Ticketmaster, which has a contract with concert venues, it has been estimated that third-party sales via ticket brokers are bringing in $12.5 million annually on Hamilton alone. In a report by New York’s Attorney General, less than 50% of all tickets to the city’s highest grossing concerts are made available to the general public, many of which are purchased en masse by automated ticket “bots” and resold far above market price. The controversy has gained some attention in Congress, and the bipartisan Better Online Ticket Sales (BOTS) Act, aimed at curbing online scalping by banning such bots, was passed into law December 14. Beyond the direct impact of this piece of legislation, its quick emergence out of a bitterly divided Congress is a very pleasant surprise.

Christmas tragedy in the Black Sea. A plane carrying the Alexandrov Russian Army Song and Dance Ensemble to Syria crashed in the Black Sea on December 25, killing all 92 passengers. Among the dead are 64 members of the Russian Army’s music and dance ensemble, known for promoting Soviet nationalism with military songs and traditional Russian instruments, which was on its way to Syria to perform for troops stationed at the Khmeimim Airbase in Latakia. Only three of the group’s singers survived, having stayed behind in Moscow for personal reasons. Though Russian officials have discredited accounts of the crash as an act of war or terrorist attack, the news has nevertheless sent shockwaves of sorrow across Russia with the loss of a beloved performing arts group. Perhaps the last transportation accident this disastrous for the arts was the 1962 crash of Air France Flight 007 that killed 106 Atlantans, many of whom were prominent figures in the city’s arts and culture sector.

MUSICAL CHAIRS / COOL JOBS:

  • Grantmakers in the Arts president and CEO Janet Brown announced plans for her departure from the Seattle-based service organization at the end of 2017.
  • Robert Rauschenberg Foundation chief Christy MacLear is moving to Sotheby’s, where she will expand the auction house’s capacity to advise living artists and foundations. Meanwhile, Guillaume Cerutti takes the top spot at Christie’s, as Patricia Barbizet steps down.
  • Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Isaac Luria have been announced as the new joint directors of the Voice, Creativity & Culture program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
  • Ballet B.C. Executive Director Branislav Henselmann will move into the public sector to lead cultural services in the City of Vancouver.
  • Mark Sebba is the appointed chair of the newly formed MutualArt Group, a merger between the Artist Pension Trust and MutualArt.com. Both organizations were formerly led by Moti Shniberg.
  • Arts criticism continued its slow decline at newspapers this month, with the Austin American-Statesman laying off Jeanne Claire van Ryzin after 17 years without announcing a replacement. Meanwhile, arts reporter and critic Mark Stryker posted a public statement to Facebook announcing his departure from the Detroit Free Press after 21 years.

NEW RESEARCH OF NOTE: