Dialogue With Clarence Fanto One

Former Managing Editor of the Berkshire Eagle

By: - Oct 05, 2013

Fanto Fanto

Charles Giuliano You describe yourself as a low key, under the radar beat reporter.

Clarence Fanto I arrived as a full time resident of Berkshire County in 1987. I lived here part time spending increasing time for ten years prior to that as a seasonal and weekend visitor.

CG Where are you from?

CF The New York City area. I grew up in Westchester County in Larchmont which is twenty miles north of the city. I went to a public school The Fieldston School in Riverdale. I went to the University of Michigan with a joint major in political science and journalism. Then Columbia University School of Journalism emerging with a master’s in 1968. I worked in New York print and broadcast media for nearly 20 years before moving here. I wanted to live and work here full time. In 1987 the Berkshire Eagle was on the verge of starting a Sunday edition. I applied for and got the job as Sunday editor. From that job I became news editor then managing editor. I continued doing that until 2005.  Then I left for what I call an eighteen month sabbatical. I worked as news director for WAMC Northeast Public Radio. The commute from Berkshire County to Albany became onerous especially in the winter. I’ve lived in Lenox since 1987 and Stockbridge for ten years before that.

In late 2006 I decided that I wanted to write and report. I became a freelance writer with regular outlets for the Berkshire Eagle and with some regularity with what was then Berkshire Living Magazine which is now defunct. There were articles here and there elsewhere. I continued doing that but the freelance market dried up a bit because of the recession. In 2011 an opening for a full time writer at the Eagle opened up. I was enjoying the writing so I decided to take it. I did that for nearly two years then decided that I wanted to slow down a bit because I’m post retirement age. So I went back to a freelance status. Just about a year ago.

CG You describe yourself as a journalist; can you define what that means to you?

CF There’s no mystery or arcane science to it. I’m someone who covers news, the arts, all kind of fields in a reportorial capacity. For a number of years I have also been a sometime performing arts critic. It’s kind of a sideline. I’m an arts and entertainment feature writer of performing arts only. Specifically classical music, Broadway, pop and standards, film music, arena. No fine arts or ballet. Occasionally stage. For the past six or seven years or so also a columnist.

CG You are the only individual in the region reporting on the arts. The Eagle doesn’t appear to do investigative pieces in the arts but you are noted for compiling annual summaries of attendance, budgets and box office revenues. I don’t know of anyone else in mainstream journalism in the Berkshires who is doing that.

CF I don’t know one way or the other if anyone else is doing it. The arts and culture are essential to the County from a creative standpoint. Also in terms of the economy as these fields cater not only to area residents but to visitors which impact the hospitality industry. Depending upon what barometer you use it’s the number two or number three industry in Berkshire county in terms of economic impact and employment.

CG Your annual summary is a great source of information. For how many years have you been generating this annual report?

CF For roughly the past five or six years.

CG Can we connect the dots? Do you see any trends based on compiling this annual data? Is it possible to get an overview of the creative community and the major arts organizations? Of course a part of this has been the state of the economy.

CF That impacted all organizations. There were several organizations with very specific financial struggles. Shakespeare & Company, as you well know, emerged from a near death experience but they seem to be on solid ground now thanks to a massive fundraising effort including several donations in excess of $1 million each. The Edith Wharton Restoration in Lenox is far from being out of the woods. They have whittled down the debt from $9 million to $4 million in the past six years. But they still face a balloon payment of close to $4 million to Berkshire Bank in 2016.

The obstacles to raising money to pay that off are massive. As the director, Susan Wissler, would be the first to acknowledge. She has floated the idea of a partnership with the town that it would acquire all of the property; all of the land 150 acres or so. 

CG Is that doable?

CF It’s very high bar. They are striving and struggling to find a way out of their predicament. It was floated in good faith. The town manager of the time, Gregory Federspiel, has since moved on to a similar post at Manchester by the Sea on the North Shore after nearly 14 years in Lenox. There were discussions and he was open minded to it but it would be a major financial obligation for the town. At a time when the town, like other towns, faces major preexisting conditions.

CG Lenox appears to put up a lot of obstacles to arts organizations trying to develop in ways which allow them to survive. Shakespeare & Company is restricted in what it can do with their property and its abandoned building in varying states of disrepair. When they moved there and sold half of the campus the buyer was opposed in plans to develop it commercially. The town seems to put up roadblocks.

CF I wouldn’t call them roadblocks. The town has its approach. Its codes, rules and regulations. Shakespeaer & Company is in a residential area.

CG Are they excessive?

CF That’s a matter of opinion and not for me to express. Some developers would certainly say so. The heads of certain organizations would say so. Others would say that Lenox is trying to preserve itself as a community with historic roots. It’s a major tourism and cultural destination. They’re being very careful. Whether it’s in excess is in the eye of the beholder.

CG The former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman, in a controversial speech suggested that there are too many arts organizations for communities to sustain. In the Berkshires, for example, there are four major theatre companies where it might suffice to have three.

CF Defined broadly it has been said that there are too many non profits in Berkshire County. They are competing for a limited pool of funds. He made the point on a national level where some have made the point on a regional level.

CG We have a number of organizations trying to reach into the same pockets.

CF There’s a tremendous amount of competition for limited resources. Yes. It’s a struggle for some of them especially the smaller ones. As well as for some of the larger ones as we have already mentioned. So, are there too many? How do you rule any out? It’s reasonable to acknowledge on a limited playing field there are a lot of players competing.

CG At the time having that come from the head of the NEA was very divisive.

CF It seems counterproductive for someone in his position to make that suggestion. Yeah. I’m a great advocate of the arts and I would never want to rule any out. But I acknowledge that it’s a real struggle in an economy which has only partially recovered. During a recession it’s very difficult.

CG Overall Berkshire County is a community of 130,000 residents.

CF But had been in a gradual decline which has slowed a bit. It’s kind of stabilized but been in decline.

CG In those numbers of permanent residents does that include individuals who have properties as second homes?

CF Legal residences. Some second home owners maintain their legal residence here while others maintain their legal residences in Florida.

CG How do you calculate the summer population of the Berkshires?

CF It’s hard to measure because nobody really tracks that. Perhaps the Planning Commission does and you could query them on that. It’s obviously in double digit thousands. People who have homes here but are legal residents elsewhere do not vote here.

CG If leaders of arts organizations sit together in a room how might they discuss the feasibility of their mutual survival? The Berkshire Theatre Festival, for example, has merged with the Colonial Theatre to form the Berkshire Theatre Group. It seems iffy and I wonder to what extent it is workable. You combine two institutions with overhead and debt. It seems like trying to fit two pegs into round holes.

CF Last year it seems to be advantageous. I haven’t done this year’s numbers yet. The Colonial seemed to be on more solid ground than it had been.

CG That’s still relative. Compared to what? You have to consider the baseline.

CF There’s been incremental improvement.

CG But how much in the red was it before that incremental improvement?

CF The Colonial was in a lot of trouble. In my view the Berkshire Theatre Festival offered a lifeline to rescue the Colonial. As we know the Colonial is a real gem. The combined resources are probably strength in numbers. A lot has to do with the financial acumen of the top administration there. The programmers. Kate Maguire is a highly respected arts administrator. She has hired Simon Shaw as a programmer and he has strong credentials. They’ve tried to find the sweet spot in terms of fine tuning the programming mission to find a strong box office. To reduce the number of dark nights at the Colonial during the year.

CG Are you impressed by the programming? From a bottom line point of view.

CF The programming is populist from my point of view. In terms of my personal taste, no, because I would be the first to say I’m not a well rounded guy. I’m not interested in current pop or rock. I’m not interested in Country and Western. I’m not interested in comedy unless it’s people like Billy Crystal.

CG Joan Rivers?

CF No. I wouldn’t put her in that category now. They are striving for programming that fits the demographics of Pittsfield and vicinity. It’s a delicate balancing act.

CG You’re a numbers guy. Do the numbers make sense to you in terms of Colonial programming?

CF They’re doing better.

CG I’m not speaking of taste.

CF Purely financially? Noting that I have not yet compiled this year’s statistics they seem to be in an upward trend.

CG Can we get an overview of the Berkshire arts and hospitality community. Considering Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, four major theatre companies and the museums. You’re the reporter who compiles the numbers each year. From that data can you take the pulse of the relative health of the arts community? When we were having the Homeland Security threat warning they were color coded. What color would you assign to the arts community in the Berkshires?

CF I would say yellow turning to green. I’m seeing improvement and it outpaces the overall economy. Fortunately for Berkshire County it has long attracted an upscale demographic with prosperous individuals and families mostly from the New York metro area. As well as from Boston, the surrounding area, and to some extent international tourism. To some extent these are the very groups which have recovered from the recession. They have the resources. They’re not the top one percent necessarily. Let’s say they’re the top ten to fifteen percent. They have the resources to spend money on tickets and restaurants, retail establishments and many upscale inns. The B&B’s spas and resorts we have here. Most arts leaders of non profits would like to see the recovery proceeding faster. But we’re in a much better position than some other areas.

CG You have to look at the initiatives of the individual organizations. We are fortunate to be able to cover Jacob’s Pillow several times each season. It is rare that we attend a performance that is not sold out or close to it. They have a diverse program and audiences are willing to take chances attending performances by less well known companies. They trust the programming of artistic director Ella Baff.

CF They’ve cornered the market for aficionados of dance. The Mahaiwe presents Paul Taylor and some other dance groups during their year round programming. Jacob’s Pillow under Ella Baff’s leadership is a seasonal focal point. They’ve developed the ability to attract the cream of the crop and appeal to a broad constituency.

CG This summer they brought in L-E-V a company (from Israel) that nobody knew about. The word of mouth from opening night was tremendous. When we saw them on Saturday night the house was packed. When you talk to Pillow fans they all state that L-E-V was one of the great events of the season.

After a number of years of ups and downs and a change of three artistic directors over nine seasons, this summer, under Jenny Gersten, Williamstown Theatre Festival was solid. Her first season was uneven the second improved and this summer was a winner. They sold out the run of Hapgood by Tom Stoppard starring Kate Burton before it opened.

CF Bridges of Madison County got a lot of press.

CG Bridges did well and was a hot ticket. But that’s not true for all of the companies.

CF A lot depends on the artistic director and Jenny Gersten is well matched to the needs of the audience.

CG There were a lot of empty seats at Tanglewood.

CF The summer total overall was down 9%. The popular artists were down 14%. That was largely attributed to the absence of James Taylor. For classical attendance was up marginally.

CG You attend a number of the classical concerts. Looking around the Shed what was your impression?

CF That depends on who is performing. The conductor and soloists. The program being offered. The night of the week. The weather to some extent which was mostly favorable this summer. There was a set back when music director designate Andris Nelsons had to cancel. But most of the tickets had been sold anyway for the Verdi Requiem.

CG Some writers commented on “The Curse of the Bambino.”

CF I thought that was an overreach. Anyone can have an accident. It doesn’t reflect on his overall health and well being.

CG I thought it was in the context of an ironic comparison to the many absences of James Levine. They hired a new young, fresh replacement and all of a sudden, wow.

CF A freak accident.

CG But a familiar result of bad luck for Tanglewood.

CF It doesn’t have anything in common with James Levine’s illnesses and surgeries. But it’s obviously an unfortunate coincidence.

CG Factually you are correct. But emotionally there is a zeitgeist that people connect to.

CF It may be but it’s rather irrational.

CG That’s the nature of emotions.

CF Some are more reason based than others.

CG As you say there are a lot of ephemera for programming and tickets sales. Going back to the Levine years and their problems Tanglewood has lacked stability. This was the only chance to see Nelsons this season. The program was much anticipated. Its cancellation was a setback to getting back on track. Regarding the many factors some are tangible and some are rather intangible. Perception may be reality.