The Latest Report From Captain Obvious

The 10/10/2011 edition of the Huffington Post published an article by Brett Zongker titled Arts Funding Is Supporting A Wealthy, White Audience: Report that focuses on a recent report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). The article is already making the usual social media rounds but it’s surprising to see it get so much traction when the findings are a) obvious and b) not terribly useful beyond misdirected garden variety class warfare.

The only potentially useful aspect of the NCRP report is it reinforces the need for larger performing arts organizations to reconsider the value in building festival programs based on the Grant Park Music Festival (GPMF) model. If you aren’t already familiar with it, the GPMF serves hundreds of thousands Chicago residents and tourists each summer with a series of free concerts events featuring a traditional, full orchestra and chorus performing a challenging mix of traditional and contemporary programming.

We’ve examined GPMF on a number of occasions and I’ve even worked with them on some dedicated Take A Friend To The Orchestra programs. But the idea is simple (in a complex sort of way): offer free concerts in an inviting public setting that features large performing arts organizations offering the same high quality performances given throughout the regular season.

Grant Park Music Festival 2009 Take A Friend To The Orchestra Concert
"Relevancy In Motion" - from the 2009 Take a Friend to the Orchestra event at Chicago's Grant Park Music Festival

It’s simple from the perspective that performing arts groups do what they do already but in a quality outdoor venue designed to bring communities together without charging admission. It’s complex in that it all has a price tag.

As of now, Chicago is the only city to feature something on the scale of the GPMF but so many mid to large budget institutions are ripe for adopting and customizing this model: Seattle, Portland (OR), Detroit, Cincinnati, Nashville, Dallas, Grand Rapids, Kansas City; the list could go on and on.

At the same time, all of this takes a great deal of effort in the form of rallying support throughout local and state political ranks to help secure funding and partnerships with local municipality parks departments. Likewise, local donors will need to kick in for capital campaign contributions for building and operational endowment funds not to mention artist and ops costs.

Undoubtedly, it will be a great deal of effort but given the other half-cocked strategic plans to increase outreach and relevancy popping up like a twisted version of cultural whack-a-mole, why not focus on one that makes sincere strides toward creating a truly meaningful connection with all segments of the community without ticket price barriers.

Classical music sells itself.

People like it and want it.

The GPMF has been proving all of this for decades and in spades since the launch of Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park. So if nothing else, perhaps Zongker’s article and the NCRP report will do some good by kicking foundations, governments (throughout all levels), and organizational leaders in their collective butts to begin finding solutions to building a national network of accessible civic centers around performing spaces designed to bring people together and serve the community through the medium of live classical music performances.

It’s tough to get more relevant than that.

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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0 thoughts on “The Latest Report From Captain Obvious”

  1. Drew, it’s nice to think that more Gehry-designed civic centers could be the panacea you think it is. I appreciate that GPMF is an ideal summer festival. I have dreams about playing anyplace like it! I’m sure glad that Pritzker Pavilion draws from large segments of Greater Chicagoans as well as tourists. However my guess is that it draws around 80-85% white people because many individuals who are minorities of color have no interest in the offerings, feel “suspect” or worse, stay “underground” maintaining oppositional identities to the mainstream. We can try… but no one is forced to go and “become enlightened by European greatness” or even jazz.
    How is this ALL any organization needs to do?

    If we want new audiences to welcome classical music, are you saying that there’s absolutely no need to go to their neighborhoods, or introduce classical music in any way because the music always “sells itself”? People tell me never to assume, but isn’t it an assumption on the part of classical lovers that “the music sells itself”? If the music sold itself, wouldn’t there be many more people that came to our concerts? Or is this just what we tell ourselves to avoid the hard work of selling it? Except for kids, I think we aren’t really willing to put ourselves in the heads of the new audiences we’d like to reach… much less attempt to meet them halfway.

    Of course, I’m writing in generalities. I know you want me to prove what I’m writing. But I have no studies to cite. However this NCRP report IS a study… and ironically you put it down for being “obvious”. So I’m writing what I think is obvious. Diversity arts organizations (and artists) are growing DESPITE receiving little foundation support. And perhaps we never will, if all influential voices like yours can say is “DUH… GPMF!”.
    What practical purpose does this report serve? How about starting a fresh look at and dialogue about diversity in the arts?

    • Hi Rick, I agree with quite a bit of what you have to say but I first want to recommend that you reconsider taking such a glib assessment of the GPMF audience segmentation. Granted, you’ve clearly mentioned that you don’t know what their audience diversity is live but I can personally attest to the fact that the diversity of the average audience is far greater than the ratios you suspect. Painting them with a broad brush is simply unjustified and misplaced.

      Having said that, I want to reassert that I don’t see any value in the report; not even from the standpoint you suggest of serving as a platform for new discussions about diversity (a topic and goal I’ve been writing about here since the blog started nearly a decade ago). Unfortunately, starting a conversation from such a misguided perspective only warps the entire process.

      I do think your assumptions are missing some substantial perspective, especially with regard to the “classical music sells itself” point. A large component of the diversity discussion is socioeconomic in nature; in short, they aren’t mutually exclusive. One of the primary reasons audience development, in general, has suffered is due to artificially inflated ticket prices that are reaching levels so as to provide a prohibitive barrier for all middle class buyers, *irrespective* of race.

      That’s one of the primary points the GPMF helps prove: when you remove the economic barrier, people come. Moreover, the diversity of their crowds is due to the removal of other, very real, barriers you mentioned which exist to larger degrees in more traditional concert venues, such as feeling suspect. Conversely, the GPMF environment is more egalitarian and inviting.

      So of course, bringing classical music to communities is important, I’m not even sure how you assumed I was purporting otherwise, but using it as means to help bring people together is equally important. And to that end, the GPMF serves as superb example.

      But in the end, thanks for sending in a comment that challenges the status quo. It’s a good discussion and I’m glad we’re having it.

      • Thanks Drew for clarifying what you’re saying. By writing “It’s tough to get more relevant than that”, I misunderstood that you meant it only “as superb example”.

        You’re correct… I did assume audience segmentation was only slightly more racially diverse than what we see here in Detroit. I will have to experience GPMF myself. My apologies. I’m overjoyed that in Chicago, the GPMF experience is as mixed racially as can be.

        In fact we have a similar community space downtown at Hart Plaza where many music festivals take place. A large swath of Detroiters come to enjoy it. Not so many suburbaintes tho. There’s no acoustic stage and the orchestra never plays there. But perhaps that could be a place to build some urban community around classical music.

        Still. I would hope that this report would stoke some productive conversations within foundations. For example one elephant in the room might be that the growing minority segment en masse may prefer “entertainment” over “art”. So perhaps we/they could begin (or continue) by justifying or explaining the values of art in easy terms… because many (black like me or otherwise) don’t seem to perceive a difference, esp. if they never had any art or music in school.

        I’ll search your archives for discussions on racial diversity. My initial search mainly turned up “socioeconomic diversity” and “revenue diversity”.

      • Quite a bit of it was published before moving over to an independent server and therefore substantially improved control over taxonomy. As such, much of it hasn’t been converted to the current indexing system. I recall an entire series of articles with the word “racist” in the title. You could also do a search for “Jerome Harris”, an individual who contributed to those discussions.

        As for provoking conversations on the topic with Foundations, I hope this isn’t the case. The parameters for the discussions would be so skewed that any subsequent conversations would be counterproductive.

    • “Diversity arts organizations (and artists) are growing DESPITE receiving little foundation support.”

      Very true, Rick–and I think there’s some difference between a Diversity arts organization (or artist) and Arts organizations that add to the diversity of a region. Your band and other orgs like Sphinx Organization and Classical Music Across Cultures are doing their best to help bring more representation of minorities into the mainstream arts and arts audiences. That’s a great thing and definitely fits into the former. The latter organizations might be considered non-tradition in an American Arts context though some of these large arts organizations have existed in their respective parts of the world for as long as, if not longer, than the classical music orgs we’re used to seeing here and in Europe (e.g. Symphony Orchestras, Ballet and Opera Companies). See, for example, my post on traditional Chinese Orchestras in the Bay Area.

      The original report does talk about the funding issues regarding both these kinds of groups as well as the communities they serve:

      ”In Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy, Sidford observes that the more a foundation is focused on giving to the arts, the less likely it is to prioritize supporting artistic traditions from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, Native American tribal cultures, rural communities like the Berkshires and other underserved populations.”

      ‎”Only 10 percent of grant dollars made to support the arts (such as visual arts, performing arts and museums) explicitly benefit the poor, ethnic and racial minorities, the elderly and other marginalized populations. Less than 4 percent of grants dollars support advancing social justice goals through the arts.”

      And still Arabic Orchestras, Traditional Chinese Orchestras and other large scale ethnic arts organizations continue to grow. For an example in your area, the Michigan Arab Orchestra has recently switched to a standard concert season with the same models for audience attendance (subscription packages) that we’re used to in the Classical music world. Granted, with the large population of Arab-Americans in the Detroit-Dearborn area, this makes perfect sense–this just means some concentration of economic support since the normal foundation granting infrastructure tends to give far less to these organizations (if the above study is correct).

      I think what Drew is saying (and it seems like you two have clarified your sides below) is that the barrier of artificially high ticket costs is one huge barrier to participation. This is consistent with the NEA data showing decreasing Arts Participation in so-called ‘benchmark events’ (actual concerts) while online Arts Participation is at an all time high for Classical Music (apparently the biggest online audience is for Classical Music, followed by Latin music). And that the GPMF festival is doing very well should be no surprise.

      On the other hand, I also think that audience tastes are changing with the demographic change. I don’t think it is surprising that the population of the US as a whole isn’t aging as fast as the White population any more than it should be surprising that so much of the audience data shows an aging White population comprising the biggest proportion of benchmark-concert-goers and both are declining relative to the population of the US as a whole. I blogged a bit about Aging audiences and the emerging Demographic Racial Gap here.

      At the same time the organizations we seem to be talking about are are actually growing and increasing in numbers throughout the us and this despite the lack of mainstream and institutional support that the Western Arts organizations tend to rely upon.

      I, for one, can’t wait to see how these non-Western Orchestras will impact how we look at the Arts and at the funding for the Arts!

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