Arts Funding Is Supporting A Wealthy, White Audience: Report

This is the title of a recent Huffington Post piece that discusses a study by the Washington-based National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.  Given the demographic trends I’ve been blogging about, this is, as Drew McManus says, obvious.  What is also obvious is that the ‘Chicken Little Think-Tank’ (as Drew often refers to classical music reformists) will probably see this as another reason the institution of classical music is failing and must be invigorated with methods of relevance found in the popular cultural world.  The thing is, I suspect if a study were done on the economics of the pop culture world in the US, we’d have a piece titled something to the effect of “Pop Music Industry Is Supporting A Not-So-Wealthy, White Audience: Report.”

Some of the select quotes could just as easily be said about popular culture:

“We’ve got the vast majority of resources going to a very small number of institutions,”

“That’s not healthy for the arts in America.”

“pronounced imbalance restricts the expressive life of millions of people,”

Drew counterpoints the piece with a discussion about the Grant Park Music Festival, which is an outstanding–and more importantly, FREE–summer series of concerts that is incredibly well attended.  Since some of the barriers to classical music is as much the high ticket prices as well as some of the stuffy formality many associate with it, it is encouraging to find something like this working and drawing in large audiences.

Sadly, though this season is probably on the more adventurous side as far as classical music series goes, the majority of the programming isn’t all that different than what might be found in a standard orchestra season.  Meaning that it is still the masterworks of a primarily European High Art culture.  What I would give to see a concert of Ottoman Classical Music or a program of great Traditional Chinese Orchestra ‘symphonic’ works.

And that’s the problem as I see it–it’s not the “misdirected garden variety class warfare” Drew is bemoaning this piece will surely help fuel, but precisely what it won’t fuel with regards to the support of Euro-American Arts over and above non-Western Art traditions.  It was a question I asked regarding whose arts we are funding and what that means when we realize that Western High Art culture isn’t the only high art culture out there and with a growing minority population, they are already starting to mimic and create the infrastructure used to prop up the mainstream high arts institutions (e.g. Orchestras, Operas, Ballets) to prop up their own institutions (e.g. Chinese Operas, Arabic firqa, Turkish fasli).

ANd that’s why I do so many of the things that I do.  I’m not particularly interested in propping up institutions that already have so much systemic support.  What I want to do is to help make it easier for folks like me to experience the live high culture of our particular cultural backgrounds.  What I would give to be able to see live Thai Classical Piphat ensembles regularly…


  1. This is always a concern, at any level. The Louisville Orchestra plays for around 30,000 public school kids annually (during years we are playing, that is), mostly elementary. Plus the small ensemble ed program reaches all the elementary schools – most of the schools at which my small group plays, every year, are in West End and South End, (except this year, when we are playing nowhere). Not sure how much federal funding the LO receives.


  2. […] The whole idea that that we need to bring these traditional art forms to those ethnic groups which historically have been, on the whole, economically disadvantaged becomes the contentious issue for all these diversifying initiatives that are starting to become a priority for the traditional art forms, the Portland case notwithstanding.  But how can this be made to work is the crucial question especially as we understand that most Arts Funding goes to organizations that have, historically, been tied to a generally white demographic. […]


  3. Orchestras in the US are funded by two revenue streams. Roughly 2/3 donations and 1/3 ticket sales. Part of donations is money that rests in endowment funds that were donated. Proportionally, the public money is negligible. Grants here and there. So, as passionate and laudable as your desire to see this newly emerging market of ethnic orchestral music, the way to see your vision realized is to build as did the people before you. That means raising money, building an endowment, getting lead donations for a venue, promoting and selling tickets. The reason western classical orchestras have done well is that the populace voted with their feet and wallets. My guess is that if you wanted to see Ottoman high classical music performed regularly, you could start by building support with turkish businessmen and women who would have the capital needed as well as interest. FYI, if the NEA disappeared tomorrow orchestras would do just fine because they were never dependent on them in the least, as helpful as it has been at times.


    • There are more barriers to entry that have nothing to do with public funding. It’s difficult to build an orchestra of Traditional Chinese musicians when the infrastructure for training musicians is primarily of the Western classical sort. That’s one of the reasons the Purple Silk foundation in the Bay area is interesting as there’s a community that has instituted music education at the k-12 and local community college level which then feed into the abundant traditional chinese ensembles found there. It’s an issue I touched on while discussing Waldfogel’s work describing the economics of preference minorities–since the fixed costs of certain institutions are relatively high, only markets with enough consumers of a certain preference will be able to develop certain industries.


      • Interesting looking book, I just might buy it. European classical music, compared to other types in the US is definitely a minority-preference art form according to what I gleaned from this.It’s definitely not for everyone, as we can see. I can’t think of a better place than the Bay Area to start a Traditional Chinese orchestra. If we see a large widespread immigration to the US from China, that artform might even take root here as did European classical.


    • Yes, from what Waldfogel is saying, we could easily consider Classical Music from that perspective and there’s a relatively straightforward way to measure and predict an institutions growth depending on the start-up costs and the relative resources in conjunction with the size of the market for it. Western Classical Music would be somewhere in between, say, the Pop Music Industry and Traditional Chinese Music on that continuum.

      I was very surprised to find so many Traditional Chinese Orchestras in the Bay Area, but as you said it makes perfect sense given the high population of Chinese and Chinese-Americans there. It’s reached a critical mass where there’s enough of a consumer base to mitigate the fixed costs of bringing a new large ensemble(s) onto the scene. Same could be said for the Detroit-Dearborn area with it’s Arabic Orchestras and high numbers of Arab and Arab-Americans.


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