The Berkshire Monsoon of 2008

Was the Summer a Washout for Arts and Tourism

By: - Aug 23, 2008

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Is it all about Global Warming? Or, some kind of Liberal conspiracy?

Weatherwise, there is no question that the Berkshire Summer of 2008 was a washout. The rains came, and came, and came. Putting a damper and wet blanket on our parade.

It started on Thursday, July 3 when James Taylor sold out Tanglewood. Lawn tickets were scalping for $100. Nevertheless, there were only hardy souls seated outside the Shed that night. It rained again on the Fourth but stopped before show time. Though soggy underfoot there were folks on the lawn packed as densely as sardines in a can.

We should have known that something was amiss and this was not just an aberration. Not only did it rain on and off, just about every day but, at times, it rained cats and dogs with dramatic thunder and lightning. During the week of the contemporary composer Elliott Carter the heavens erupted with dramatic lighting flashing through Ozawa Hall providing special flourishes to his roaring and clashing "Concerto for Orchestra."

While the wettest summer in memory it was also the coolest. We put the AC in the window mid July and haven't used it yet. Not even the ceiling fan. Which has made for great sleeping weather.

But didn't seem to motivate the city folk from New York and Boston to beat the heat, as is usually the case, in the generally cooler Berkshires. It is hard to find firm figures, and nobody is anxious to discuss it, but the sense is that city folks were not around as much as they used to be this summer.

With a perfect storm of cool, wet weather, gas prices of $4 a gallon on average, and a generally rotten economy with no turn around in plain sight, a new word was coined: Staycation. Meaning that families did not fly off to their favorite vacation spots. While it is hard to pin down it seems a lot of families took day trips to the Berkshires and other destinations.

Overall, one imagines that the Berkshires fared better than Cape Cod. During cool, wet weather the Cape doesn't offer much in the way of indoor cultural activities. While the lawn was iffy Tanglewood seemed to sell out the Shed for their most popular performances. The four major theatre companies: Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Shakespeare & Company, and Williamstown Theatre Festival all seemed to hold their own but could have done better. For the most part it was a very strong season of superb productions.

During a recent party following an opening night a trustee for a major theatre company confided that it had been a difficult summer. She has been a trustee for the past three years and while commuting to attend performances she noted the large number of vacancy signs posted at motels and inns along the way. This in contrast to the past two summers when it was harder to book a room during the height of the season. Of course the too often overly harsh and dismissive reviews in the Berkshire Eagle and North Adams Transcript don't tend to put warm bodies in cold seats. Which is why more and more theatre goers are seeking other opinions in a range of lively and informative websites such as Curtain Up, here at BFA, and our colleagues, Peter Bergman (The Advocate critic) with his Bright Focus site and  Gail Burns of Gail Sez.

It was widely reported that because of its struggles with the artist, Christoph Buchel, Mass MoCA was a disaster during the summer of 2007. The programming was back on track this season and unofficially the North Adams based museum attracted some 600 visitors a day. The popular Bang on the Can event at Mass MoCA was generally reported as off the peak of previous years.The experiment to open several temporary art galleries in North Adams and to do a better job of promotion did help. Overall, there was more traffic and tourism in Northern Berkshire County but if you talked to gallerists and merchants not as much as had been targeted.

The new Tadeo Ando building at the Clark Art Institute proved to be a draw for visitors. But just how much is difficult to say. Mass MoCA is expecting a surge in annual attendance when it opens the new Sol Lewitt building in November.

The street talk in Pittsfield is that it was a so so summer. While Jae's Spice has recently opened it was too late to have an impact on the season. After a night of Barrington Theatre (just about sold out on a Wednesday evening) last week we dropped in and checked out the space and took home a menu. Even after the theatre, when Pittsfield normally rolls up the sidewalks, the restaurant was hopping. We will return and review Jae's Spice but it appears to have come up with the perfect combination of comfortable atmosphere, inventive food, and affordable prices. Of course the real test of its staying power will come in the mud months.

When the going gets tough the tough get going. During the off season, hopefully, arts leaders will compare notes and work harder to promote and market the season of 2009. There has to be more imagination and synergy particularly in programming.

One great experiment that will be looked at long and hard was the decision to book the rock group Wilco at Tanglewood mid week, mid season. On every level, artistically as well as for attendance, the evening was a great success. Of course, it helped that it was a dry evening which resulted in a huge turnout on the lawn. Had it rained the attendance would have been limited to the 5,000 in the Shed. The evening of the 80 year old Broadway star, Barbara Cook, sold out so quickly that a second performance was added. Surely there is more that Tanglewood might do in this direction. How about A list jazz and soul artists mid season, mid week, in the Shed and Ozawa Hall? There are ways of tweaking the program at Tanglewood while staying true to the traditions and mandates of the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Of course, there is the shoulder season to consider. We look forward to the Tanglewood Jazz Festival which is evolving as a Labor Day Weekend tradition. Jacobs Pillow now conducts a post season event with Mass MoCA. Three of the four major theatre companies: Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Festival and Shakespeare & Company are all striving to create year round programming. There are major events occurring regularly at Williams College, MCLA, Mass MoCA, the Clark, the Berkshire Museum, the Colonial Theatre, and the Mahaiwe. So there is always something going on just not as much. Thank goodness. We need a break.