My overall impression of last week’s American Orchestras Summit was quite positive. All in all, the unique setting and absence of traditional host influence resulted in a noticeably different, and constructive, atmosphere for most discussions. I also appreciated the fact that as a panelist and a member of the audience, the room was well lit so everyone could easily see one another. Accordingly, there was one distinct point during my panel session that produced uncomfortable body language among a large percentage of attendees and I want to explore that topic in greater detail…
The Cleveland Orchestra Miami Residency
One of the overriding themes throughout the entire Summit was how orchestras can improve communicating their organization’s intrinsic value to respective communities. For a useful review of specific discussion points, several of the Summit’s blog authors touched on this subject here, here, and here. Consensus clearly formed around the ideas that orchestras need to do more to convey this message and work toward developing activities/partnerships that reinforce and strengthen these positions.
During one of the early Summit session, the Cleveland Orchestra Miami residence was mentioned as a positive example for how orchestras are moving out of traditional comfort zones to develop new artistic activities all of which reinforce the previously stated inherent value issue.
I couldn’t disagree more.
At one point during my panel, I declared in no uncertain terms that if this business truly believes that orchestras possess a high level of value to their community and deserve continuous support, then the current incarnation of Cleveland’s Miami residency works against every aspect of that position. Furthermore, the residency it is tantamount to depriving the Miami community of the dynamic benefits being discussed throughout the Summit regarding the value of a resident full time professional orchestra. In essence, Cleveland’s program is nothing more than cultural poaching.
These assertions had an immediate impact on attendees and from my vantage point, I noticed a great deal of uncomfortable body language.
Nonetheless, let me be very clear by stating that there is nothing inherently wrong with residency and exchange programs. In fact, they do a great deal of good when conducted in communities that also maintain and support a thriving arts community and several full time performing arts organizations. In Cleveland’s case, it is clear that the Miami residency is seen as an income generating activity and was originally pursued as a means of cultivating new revenue streams.
Consequently, if this business hopes to build credibility throughout the cultural consciousness and funders alike with regard to inherent community value, programs like Cleveland’s Miami residency will need to change, and soon. For example, when conducted in communities that have lost a full time professional orchestra, one of the paramount mission goals should be to reestablish that lost presence. To that end, cultivating new board leaders along with necessary seed money needs to be conducted publicly and with absolute transparency.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
At the end of the Summit, attendees were divided into groups for breakout sessions with the task of identifying actionable items resulting from session activity. At that time, I failed to mention anything about Cleveland’s Miami residency but I’m going to offer up the following post-hoc suggestion:
Given the Summit’s open tone, it would be useful if the organization could host a set of meeting between envoys from elected musician representatives and a group of board members and executives from a diverse cross section of national orchestras. The purpose of the meetings would be to define a set of recommend principles and guidelines related to long term residency programs, especially those in communities that have lost their full time, professional orchestra.
If such an agreement could be constructed, it could then be ratified by representative musicians’ union conferences (ICSOM, ROPA, OCSM, and IGSOBM) as well as orchestra service organizations and individual professional orchestras.
In addition to serving as host, the University could also provide unbiased research and facilitation assistance and therefore play a key role shaping the future of the professional orchestra landscape. I can easily imagine such research also serving as a vital foundation for individual orchestras to use for improving their respective outreach and community value efforts.
I freely acknowledge that the ideas above are not exclusively my own and I would be happy to give credit if the individuals involved in the sideline discussions are interested, but my unique position as a consultant and third party stakeholder makes it much easier to present ideas like this without fear of recrimination.
Ultimately, making an idea like this produce meaningful results requires a significant amount of individual and collective responsibility and fortitude. There is no denying that the Cleveland Orchestra Miami residency issue is an uncomfortable topic but one which deserves earnest attention.