By Mandi Bierly
Updated December 02, 2010 at 08:22 PM EST
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Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Image Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty ImagesThe 92nd Street Y, a cultural and community center in New York known for its arts lectures, is coming under fire for offering refunds to a Nov. 29 conversation between Steve Martin and New York Times Magazine columnist Deborah Solomon. According to The New York Times’ account, midway through the hour-long conversation, Solomon was slipped a note from a 92nd Street Y rep telling her to please broaden the chat — which had revolved primarily around the art world, the subject of Martin’s latest novel, An Object of Beauty — to include his movie career. Martin told the Times viewers watching the interview via closed-circuit television had sent emails to the Y saying “the evening was not going the way they wished, meaning we were discussing art.” The director of public and media relations at the 92nd Street Y told the paper audience members registered “their displeasure with the program” at the event and afterward by email and phone. “On occasion, when a program clearly has not met our or our patrons’ expectations, we have offered patrons a credit.” Ergo, on Tuesday, audience members received an email from the Y’s executive director, Sol Adler, telling them they would be receiving a $50 gift certificate in the mail (the price of their ticket), which could be used toward a future event at the Y. “We acknowledge that last night’s event with Steve Martin did not meet the standard of excellence that you have come to expect from 92nd St. Y,” the email read. “We planned for a more comprehensive discussion and we, too, were disappointed with the evening.” (Fans will get the chance to hear Martin again, however, during a sold-out live Q&A session with the actor for CBS Sunday Morning, which will air live via webcast on CBSNews.com.)

Understandably, Martin and Solomon are not happy with the way the situation was handled. She’s said the Y never told her what to ask before the interview and that she expected the audience would know they’d be chatting about the subject of Martin’s current project, his novel, which hit shelves six days earlier. She also expected that the Y programmers would value that conversation more than anecdotes about working with Alec Baldwin on It’s Complicated and co-hosting the Oscars. Martin’s compared the experience to “a little like an actor responding in Act III to an audience’s texts to ‘shorten the soliloquies.'” He’s since tweeted the following warning: “So the 92nd St. Y has determined that the course of its interviews should be dictated in real time by its audience’s emails. Artists beware.” (The 92nd Street Y has not responded to EW’s request for comment.)

Unfortunately, most of us (including myself) now blogging about this debacle weren’t actually in attendance that evening, so we can’t comment on the first question that comes to mind: Could Steve Martin be boring talking about anything? Still, I think there are two issues here worth discussing:

1. Whose responsibility is it to make sure an audience knows what they’re getting into? I do agree with Solomon that it’s not outrageous to assume that most New Yorkers savvy enough to know Steve Martin was being interviewed at the 92nd Street Y would also be savvy enough to know that the conversation would center on what he’s currently promoting, a novel about the art world. That said, I do think the Y should have discussed the focus of the evening with Solomon, who was handpicked by Martin, so they could have made it crystal clear on their website advertising the event. As someone who had to separate from the rest of her sister’s bachelorette party in Vegas in 2001 to view Martin’s private art collection on exhibit at the Bellagio, I know not everyone is interested in fine art (even if it comes with commentary by a man as interesting and articulate as Martin). On a similar note, I saw Steve Martin onstage last July. If I’d been inviting a group of people, I would have made it a point to tell them he’d be playing his banjo, just so there’d be no surprises.

2. When does an audience deserve a refund for an event? It sounds like the 92nd Street Y didn’t consult with Martin before offering audience members a credit. Ouch. That “discourteous” decision (as he’s called it) aside, should a refund be on the table? On the one hand, we’d all love our money back for movies, books, concerts, Broadway shows we didn’t particularly enjoy. On the other, a conversation — even one you spent $50 to hear — doesn’t come prepackaged. It’s unrehearsed, unpredictable. Offering refunds says whether or not the topic was what you expected, the conversation itself wasn’t interesting, at all. Maybe that was the case: According to the Times, when Solomon read aloud the note she’d received to change topics, the crowd cheered. Some in attendance have suggested Solomon spent too much time sharing her insights on the book, which could be why the Y felt the conversation didn’t “gel.” Regardless, I suspect if the audience had been told the book would be the evening’s focus, we wouldn’t be having this debate.

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