It’s been awhile since we’ve examined some of the larger issues regarding how patrons interact with their orchestras on a quasi-universal scale. Nevertheless, it’s high time we moved many of those issues back into the limelight…
In particular, I was inspired by a recent piece written by an old friend of Adaptistration, Stirling Newberry. He published a wonderful article on 8/10/05 entitled Culture is Not At the Bottom of a Yoghurt Cup.
His article examines the inherent political nature of orchestras and other large performing arts organizations. Right from the onset of the article he touches on one of the most intriguing dichotomies within the classical music business,
“[The] issue is that making art is an inherently political act, but it is also inherently a very poor partisan act. The process of composing and producing that music for a wider public involves convincing people that the music is worth playing – and that’s politics.”
Stirling’s correct, it’s these inherently political issues which permeate every aspect of the classical music business; whether it’s non-artistic (audience development, fundraising, and public outreach) or artistic (programming, commissions, and recordings).
How do you resolve the internal incompatibility with the nature of creating art so it successfully functions throughout wide scale cultural consciousness? To illustrate the magnitude of the question, Stirling describes the traditional model U.S. orchestras have used over the past 100 years in one of the most efficient ways I’ve ever seen,
“But the old pyramid process of having large orchestras “decide” who is important, and festivals “decide” who is contemporary is fundamentally opposed to our ethos. It is fundamentally upside down. There are tens of thousands of people trying to write classical music in the US alone. Many of them are so bad that throwing rotten tomatoes at them would be a waste of good garbage. Many are derivative, but producing material which is within the cone of consumption. All have the ability to be better – if they were part of a community and a conversation.
The direction to take is to build a community – not an anti-community. Pyramids encourage those outside the productive zone to form anti-communities.”
That concept of an anti-community is simply fascinating, yet it also goes a long way toward explaining why there is so much classical music counter culture scattered throughout the country. I believe my AJ blog neighbor, Kyle Gann, describes this anti-community as a “downtown” culture among composers in NYC, nevertheless, there are signs all across the country which help support Stirling’s fundamental idea.
For example, look at all of the little no-budget chamber groups and the rise of community ensembles that offer semi regular concerts. They have no connection with their local professional orchestra and those same big organizations usually want nothing to do with them. Nevertheless, these same little groups often perform in the heart of suburban communities to audiences who will never set foot in their larger orchestra’s concert hall (even though those same larger orchestras regularly dream about tapping into that potential audience base).
When was the last time you saw a professional orchestra help establish and maintain both youth and amateur orchestras under the auspices of their nonprofit charter? Or how about this, when was the last time you saw a professional orchestra help establish a community wind ensemble or brass band (after all, what does happen to all those kids who graduate from high school and college with years of band experience)?
How many orchestras actively promote (don’t even think of using the word “sponsor”) their individual musician’s attempts to perform outside the confines of their concert venue? How many orchestras, especially small to mid size budget outfits, offer administrative support to their players interested in maintaining private teaching studios?
All of these questions have answers which lead to increased audience base and work toward fulfilling most orchestra’s mission statement. Yet, this sort of behavior is nearly unheard of.
In the end, the only reasonable path to converting all of this potential energy into something more kinetic will come from the inside out, although some continuous shoving from the outside will only hasten things in that direction. I still believe it’s going to take a cultural entrepreneur from within the ranks of management community (or more aptly from the outside anti-community coming in) to begin the evolution event.
Perhaps the NEA should start directing funds toward this goal instead of always moving it in the same old directions.