It’s Time To Reopen Some Political Discussion

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.

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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2 thoughts on “It’s Time To Reopen Some Political Discussion”

  1. This is a lovely idea. I am all for local collaboration, and we at the SLSO have tried to form more and more partnerships with other nonprofits to maximize our outreach on our reduced budget. But where will the money and staff come from to do all these extra activities you propose? In a time when orchestras are downsizing their staffs, most of us are doing the work of 2-3 people as it is. The NEA gives one-time matching grants for a project, and there’s no reason to suppose that by supporting a community orchestra, the professional orchestra will gain new audience members or donors. So there’s no new self-sustaining revenue generated for the professional orchestra to offset the additional costs.

    The SLSO tried a comparable experiment back in the 90’s. It bought a community music school which was on the verge of bankruptcy, though the school retained its nonprofit independence. The SLSO was also hemorrhaging money, but thought that the strength of the partnership would generate new audiences and donors to the SLSO and attract more students and donors to the school. They were wrong on both accounts. With the link so strong, the SLSO actually LOST donors because donors felt that if they made a donation to one institution, they were supporting both. We emphasized the separateness of the 2 orgs to our donors until we were blue in the face, but it didn’t help much. In 2001 the SLSO transferred ownership of the school to a local university, much better suited to running another educational institution. I’m sure the Utah Symph & Opera folks would have similar donor stories, even if they’re not ready/willing to un-merge (yet).

    Partnerships and collaborations are great, and the classical community definitely needs to do more in that area. But these ideas are time- and money-intensive, and I believe it’s unfair to tacitly accuse orchestras of navel-gazing in these areas without suggesting solutions.

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