Pandering to grants

A recent article by Greg Gittrich from the New York Daily News does a wonderful job detailing an all too common problem with a course of action undertaken by orchestra management: pandering to grant money. The article outlines how a $330,000 grant for the Brooklyn Philharmonic to study whether city school kids benefit from regular music classes. What I mean by pandering to grant money, is that orchestras seem to design their mission statements around grant proposals instead of simply creating art for the sake of art.

For example, here’s the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s Mission Statement:
“To be a nationally recognized symphony orchestra, introducing the best new music of our time while shining light on the great repertoire of the past. The Brooklyn Philharmonic is committed to education and serving the needs of diverse communities of New York’s most populous borough.”

You can see that education has as much attention as artistic issues. At this point I start to think back to a wonderful statement from one of Andrew Taylor’s recent blogs:
‘Lie About Costs’ – Okay, perhaps a bit harsh, but a common limit on foundation funding is that they will not cover overhead (rent, heat, light, etc.), only incremental project costs. Since such new projects necessarily take attention and energy away from other activities (staff only has so many hours in a day), and since foundations often won’t recognize this fact, arts organizations are left to be dishonest with their funders and with themselves about what things cost (usually by padding their project costs, or just forgetting to account for them). In my humble opinion, the inability to accurately reflect true costs (cash, personnel, opportunity, etc.) to others and to themselves is one of they key structural flaws in arts organizations.

Although I’m not saying that the education department at Brooklyn Philharmonic (and the others that will receive money from this grant) is decidedly crooked. However, I am saying that their grant seems to be a large sum of money to conduct a redundant study. It only serves to further blur an already fuzzy line between education and artistic output as their primary mission. Given this appearance, it seems hard to see where the funds for this study will serve one goal or the other. Will the funds from this grant simply aid the orchestra’s bottom line? Is this just another windfall to help pay for the bills during the next three years? Are educational programs just a convenient socially acceptable excuse to bring in operational funds?

Here’s where I see all of this all of this is leading: It seems that the tail is wagging the dog in many orchestras. They appear to spend significant time and effort creating programs designed around grants instead of focusing on the long term goal of consistently creating top notch artistic performances. Arts Journal’s own Doug McLennan wrote a wonderful piece that touches on some of this subject entitled Why Government Is Bailing Out Of The Arts.

What’s your opinion? Should orchestras expend so much effort toward programs that are not directly related to creating art? Would you, as a patron, be more inclined to donate money to a fund raising campaign designed to allow your local orchestra to create an assessment protocol regarding how its arts program helps at-risk students in music, English and math or for future artistic programming? Is education just as important as artistic output? I’m looking forward to hearing and posting your thoughts.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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