Are Audiences A Reflection Or Projection Of What We Want?

There’s an interview with outgoing San Francisco Symphony (SFS) executive director Brent Assink written by Mark MacNamara in the 4/4/2017 edition of the San Francisco Classical Voice that’s worth your time. Although there’s plenty of topic fodder, one area worth examining for today is the section on outreach to African-American communities.

Here’s an excerpt of that entire section:

However, one community that has been out of reach is the African-American community. Assink explains it this way, “we don’t have the resources or the energy, or whatever it is, to slot ourselves into a logical relationship with the African-American community, a relationship built on the kind of cultural tradition we have in other communities. If you don’t have that connection, the effort feels forced; it feels artificial, and then, I think, you’re worse off than if you didn’t do anything at all.”

The symphony’s reaction has been to work ever more intensely with every elementary school in the San Francisco School district, through the Adventures in Music program, and reach out not only to children but to their parents. The hope is that parents can experience the music first-hand and reinforce the idea of an opportunity for their children.

But, of course, the problem is that because music classes have been dropped there’s less context for music written hundreds of years ago and played by people who dress oddly.  And with attention spans shrinking the symphony would seem on the defensive. That, however, should not be a strategy according to Assink.

“So we have to educate but we don’t have to educate apologetically. We don’t have to say, ‘you know you might give this a try; you might like it.’ Instead, we need to say to them, ‘look at this music that’s been around for hundreds of years; it’s showing no signs of losing its appeal, more people are coming to listen to the San Francisco Symphony than ever before. So what’s going on with this? You can enhance your experience by learning more about it and we can educate you if you like, but that’s not required; all that’s required is that you try it. And then try it again. And again. Just give yourself more than one time.”

This fits in closely with everything we’ve been examining over the past week about diversity in programming along with our institutions reflecting the communities we serve.

On the latter topic, Assink’s comments about many of the SFS’s outreach efforts during his tenure coming across as artificial and forced are apt.

At the same time, the field has no one to blame but itself.

Reflection or ProjectionIt’s all too easy to mask reflection with projection but in the end, you end up in the exact same place.

To that end, I suggest that lack of diversity isn’t the result of limited resources or motivation, it’s the end result of what we want or, at the very least, prioritize.

There’s an article on this topic I want to introduce but will have to wait a bit until an embargo date toward the end of April has passed.

It touches on every aspect of this topic and presents some much-needed clarity on how individual organizations, and the field as a whole, should consider.

In the meantime, I’m curious to know what you think about this topic and any specific element from Assink’s interview.

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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