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.

Continue reading “Arts Funding Is Supporting A Wealthy, White Audience: Report”

The death of the cinematic industry…

The Met’s “Die Walküre” by Richard Wagner, now showing at your local movie theatre!

So the last movie I went to, Thor, I was intrigued to see a table with fliers for a couple of upcoming “special events.”

The two fliers were slick promos for upcoming (one now past) live HD cast performances by the Metropolitan Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Look at that blurb in the top left hand corner of the first link – “Movie theaters aren’t just for the movies anymore.”  The big blurb in the middle column says:


Programming for everyone, and we mean everyone – from opera, sports, and comedy to original programming feature the biggest names in radio and television – with all of it containing exclusive content you won’t find anywhere else.  Special event features like behind-the-scenes footage and backstage interviews.  Big screens with high-definition picture and big-time surround sound with the best seats in the house and close-up view unlike any other.

For all the folks who continue to maintain the popularity of pop culture–in conjunction with the the supposed decline of high culture (Classical Music)–it’s a bit ironic that movie theaters are now showing live casts of, well, classical music.

The Met has been doing this for some time now, one of my friends and wonderful bellydancer, Sara Jo Slate, had the opportunity to teach Renée Fleming some moves and do choreography for the Gala show of the Met in ’08 (Thaïs) which I had to miss for various reasons (both the live opening as well as the livecast).  It was back then that the idea of live casting productions peaked my interest.

Now the LA Phil is getting in on the act.  With their new star power in the young Venezuelan conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, who first shook the Classical Music world when he toured the Venezuelan Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar (Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra).  Both he and the Orchestra are products of the Venezuelan, El Sistema, which has forcedsome of us to question how [little] we fund our Orchestras in the states given the wild success of the Venezuelan system.  The Berlin Philharmonic has also been broadcasting its concerts live for some time now with its Digital Concert Hall though I’m not sure how that fits into Movie Theaters as I believe this is for webcasting and/or live Television.

Changing US Demographics and Classical Music

Re-posting Ramon Ricker’s blog about Changing US Demographics and Classical Music in full, just because it can never be said enough!

Posted on November 9, 2009 at 5:00 am by Ramon Ricker
in General
Tags: , ,

Here’s a personal observation and some thoughts.

When my wife and I visited the Netherlands a couple of years ago we were fortunate, at Judy’s persistence, to get tickets to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. We started a couple of months early trying to book tickets online, but they were “sold out.” Knowing that tickets often get returned on the day of the performance, we went to the concert hall that afternoon and talked to the ticket people. They put our names on a list (we were first on it), and they told us to come back a half an hour before the start of the concert. Long story short, Judy charmed our way into the Queen’s seats. The Queen did not attend the concert that evening and the seats were made available at the last minute. I’m not kidding. We got them—the best seats in the house. (I don’t know why I’m setting the stage like this.) Anyway—It was their new conductor’s debut, (Mariss Jansons), and he did Mahler 6—the one with the hammer blows. The percussionist with the hammer must have made it himself. It was gigantic and beautifully made, all of wood. He picked it up like he had a Strad in his hands.

As we waited for the concert to start, I looked around the hall and noticed that the patrons didn’t look like any of the people we were seeing on the street. The concertgoers were stereotypical “Dutch people,” in my mind—good sized with mostly fair complexions. But the people on the Amsterdam streets were much more diverse. There were many more dark-skinned people—I suppose from Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East. I thought to myself, “The people in the streets can’t be listening to European classical music. I’m not hearing it anyplace out here. The demographic of Amsterdam must be changing. But if it continues to change who will be coming to these concerts in 50 years?”

Now, scroll over to US orchestras? In my mind it’s the same as the Amsterdam example. As I look out at the audience at a Rochester Philharmonic concert, the attendees don’t look the same as the general population of Rochester. I ask myself, “Why were US orchestras formed in the first place?” My guess is that the population was predominately of European descent at that time, and they probably wanted to experience or recreate the culture of their homeland. It felt natural to them.

Thinking about the well-documented changing demographic of the US towards greater numbers of citizens with other than European (read: white) ancestry, I can’t believe that this population, in 50 years or probably less, will want to sit in a concert hall and listen to Mahler. It’s not in their DNA or culture. And that’s not a put down. They also don’t get exposure to this music in schools. If I keep going along this line of thinking, I don’t see a bright future for “classical” music in general or US orchestras in particular. Sure this music will be with us, but will professional musicians be able to make a living playing it? That’s already difficult to do today in all but the largest US cities.

In order to maintain their competitive advantage, companies must spend time and money trying to envision the future, asking themselves questions like: Who will be our customers? Where will they live? Will they need our product? In what form should it be? Etc., etc. As musicians it is probably a good idea for us to do the same. If I were a young musician just graduating from music school and bent on a performing career, I would be asking myself these questions too. I would also be flexible and ready to take advantage of opportunities that may arise.

When trying to envision the future, I am reminded of this quote that is attributed to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. It’s a good one. When asked how he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and consequentially scored more goals than others, he replied, “I don’t go where the puck is. I go to where the puck will be.” Orchestras and musicians—maybe we should try to be like Gretzky.

What do you think?

Too Many Notes, too few orchestras

While reading the comments to a post by Drew McManus that I mentioned in my previous post, I came across a reference to a post that drew had written about the issue of having too many groups offering the same thing in a metropolitan area.

While Drew disagrees than in general there may be too much of this redundancy (as he responded) he does think there are some areas, like the Northern Virginia/Washington DC area he talks about in the post I linked, that do have a problem.  Drew seems to think it’s a dangerous idea for mergers, but at the same time he understands that in the case above that might actually help.  Anne Midgette’s snapshot of the German orchestral crisis post-unification would suggest the same.

But back to Drew’s points:

Although I was glad to see that there weren’t any duplicates between the four ensembles, they do have remarkably similar programming (but I give Alexandria a few extra points for programming more new works than their sister ensembles).  If you’re familiar with that area, you’ll also know that all four ensembles perform within eight miles of each other and two of them even perform in the same venue.

Granted, Northern Virginia is a densely populated area but doesn’t it seem reasonable to think that four full orchestras performing similar works for essentially the same audience is simply too many notes?

I have a different idea–what would happen if, say, one or more of these orchestras actually turned into a non-Western Orchestra?  Or what if the re-structuring made it possible to actually provide full symphonic works that were so Eurocentric?

For example, what if that Northern Virginia/DC area had, say, a full Arabic Orchestra, a full Chinese Orchestra, a full Mugham Orchestra in addition to the fourth full Symphony Orchestra?

There certainly wouldn’t be any overlap of programming, nor any duplicate composers in just one art music tradition.

I know, it’s a pipe dream–with the exception of special events American Orchestras don’t often program outside their 100 + year old niche of music from a region on this planet [Europe] that has less than a tenth of the world’s population.  But I know I would be as excited, if not more excited to be able to hear a full orchestra perform the masterworks of Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, Fikret Amirov, or Lü Ji.

I guess I’ll have to wait until the ethnic population(s) of the US reaches the critical mass able and willing to support these non-Western Orchestras–or until this century’s version of the Ford Foundation Grants spearheads “a major boost to [non-Western] orchestras’ quality, length of season and sustainability by providing endowment capital for orchestras that were able to raise matching funds from their communities .”

I guess the question is, if Western Orchestras are having difficulties then how will the non-Western Orchestras fare?  That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out and it is exciting to imagine the future!  Right now, though–there aren’t too many notes or too few orchestras.  Just not enough of the right balance of notes and orchestras.

Too many (classical) musicians?

Eric wrote a probing and insightful post questioning the often mentioned mantra (by the Classical Music doomsayers camp) that there are just far too many musicians being pumped out by the University system (at least in the states) to be sustained by the shrinking classical music job market.  I know that in the past I’ve said similar things myself though often with some very specific qualifications. 

I responded on Eric’s blog with many of those qualifications explicitely laid out, so thought I would post that here as it’s a good enough synopsis of my viewpoints regarding the issue.

I recall having a discussion regarding this with Greg Sandow some time ago on his blog. The whole issue of “being a musician” and the general lack of opportunities, regardless of whether the climate was better in the past or just as problematic in its own way, boils down (for me at least) to what exactly does it mean to be a musician?

I mean, obviously this is supposed to mean something along the lines of being someone who enjoys playing music (or to follow along your lines–someone who has to play music).

But sometimes that seems to be at odds with the whole idea of making money, or at least making a comfortable living doing music. I’m almost reading your post as an apology for being one of those folks who just don’t have any choice but to be a musician. Not that I necessarily disagree, it’s just that sometimes the rationale behind assuming that role of musician (at least here in the states) means not worrying about whether or not you can make a living doing it–to the point that it’s almost seen as a bad thing to do so.

And you hear this from pop musicians as well, so it’s not something only classical musicians (not that all feel this way) do–you know, hearing things like “I’m doing it for art’s sake” or “cover bands are only in it for the money, but musicians making original music are doing it for themselves”–things like that.

I find this to be a particularly Western phenomenon and can be traced at least as far back as the romantic bohemian idealism that also has that other trope of the “starving artist”–but it’s not as prevalent a viewpoint (though that is starting to change with Westernization) of other cultures. And not that other cultures haven’t had a similar lack of respect for [certain groups of] musicians. The Rom of Eastern Europe and Rembitika of Greece come to mind immediately.

I guess my point is–and it was something I was implicitly stating in my recent blog post–there are far more opportunities out there than most of us not-so-entrepreneurially-inclined-folk realize. It’s just up to us to find them and, well, “exploit” them.

I guess that’s why I blog so much about underserved audiences–because it’s not that there aren’t enough musicians out there to play music–in face, there are probably too many as you and everyone else is stating. But the demand for music from these audiences should be more than enough to start filling some plates (pun intended). Hell, I still have to turn down nearly as many shows as I accept–have been doing that for the past few years despite the so-called recession and some folks’ stating (e.g. Greg Sandow) that even freelance musicians are having a hard time finding work (which makes me wonder what freelancers in New York are doing to get gigs).

But going back to what I said on Greg’s blog (and I’m too lazy to go find the post) it had very much to do with how we define ourselves as musicians. I think I gave an example to the effect of, well–if I view myself (my role) as being that of an orchestral cellist (or even classical cellist) then sure, there are diminishing opportunities for me in this depressed market. On the other hand, if I view myself as a musician, who just happens to be able to play the cello (amongst other instruments including my voice) well, there’s a whole world of opportunities to be had.

I guess I shouldn’t complain too much–as long as cellists and classically trained musicians accept a narrow role of what they mean by being a musician, that just means more work for me! :D

Obviously this is a simplified statement of my position and there are other considerations to be included in the discussion.  Talk about younger and more adventurous musicians finding work despite the environment must be balanced against the idea of having some measure of security with regards to benefits and pensions that musicians in the orthodox institutions have come to expect and be concerned about.

As the discussions about the Classical Music environment in the US gets more nuanced now that we’ve gotten used to the idea that Orchestras just might not be as long-lasting an institution we thought they would (or should be) given the recent bankruptcies and closures of American Orchestras I’m curious to see how many folks will start to question some of the fundamental assumptions of what seems to be a Eurocentric view (either con or pro) on the preservation of arts.

As I’ve been blogging a bit about the so-called “non-Western Art Ensembles” situation in the US I think it can be easy to see the field of art music in the US focuses on the dominant genres favored by the dominant ethnic majorities (same for the pop music industry).  So I guess the question, for me, is why should the US as a culture support one kind of art music over another?  And by support, I mean everything from ticket sales to government funding (which is negligible here) to private and corporate subsidies and donations.

I wouldn’t go as far as, say, Joe Horowitz does, but as we can see from this brief history of Symphony Orchestras in the US there had been this impetus for creating full-time Orchestras to compete in the post WWII culture wars.  I just think now there’s a different kind of culture war happening on US soil that has next to nothing to do with a battle between Classical/Pop as so many of the Classical Music doomsayers would have it described and I guess part of my understanding of this has as much to do with my activity in those not-so-classically oriented music fields as I talk a little bit about in my quote above!