How Did We Get Here?

In a recent post, Drew highlights a remark by author Joseph Horowitz suggesting that musicians should no longer expect that orchestras owe them a living wage, i.e., a full-time salary. I thought I would use my brief stint as a guest blogger to elaborate on some of the history that led us to today’s paradigm of full-time orchestral employment. Was the transformation from 1958 when a bare handful of orchestras paid a modest middle-class wage to today’s 50+ full-time orchestras an accident of history caused by the nexus of profligate national foundations and a greedy musicians’ union, or is there more to the story?

The Cultural Cold War

When Van Cliburn returned victorious in 1958, having bested the Soviet competitors at the Moscow International Piano Competition, communism was viewed as a fact of life. The question facing the West was whether or not it could be “contained.” Both sides used cultural institutions to prove the superiority of their civilization. In the early 60’s, the US State Department sent The Cleveland Orchestra to tour the Soviet Union (“Szell Conquers Moscow” was the NY Times headline.), and the CIA covertly funded the Boston Symphony’s appearances at a new music festival in Paris. (…the Boston Symphony Orchestra won more acclaim for the U.S. in Paris than John Foster Dulles or Dwight D. Eisenhower could have bought with a hundred speeches,” according to a former CIA executive.)

The Culture Boom

The period 1958-74 saw the creation of all the state arts councils, the NEA and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Performing arts centers, including the Kennedy and the Lincoln, were built throughout the US; universities created music, theatre and dance departments. Future futurist Alvin Toffler’s The Culture Consumers told of the growing ‘comfort class’ who had the education and income to enjoy the arts and who were flocking newly created galleries, theatres newly professionalized orchestras. Common to all these endeavors was the notion that arts and culture should no longer be the province of wealthy East-coast elites, but should be available at high-quality throughout the US.

In the Rockefeller Brothers Fund report, The Performing Arts: Problems and Prospects, a panel of arts, government and philanthropic leaders articulated specific goals for orchestras in order to accomplish this. By 1975, they said, we should aspire to have 50 full-time orchestras across the US, and the way to ensure the artistic quality would be to extend the orchestral season so that musicians could devote themselves to the art of orchestral playing without having to resort to outside jobs to make ends meet.

Orchestra Life

Symphony musicians’ low salaries amounted to a subsidy for their orchestras according to a NY Times report following Congressional hearings on the economic conditions in the arts in late 1961-early 1962. At that time, only the “Big 5” orchestras paid a salary that was above the median US household income. All of the orchestras ranked 10-20 in salary, a group which included Minneapolis, Cincinnati and St. Louis, paid a salary that was in the bottom third of household income nationally. Clearly, outside of the top handful of orchestras, playing in a major symphony orchestra was a side job, not a profession.

Change Comes

Through the efforts of leaders in business, government, arts and philanthropy, the current model of a professional orchestra career evolved. The Ford Foundation grants of 1965-75 were intended to provide a major boost to orchestras’ quality, length of season and sustainability by providing endowment capital for orchestras that were able to raise matching funds from their communities. By 1970, the national effort to strengthen orchestras had resulted in 52-week seasons for the Big 5, and in following decades, the goal of 50 full-time orchestras paying a middle-class salary for substantial seasons, as identified by the Rockefeller Report, had been achieved.

Throughout the past 50 years, people have raised questions about the sustainability of this model, and today, we can wonder whether the same value is placed on the arts by current leaders. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that we arrived where we are today as the result of a conscious long-term set of goals, shared by the leaders of business, government, arts and philanthropy. President Kennedy clearly articulated this philosophy in 1963:

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

JFK At Amherst College, October 26, 1963

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6 thoughts on “How Did We Get Here?”

  1. Thank you for posting this article showing some of the history of the full-time orchestra in the United States. Kennedy’s remark was especially resonant for me. Every time I’ve brought European guests to hear the Detroit Symphony Orchestra they were amazed by the superb quality of the music and of the hall as well. Cultural ambassadors…

  2. Thank you for posting this article about the history of full-time orchestras in the United States. Kennedy’s comment resonated particularly; every time I’ve brought European guests to hear the Detroit Symphony Orchestra they were amazed by the quality of the music AND of the hall on Woodward Ave.

  3. Thank you for this history. It is so important for us all to remember how we came to be able to do this for a living, and especially the young musicians just starting their orchestral careers. They can learn from this history and hopefully continue to hold on to the ability to make a decent living as very skilled artists.
    It is important to note that our salaries, although good by some standards, are for most orchestras not a great living wage if you take cost of living into consideration, as well as the cost of our education and quality instruments. I recently heard a board member from my orchestra say that it is a “new world” and we all have to learn to live on less. I would take her “less” over mine any day!

  4. Excellent job, Henry. Bravo!
    I think it is very important to understand
    how we got “here”. And why.

    It also gives a chance to open the discussion about the sustainability of the goals as set by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund report.

    I’ve always felt that a city can
    sustain a major league sports team, it should also sport at least a 40-week season
    symphony orchestra. But if the orchestra is
    mismanaged, the endowment is drained, the
    concerts are not well attended, how then
    does an institution repair a “losing season”? It is a topic that goes beyond

    And what about those communities that
    do not have major league sports teams?
    Shouldn’t they have the opportunity
    to hear a great orchestra every now and then? We often lament the lack of an
    educational component with music in the schools, but the Altoonas of this
    country should get a chance to regularly
    hear the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra. As I’ve written
    earlier in this always fascinating space,
    to what might be to some a pollyannish notion (of major orchestras getting back to
    performing in smaller communities), might be part of the solution for today.
    Thanks again for a well written article.

  5. “Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that we arrived where we are today as the result of a conscious long-term set of goals, shared by the leaders of business, government, arts and philanthropy.”

    These words are key. Orchestras today must convince leaders of business and philanthropy (government would be great, but that seems to be a larger uphill battle these days in the USA) that we are essential to community cohesion and advancement. How we do this will vary between locales but there is no question in my mind that excellence of product and advocacy will be paramount.

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