The Plenary Session on Wednesday morning, June 8, was titled Red Alert and began with a most interesting address by Jesse Rosen, President and CEO of the League.
Below are highlights from Jesse’s speech; his speech will be published separately as an article. You can watch a video of the entire plenary session by clicking here.
Jesse: The League is committed to making sure that orchestras continue to thrive – we want them in our world, safe and healthy. On March 20, the YouTube symphony, representing 33 countries, played to an audience of 33 million people, shattering the previous record of 11 million for a U2 concert. So symphonies are not dead.
But how can we not only succeed, but also thrive? There’s been an increase in deficits, bankruptcies and closings. The average orchestra deficit in 2005 was $193,000. In 2009 it had gone up to $697,000. In 2008, 50% of orchestras reported deficits; the very next year that number had increased to 70%. Many signs suggest that for orchestras, this crisis simply accelerated existing, long-term negative trends. Detroit, Philadelphia, Syracuse, Honolulu, New Mexico, and Louisville, are all examples of organizations with a past history of fragility. The recession has merely brought home and exacerbated the long-term structural problems that many orchestras have been facing for some time.
We’re not unlike other industries, but we cannot move backwards. The smaller budget orchestras are more nimble, but a few very large orchestras are weathering the near-term challenges. But some orchestras in Group 1, extending well into Group 4, are experiencing some level of crisis.
The current situation calls for urgent action, and we must confront our brutal truths. We must start by confronting five key facts:
- Decreasing Income and Rising Costs – classical music participation declined 29% over the past 20 years, and corporate philanthropy declined by 50%. And orchestra costs continue to rise faster than revenues.
- Donor Fatigue – local and national funders and donors question continued investment in orchestras; many foundations have stopped funding and others express frustration and doubt.
- Our Commitment to Performance Excellence Is Simply Not Enough – achieving world class ranking is no guarantee of a vital and secure future. No arts organization is too big or too important to fail.
- Stagnant Product Delivery – there is an enormous appetite for our music, but we are not moving fast enough to meet the public’s demand for new forms of the concert experience – we should promote innovation.
- Lack of Diversity and Broad-Based Support – orchestras are 98% white – and audiences still lack diversity, yet by 2020 the US population will be 55% non-white.
During the League’s strategic planning process in 2005, we shared an early draft with several major orchestras. We referred to declining audiences, and this group of orchestras said, “You can’t say that – not that it’s not true but you can’t say that out loud!”
But we have credible new data from 2009 documenting our audience challenges, and the League made sure people were ready to take action about the bad news. And many began to address the findings by testing new approaches to audience development. Acknowledging the problem is an essential precursor to innovation.
Here are three things that orchestra leadership teams should do to help crash-proof their orchestras:
Understand the True Financial Condition – a balanced budget is not enough. Weak and fragile infrastructures are crippling our ability to change. Trustees must be transparent and all stake holders must understand the numbers, so they can take responsibility for making painful decisions. Collective bargaining plays a great role here – the goal is a durable and lasting agreement. Board should not agree to terms they cannot afford, but musicians should not push boards to accept terms the organization cannot support. And it is critical that board chairs stay in place for longer than 1-2 years – I’m taking on term limits!
Realign with Community Needs – there’s a tension between excellence and quality, and the increasing need to serve a wider cross-section of our communities. As Bruce Coppock put it, “Telling the community how important and famous you are is very different than inspiring the community to support you because of how invaluable you are.”
Read Robert Levine’s article in Symphony magazine – some orchestras are partnering with health care organizations to offer programs and experiences that promote healing through music.
Figuring out how to bridge excellence and cultural service is complicated and time-consuming work. We recommend not starting the conversation at the bargaining table, but rather recognize the unique assets of the musicians and the needs of the community.
Foster Creativity – we must work to attract creative people and nurture the gifts of the artists already in our orchestras. We must cross genre boundaries, rethink approaches to standard repertoire. Our current audition system needs to change to embrace a broader range of talents than just superb musicianship and technique. Not just excellence of playing will be required. The Atlanta Symphony has a partnership with Emery University to study “creation”: — 3 new works will be commissioned.
Four orchestras – the Pacific Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic, North Carolina Symphony and the Louisville Orchestra, have created a multi-year collaboration to integrate humanities themes with their performances. The project has just been awarded a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities –an encouraging reminder that money does follow vision.
Robert Levine also points out that “orchestras are not, and should not be, run primarily for the benefit of musicians. But musicians benefit the most from orchestras succeeding.” He says of the changing climate, “musicians’ only chance to have that change not be to their detriment is to actively participate in designing the changes.” And he encourages them to not wait until the orchestra is already in trouble — because that is too late.
Many orchestras have musicians and managers working together rather than pointing fingers. The latter creates lose-lose scenarios.
It’s not an easy time in our field. Musicians have taken this period very hard, boards have stretched further, staffs have shrunk. My comments are not intended to single out anyone, but we are at a crossroads with a critical choice. We can seize this moment to build a strong future or cling to the status quo, envisioning the road ahead as if through a rear-view mirror. Now is the time to embrace change and embrace innovation.