League Opening Session Part 2

The keynote speaker at the conference opening session on Wednesday, June 16, was Ben Cameron, program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Fund. He is the former executive director of Theatre Communications Group. Excerpts from his address follow (he’s a very fast talker so this is not verbatim):

According to Bill Moyers, there are four parts on the road to creativity: showing up, listening deeply, speaking the truth, and letting go of pre-determined results. The responses of orchestras to the current climate are short-sighted at best, similar to fire sales. The biggest challenge facing orchestras is not financial.

In 2006, I convened 700 artists to help understand the challenges facing the arts. I was amazed at the level of stress and uncertainty I heard. The artists talked about under-capitalization, under-compensation, and a generational transfer of leadership – but where would the new leaders come from?

Two key things are of major concern: audiences and technology. Audience impact: there are dramatic demographic changes hapenning in age, race, gender, and culture; there’s an erosion of audiences in every field, with declining subscriptions, increased churn, and a collapse of the window of social planning (i.e., people now buy tickets the day of the show, which is a disorienting shift that plagues box offices). So audiences are dwindling yet fixed costs (facilities, etc.) are escalating.

Technology impact: the arts must now compete with 3,000 to 5,000 different marketing messages that the average American sees every day. Americans spend 27 hours a week online or watching TV. The Internet is changing our conceptions of consumption, and the performing arts can’t compete because we have a set venue, a fixed starting time, parking needs, etc., etc. These are huge issues.

But we’re not alone. There’s a fundamental realignment of culture and communications going on, which is decimating the newspaper industry, shaking the book and magazine industry, and especially impacting the recording industry.

Aren’t you glad you invited me here to brighten your day!

When asked about his key to success, Wayne Gretsky, the hockey player said, “I skate to where the puck will be.” How can the arts do the same?

I have four basic questions:

  1. What is the value of symphonic music to my community?
  2. What is the value that symphonic music brings better than anyone else?
  3. How would my community be damaged if it were deprived of symphonic music tomorrow?
  4. How can my organization be structured to be the optimal conduit of symphonic music? We need to expand our vision to embrace possibilities we’ve not yet seen.

He talked about Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail, Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (2006) as addressing the unleashing of a tsunami of creativity with technology. The means of artistic production have been democratized – anyone can now create a movie or CD, as well as the means of artistic distribution –  think iTunes.

There’s been a massive redefinition of the cultural market; it’s now defined by participation, such as American Idol, You’ve Got Talent, etc. Even the iPod consists of personally-created play lists.

Audiences for traditional venues are diminishing, but audience participation is growing. The emergence of the pro-ams is expanding our steady vocabulary and assaulting our assumptions of cultural participation.

How do we embrace the new arts education? The kids are into be-bop, making films, writing poetry; they’re teaching and mentoring one another, and they’re doing this outside the concert halls and classrooms, etc.

Everything must be on the table – the entire business model.

There’s a 3-fold approach: Essentialize – know the core; Sacrifice – give up what falls outside that core; Innovate – incrementally and boldy. We should see this time as a renaissance – to reach a thrilling new reality.

I am deeply optimistic about the future of the arts. I attended the PopTech Conference in Camden, Maine (you really have to want to be there to attend a conference in Camden Maine; getting there is a challenge!). The conversation centered on how we will change the world – conquer AIDS, solve global warming, etc. In a world of high tech there is nothing we can’t do. Is this the folly of youth? Hubris?

Eric Booth, Teaching Artist and facilitator extraordinaire, began the town meeting. He announced the vote I posted in the previous post, and took the show of hands about how much change people wanted in the orchestra world, from 1 (no change) to 5 (lots of change). The result was about 3.9.

Eric announced that this was a more change-inclined crowd than the staff had anticipated (they took a poll before the session started).

The purpose of the town meeting was to intensify the focus on innovation and change. The consistent difficulties that Eric confronts involve poor listening – guarded listening precludes a healthy, steady, authentic change.

The delegates were seated at tables of 8, and were requested to discuss the question that received the most votes, for about 15 minutes.

RELEVANCE: What does the artistically vibrant orchestra need to look like to be essential for its community?

Eric wandered around the room, randomly eves-dropping, and reported the following most common threads:

  1. The most common topic was about making connections to the community – what kinds of stakeholder relations to have, and broadening who should be considered a stakeholder. The Rotary Club was mentioned at two different tables. Also how frightened organizations are when they get negative feedback.
  2. The most predominant topic was repertoire. What are the problems? What should be we thinking about: 3D glasses? Multi-media? What are the expectations of new audiences? New music –its importance and challenge.
  3. Processes – how what people in orchestras do is so valuable that they want to share – it’s part of the power of what we’ve got. Passion. How do we tap into this stuff and open it up
  4. Children were being discussed at 3 tables – fears about the future of arts education.

There were 436 people streaming online, and 715 votes for the questions. The Tweet stream was constant – one person commented, ”Why do technology conferences focus on creating community and arts conferences focus on technology?” Another: “Taking a moment or two out of a painful audit, enjoyed performance.” And a third: “Live performance must emphasize the unfolding drama taking place.”

We then discussed the runner-up question.

CHANGE: If we “let go of the past” and “embrace the future”, what should we retain release, and go for?

Eric again summarized what he heard around the room:

Ben’s challenge was that we essentialize, sacrifice, and innovate. Most of the conversation fell in the area of essentializing – scrabbling toward what is the core thing, the key offer. We need to find the essential. I heard little about sacrifice. I heard about the difficulties of traditionalism and why you can’t sacrifice, but I didn’t hear any energy turning toward what do we have to allow to fall away. There were lots of offers of innovation – lots of  trial balloons.

What do we agree on? Jessica Balboni (also listening) found the theme that it’s hard to have purpose around anything you don’t love. What is our core purpose? What is it we love?

There was much talk about education. An expansion of the traditional definition of education. And complaints about audience attention.

Some people discussed the coolness of the musicians – there’s something valuable with audiences getting contacts with the musicians. Getting rid of fourth walls. Reducing the separation.

Jesse Rosen (League CEO) said that he appreciated the candor in the room. “But we didn’t talk about structure – this was the lowest rated question. Is it the elephant in the room? The hardest to discuss? It’s about defining who we are – but we didn’t get into it.”

Eric summed up:

There’s a fear of watering down what we do – a complicated and hard issue in our field. A big tension around this is appropriate.

Essentializing – what is the thing that we are the most about? Repertoire? What else?

Are we part of the creative community? Or are we about re-enactment rather than creation?

Accountability – who are we accountable to? To whom do we matter in our community?

The answer to the essential question – audience members can make a personally-relevant connection inside the music. If this happens, they are coming back. That’s the act of consequence – to make this happen.

The culture inside the orchestra administration – how significant is that in the long-term arc of change? It does begin at home. Quality and open heartedness at home base is essential to the long term authentic change.

Finally he described the Hawthorne effect at Western Electric Company in Cicero IL where they were testing variables to see what would make the workers more productive. They were testing variables of lighting, when employees took breaks, etc., and they involved the workers in some of these tests. They found that any variable that involved the workers caused the workers to become more productive. Any time you engage workers in the authentic inquiry about their work, their productivity goes up. When you engage your colleagues – everyone in the institution – their productivity for contributing to change goes up.

Thursday evening we attended a wonderful performance of Verdi’s Requiem by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, followed by the annual Tune Up party at the High Museum of Art (joined by delegates from Chorus America who were also meeting in Atlanta).

About the author

Ann Drinan
Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, has been a member of the Hartford Symphony viola section for over 30 years. She is a former Chair of the Orchestra Committee, former member of the HSO Board, and has served on many HSO committees. She is also the Executive Director of CONCORA (CT Choral Artists), a professional chorus based in Hartford and New Britain, founded by Artistic Director Richard Coffey. Ann was a member of the Advisory Board of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), and was the HSO ROPA delegate for 14 years, serving as both Vice President and President of ROPA. In addition to playing the viola and running CONCORA, Ann is a professional writer and editor, and has worked as a consultant and technical writer for software companies in a wide variety of industries for over 3 decades. (She worked for the Yale Computer Science Department in the late 70s, and thus has been on the Internet, then called the DARPAnet, since 1977!) She is married to Algis Kaupas, a sound recordist, and lives a block from Long Island Sound in Branford CT. Together they create websites for musicians: shortbeachwebdesign.com.

Ann holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

Read Ann Drinan's blog here. web.esm.rochester.edu/poly/author/ann-drinan

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