“Plenty of mid-sized and smaller organizations are also doing relatively well”

The title of this post is taken from my blogpost about the overstated claim that arts organizations all run a deficit which, as I said, is just not the case.  Here is the paragraph:

And the Oregon Symphony isn’t the only organization doing well financially.  The Met Opera hit a record-breaking fundraising year and for the first time in seven years has a balanced budget.  Despite the modest deficit, which can be attributed partially to Muti’s illness, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been in the black recently.  The LA Phil is holding its own as well.  Plenty of mid-sized and smaller organizations are also doing relatively well.

So I listed big name organizations but didn’t specifically list mid-sized and smaller organizations.  This piece from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette does a fine job of doing just that.  Near the beginning of the piece is stated:

When it comes to assessing the state of American orchestras, the focus invariably centers on the giants of the industry.

The very next paragraph shatters the metric by which we selectively cull from all arts organizations only those with big budgets and using those as the standards of the industry as a whole, by stating:

But most orchestral musicians take their seats on the stages of smaller cities, performing in orchestras not nearly as financially troubled as the big boys, if troubled at all. In fact, about 600 professional orchestras now operate in the United States, according to a new study done at the University of Cincinnati. That would seem to be an astounding figure for an art form many industry experts predicted would be extinct by now.

A few quotes illustrates the rationale:

“The health of the small orchestra is critical to the future of American classical music,” says Larry Tamburri, president of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

“These smaller symphonies serve to bridge the gap between major metropolitan areas and their direct communities,” writes Brandon VanWaeyenberghe in his study, “Musical Chairs.”

“A higher percentage of smaller orchestras are operating with balanced budgets than the larger orchestras,” says Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. “The bigger orchestra’s cost structure is more rigid; the small orchestras are much more flexible. They can adjust to financial difficulties much more quickly.”
With the emphasis that, “in terms of the bottom line, they’re often more financially sound than the major orchestras with their longer seasons and larger endowments.”

Go read the piece for some specific examples.  I’m in the process of getting a copy of Brandon VanWaeyeberghe’s master’s thesis which discusses the supply and demand of orchestral musicians which should be filled with all kinds of interesting data.  He’s apparently in the process of collecting data on all orchestras and music school trained graduates for the past 25 years to give a more complete picture of the jobs issue in the symphonic world which will include many of the 600 or so orchestras he analyzed in his thesis.
I came across his name through David Cutler’s Savvy Musician blog in a post specifically about full time working musicians (i.e. Symphony Musicians).
Granted, the article above was written pre-recession, and many of these smaller organizations are feeling the crunch of that.  On the other hand, not all of them are doing poorly in it, so again, it’s an issue of how the organization is run rather than simply the external conditions (e.g. recession).  For a post-recession (if we are indeed “post”) viewpoint, Anne Midgette has a relatively long piece about smaller orchestras and how some are (or are not) weathering the recession here.
On a different but related note, there seems to be a rise of newer orchestras–or perhaps we might call them more properly large ensembles or chamber orchestras–which a recent piece in the San Francisco Classical Voice by Brett Cambell discusses.
Many of the groups in Brett Cambell piece are much more interested in new music and capitalizing on the increasingly blurred distinctions between Classical and Pop (and World).  They also seem to be doing relatively well and are relatively optimistic as this quote by Jesse Irons demonstrates:
“I’m incredibly optimistic about the future of music,” declares A Far Cry’s Jesse Irons. “It’s silly how much doom and gloom there is in the popular press about the ‘decline of the orchestra.’ I don’t see it, and I’m there on the ground. We get amazing audiences with great reactions, including standing ovations more often than not. There are these kinds of new projects going on everywhere. You might be seeing a changing of the guard in terms of where classical music is going.”
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3 thoughts on ““Plenty of mid-sized and smaller organizations are also doing relatively well”

  1. What a great post! (Also love the blog redesign, by the way)

    As someone who would rather play for a smaller orchestra, I believe emphatically that the small orchestras are the ‘future of music’ as Irons so eloquently says. Not everyone wants to go to New York and see the NYP. Sometimes, it’s enough just to have a small local group that plays the occasional Mozart symphony to go along with the standard movie/pops combos of the year. If that’s what people want, and the smaller, less-well-paying orchestras can give that, awesome.

    1. I think the new designs is clearer–I just need to tweek it a bit and prune all the links in the sidebar a bit.

      And what you say is exactly right! Classical music is so much more accessible in many ways now than it had been in the past. With so many smaller and regional orchestras, more communities are becoming less underserved–and with the going rates for opportunities to see “live performances” ranging from free (via youtube) to the big ticket prices of the majors–the regional and community alternative seems like a much better compromise in between the two extremes!

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