in: News & Features

October 27, 2012

The Arts Crisis & the Economy


I hope that as we come out of the barren years, those of us who can will give all the impetus possible to keeping up this interest of the Government, and of the people, in art as a whole.  – E. Roosevelt

Atlanta. Chicago. Minneapolis. St. Paul. Indianapolis. Richmond. Seattle. Recently all these symphonies have been in the news because of contract negotiations, labor disputes, strikes, and lockouts. Some are resolved, some are not. The problems, disputes, disparities and discrepancies are couched in economic terms. Think back over the last year: Detroit and Philadelphia both had economic problems; so did Louisville – which resorted to the expedient of advertising on Facebook to hire musicians after they had fired all the former members. Herein I want to consider them in the aggregate and offer timely meditations on the relationship between arts and the economy.

My main point of reference is classical music orchestras, a subject important to readers of the Boston Musical Intelligencer. But after recent political events, we could just as readily apply these reflections to Big Bird, “Sesame Street,” and public broadcasting. This conversation has become a national one, a political one – and an important one.

The details vary. The salaries of musicians are widely varied. Some groups own their hall, others do not. Some got caught up in the creative financing of the past years and now struggle to pay the piper. (Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog is a good starting point for specific details of each case, if interested.) I have followed each of these stories with growing dismay.

I hope that in every community throughout this country, that spirit can be fostered which makes a piece of work worthwhile because you love to do it, regardless of the time you put into it, and because it is worth everything that you can put into it to give to the world a really perfect thing.  – E. Roosevelt

Symphony orchestras exist to perform live music in and for a community. My position is unabashedly that of a musician and if I preach it is from a seat in the orchestra, not from a box or board room. I cannot see it any other way. We could sit at home and listen to the radio or recordings or streaming music on Spotify – many of us do – yet we choose to gather as a community at a time and place appointed to hear music performed live. Even as professional orchestras struggle financially, new groups are forming. So I take it that a love of music, of the arts more generally, is alive and well.

Despite dire predictions of a dearth of music students, I see a continuing interest in learning to play a musical instrument. Young and old alike invest the time, the energy, and yes the money, to master one or more. Many of us are not content to be passive consumers but strive to be active makers of culture. The current DIY/arts & crafts movement attests to our collective need to express ourselves, to try to reveal what we feel. Music-making should be considered a part of this movement; look at the successful juggernaut of “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent.” Classical musicians, amateur or professional, have the same drive and commitment, the same collection of supplies taking up space in our homes. We just don’t have the same number of magazines or dedicated television channels. Of course, Knitting Daily TV or HGTV can convey requisite information to complete a project, while music lessons are still an individual, one-on-one affair that really cannot become part of the distance learning phenomenon. It is difficult, if not impossible, for any teacher to offer corrections for the complex physical interactions between person and instrument that go into playing any musical instrument. Besides, distance lessons conflict with the spirit of presence and focused attention that is part of studying or playing music. So maybe we musicians are best viewed as fellow-travelers on this path of creation. But we are here, and we are legion.

For if man is to be liberated to enjoy more leisure, he must also be prepared to enjoy this leisure fully and creatively.   – E. Roosevelt

I do not subscribe to the view that classical music audiences are only a geriatric flock of gray haired patricians. Yes, some are old; this is only remarkable in a culture which values youth and wants its elderly to fade quietly into oblivion. Look, really look, at an audience at a classical music concert and you will see an inter-generational crowd who set aside their differences (political, socio-economic, sometimes racial, and perhaps even aesthetic) to participate collectively in a given concert. There are children and adolescents – some with parents, others attending of their own free will – there are young adults, middle-aged adults, and, yes, older music lovers. There are musicians in the audience, and those who cannot carry a tune. It is a broad demographic, resembling a culture congregation. Considered this way, attending a classical music concert (or, gasp!, an opera) could even be viewed as a revolutionary act.

Musicians come in as wide a demographic range as the audience. In any given orchestra or chorus, there is a range of ages, ethnicities if not nationalities, backgrounds. The main difference is that the audience in the house represents a wider, or broader, demographic range than the musicians on the stage. We can listen to music at younger or older ages than our bodies possess the fine motor skills required to make music.

Yes, there is the prurient (or, worse) interest in child prodigies which always bothers me when classical music embraces the next great Wunderkind. This is a big part of why I cannot listen to “From the Top” with Christopher O’Riley presenting talented young prodigies as both musicians and “normal kids.” I am morally opposed to child labor, even in the service of making music; I fear far more children are forced into music lessons than actually have the passion to practice diligently and study the music they love. Instead of giving the world more musicians, that gives negative connotations to classical music and music lessons. Worse, shows like that create the general impression that any child could play an instrument, so why do professional musicians need so many years of study or such “large” salaries? Shouldn’t they get a real job and play music for the love of it, in their spare time, and for free? As long as such inhuman ideas circulate, we all suffer the death of our own humanity by a thousand shallow cuts and light blows.

… the defects of the American character [include] a tendency to narrow the idea of freedom into freedom to make money.     – E. M. Forster

We in this country, however, have always believed that, in ordinary times, volume production was what we were after, since that would bring down the cost and therefore make it possible for more people to enjoy more things.       – E. Roosevelt

Now the real (economic, at least) sedition follows. The reality of who attends classical music concerts is a marketing nightmare: who is the target demographic? We are not easily reduced to a single group. Worse, we are not all in the marketing “sweet spot” of young adults free with their disposable income. Some are, some aren’t. We are also people who will listen to the same piece of music, the same act, repeatedly. We are not insecurely searching for the next big act every week, every day. We do not buy the latest, much-touted, album because everyone else does. Sure, we buy new recordings; we are influenced by reviews. We are not the same market share as that for pop music artists. This is a fact, no apology necessary. Similarly, classical music audiences resist the notion that music is a commodity: we happily pay for the ephemeral experience of attending a live performance, but don’t buy the t-shirt or merchandise that is the real source of income for concert promoters.

More than that, there is a rising cadre of Arts Administration professionals. (You can even earn a Master’s degree in this field at Boston University.) Good management is vital to the health and well-being of any arts organization (especially one that consists of a hundred talented, and often highly-opinionated, musicians). Good arts administrators possess valuable and important skills, and they should be rewarded fairly for their time and talent. What bothers me, again speaking from the viewpoint of a “boy in the band” (even if I am also a member of the board of a community orchestra, too) is the proliferation of management, the increasing focus on administrators and not on what they administer. Yes, there is also the money and power that go to management and not to the artists. (Same problem, different story: consider the economics of record companies, but also all the power they have and how disenfranchised many lesser-known artists are in the current “music market.”) Simply put, at the end of the day who is more important – the manager or the musician? You need both, in a symbiotic relationship; there is no room for imperious behavior on either side. I applaud those administrators who achieve and maintain a healthy, working relationship; lately, reading about all the orchestras in labor disputes or financial crises, I decry those administrators who do not.

Administrators and Managers are not all culpable, and are not alone in creating the problems facing orchestras today. Many Boards of Trustees and Governors of arts organizations participated in bad decision making and have also hogged the limelight – often to the detriment of the groups, the orchestras, the institutions they nominally represent. Who wants to tell a prominent, powerful patron, a generous donor, an ardent supporter, that they made a mistake? Unfortunately, mistakes were made – and passive voice constructions will not solve the problems we now face.

Our chief job is … to spread culture not because we love our fellow men, but because certain things seem to us unique and priceless, and, as it were, push us out into the world on their service.… Works of art do have this peculiar pushful quality; the excitement that attended their creation hangs about them, and makes minor artists out of those who have felt their power.      – E. M. Forster

So how do we address the problems we now face? First, stop confusing quality with quantity. Consider the quality of the music, and not just the budget’s bottom line. The quality of music suffers if, to use my friend Emily Randle Leader’s analogy; you exchange a golden goose (orchestra members) for a pigeon (lower paid, lesser-quality replacement players). This creates a balanced budget in the short-term. The quantity of money spent decreases; what about the caliber of music? There is a direct, proportional relationship between music and money, at least in the short term. Musicians will adjust to reasonable cuts to match changing economic circumstances. But these adjustments have to be shared by management, as well. (What is most galling in the case of the Atlanta Symphony is the 0.8 full-time managers for every 1.0 musician. Why so many? What burden of the “shared pain” do they shoulder?) Long-term, however, musicians alone cannot shoulder all the financial burdens of an organization. When the golden goose flies the nest, why will the wealthy patrons stay? We make a mistake in thinking that certain donors will remain loyal to an organization just because they have supported it for years. If quality declines, so do revenues. This is especially true in metropolitan areas, where I can go to any number of other concerts or support any number of other organizations.

What we do not have is a way to count up the quality of music, the cultural capital of any arts organization, and the impact that has on the lives of people and of towns. You may have heard of the Gross National Happiness Index; we need an Arts Index. We also need to make financial and economic decisions that take account of happiness, culture, and less-tangible benefits than the cash balance remaining at the end of a calendar year.

Second, we need to remember long-term horizons and goals. Short-term, annual concerns drive many budgetary decisions – on the order of this: we need money now, a balanced budget now. That’s important for a bank or an entity that can be quantified and fully represented on a balance sheet. Arts do not exist on a short-term horizon. An organization, a distinctive musical identity or sound, grows over time (years, decades); there is a tradition of culture that proceeds on a different time horizon. Decimate an orchestra this fiscal year, and the scar inflicted by cuts now will still be there years from now. Wounds may be cauterized quickly, but they heal slowly.

Third, we need to restore arts education now, for the sake of our future. We need audiences who can hear and appreciate the difference between a golden goose and a flock of pigeons, between low-quality recorded music on an iPod and high-quality live performances, between acoustic and amplified sound. I keep in mind the very wise words of my friend Ernestine Elster: for the last generation we’ve cut education, and now we, as a society, are paying the price of that. As we’ve cut arts education, have we not also cut the audience able to hear the difference? Maybe this is why classical music audiences tend to be older – they are the ones who received music and arts education in school, so are the ones “prepared to enjoy this leisure fully and creatively” as Eleanor Roosevelt put it. We all need to take responsibility for preparing to fully and creatively enjoy the arts, for our own pleasure and for the pleasure of others. We need to inculcate curiosity about all music, all arts, in ourselves and in everyone around us – talk about what we like and why we like it, be open to new music of any and all forms. The future of our culture – our free, open, and democratic society – depends on keeping alive intellectual curiosity and the full range of possible artistic expressions.

  • That is the great power of the artist, the power to make people hear and understand, through music and literature, or to paint something which we ordinary people feel but cannot reveal. That great gift is something which, if it is recognized, if it is given the support and the help and the recognition from people as a whole throughout this country, is going to mean an enormous amount in our development as a people.
  • With more leisure time, we are discovering that the arts are a necessity in our lives, not only as a method of self-expression, but because of the need for enjoyment and occupation which requires appreciation of many things which we could never hope to understand when we toiled from dawn till dark and had no time for any aspirations.
  • The attainment of life and liberty required most our our energy in the past, so the pursuit of happiness and the consideration of the lives of human beings remained in the background.    -E. Roosevelt

Finally, we need to confront a pervasive attitude that “music is a luxury; food is a necessity.” I’ve had arts granting agencies ask me, “Why should we support an orchestra instead of housing for people who need it?” I cannot answer that question for any granting agency; they have to decide their priorities. But my succinct response to all of these arguments is this: are we animals or humans? If we are animals, then yes, food and shelter are all we need – everything else is an unnecessary luxury. But if we are humans, which is to say more than mere animals, then music, the arts, are a key component of who we are and just as much a necessity as three square meals on a table and a solid roof over our heads. Arts are how we express ourselves, and increasingly how we learn empathy with other people. To be clear, it is difficult to care about art when one is cold and starving (despite the prevalent myth of the tortured Bohemian artist), but it is no less important. Recent studies show that the arts (music, literature, theatre) help us learn empathy and embrace fellow humankind. This is a long-term goal, hard to quantify but crucial in a day and age of over-population, infinite competition for finite resources, and prevalent conflict. From this perspective, the value of culture, of arts education, is priceless.

After I started working on this article, I read the following blog posts:

Here on orchestras in general, here on the Minneapolis-St. Paul situation. It’s nice to see some overlap in their thinking on this issue with my own. For an angrier, more acerbic take on arts management, click here. Finally, I should add that the current orchestral maneuvers in dark times are not limited to the United States; for visual documentation of the impact in Germany now see this: & this.


  1. I am surprised to see no mention whatsoever of programming, the stuff that is being played. Let me convey my thoughts by way of a fresh example: The recent performance by the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba in the Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA. I was delighted to see an incredibly diverse audience (something I did NOT see just a few days before that, when Warszaw Phil performed… and certainly no match for the 99% white retirement community of Friday afternoon Boston – each time I go I feel like I must be at least forty years younger than the next youngest person as far as my eyes can see). BUT: lo and behold, Cuban Symphony was performing… two pieces by Gershwin and Beethoven #5. And one little piece by a Cuban composer. Luckily, we got three encores with more Cuban stuff. I can bet all my money that most people did not come to the Mechanics Hall to hear Gershwin and Beethoven from a Cuban orchestra (for my money, I certainly didn’t… and incidentally, Gershwin and Beethoven were nothing to write home about – it is the Cuban stuff that the orchestra and the pianist truly rocked on!).
    What kind of pure, distilled business sense does it make, say, for Boston Symphony to stubbornly program Beethovens, Mahlers, Stravinskys, or at best, Adeses and Harbisons, in an age when, according to the recent Census, Boston’s population is less than 50% non-Hispanic white? Where are, for example, the Moncayos, Vila-Loboses, Marqueses, and others filling the 600+ pages of the dictionary of Latin American Composers that I have on my shelf? As a Russian, I love Shostakovich – and yet I feel that there are many people that would have enjoyed a Revueltas instead (and to be honest, if I myself had to choose, I’d have to throw a coin).
    The bottom line is that the ‘standard repertoire’ interspersed with abstruse ‘contemporary’ works is a nice repository of the achievements of Western culture – but if we continue to hold on to a limited, purified version of it, we as a community of listeners, performers, and supporters, are doomed to extinction.

    Comment by Sergei Karacharov — October 28, 2012 at 1:57 am

  2. I returned on Friday from several days in Halifax, NS. While there I attended a concert performed by Symphony Nova Scotia. As people were arriving, members of the SNS Players Association were passing out sheets informing us that labor negotiations had recently broken down. Among other things they in formed us that, “The base salary for an SNS Musician BEFORE taxes is $28,126.” That’s for a section player. People arriving were asked by other to sign petitions to the local government to increase its support of the orchestra, which is much lower than what other localities provide their orchestras.

    I don’t know how Canadian $28,126 compares with what section musicians earn in most orchestras around the US. Doubtless in the top orchestras the salary is much higher (and supplemented by what they can earn by teaching).

    Is it music education that will produce future audiences, or is it home environment and the inevitable random encounters? No doubt all can play a part, but I certainly wouldn’t put it all on the schools. Beethoven’s music has endured because when people hear it, they want to hear it again, whether they’ve had formal education in music or not.

    In Europe governments support the arts because they are the successors of princely supporters of the arts. In the U.S., our governments did not inherit the mantle of rulers as patrons of the arts. But we do share with Europe the tradition of wealthy individuals as patrons.

    To Mr. Karacharov: if our orchestras won’t give us Beethoven and Mahler, who will? The fact that a Cuban orchestra plays the music of Cuban composers hardly means that an American orchestra must. Certainly, the repertoire will always evolve, but I cannot believe that the works which formed the tradition of European orchestras and their American successors will fail to engage audiences apart from “non-Hispanic white” (a classification by the Census Bureau which I find questionable and troubling on several grounds) listeners. Are Hispanics and non-whites less capable of appreciating Beethoven and Mahler, Stravinsky and Harbison?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 28, 2012 at 6:06 pm

  3. Does BMI keep track of the feedbacks that the ‘official’ reviewers get? (It must be a very dreaddul job to do in some cases)

    I only read articles that are relevant and don’t remember them all. But I wish BMI editors to take a look at links below, which I happened to remember.

    I think I finally get the 1,2,3,4 in this article, yet I am not convinced a bit. I don’t have good solutions (unlike many other people), but I am certain that self-contradiction, which is what the article is promoting, is not one of them.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — October 31, 2012 at 11:27 am

  4. To Mr. Whipple:
    Of course, I am not saying that “Hispanics and non-whites [are] less capable of appreciating Beethoven and Mahler, Stravinsky and Harbison”. They are more than just capable of appreciating and performing them – as, say, the Venezuela Youth Orchestra’s example shows most eloquently. They also, incidentally, happen to often excel at writing great music.
    The question is: are WE (as a community) able to admit that A) there is more to great classical music than stuff written in Europe and in the US; B) that many people would enjoy hearing music from elsewhere and learning about it; and C) that reaching out to the potential audience that is much more diverse than it used to be – in terms of culture, musical experience, musical preferences, knowledge of musical traditions – is impossible by way of holding on to the established ‘canon’ and blindly expecting everyone else to accept it as is.

    Comment by Sergei Karacharov — November 1, 2012 at 10:52 pm

  5. Mr. Karacharov:
    I have no problem with A) and B), and I suppose most people would agree. What I wrote has to do with C). The point I was trying to make is that the tradition which “we” find appealing should be equally appealing to “them.” But the point about “them” having wider culture, experience, and preferences is a fair one. What I thought I was saying in response to that is that the canon is not closed. New pieces — whether newly composed or newly presented to particular symphonic audiences — are showing up all the time, including some by Golijov and Villa-Lobos. In other words, I think the BSO should “stubbornly cling” to the central Western symphonic repertory, but that does not and should not exclude works from Latin American composers becoming part of a constantly evolving repertoire.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 2, 2012 at 3:58 pm

  6. The problem is not just educating future audiences, but educating those we theoretically have now. The BSO has just put on three superb concerts. If one more person tells me that the Shostakovich 4th was one of the outstanding performances of recent memory, I may murder him or her; we had no choice but to miss it. But I did attend the Ravel/Stravinsky one-act opera double bill (twice) and last night’s superb concert with the lush, intense Saariaho and the extremely moving Britten violin concerto with Shaham — two strong doses of humanity in musical form. But the hall for all three performances was 1/3 empty. What is going on??? Where are the knowledgeable, inquisitive, open-minded concert-goers in the purported Athens of America? Somehow, we have to reach these laggards, too.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — November 2, 2012 at 7:25 pm

  7. it is funny to hear ““Hispanics and non-whites [are] less capable of appreciating Beethoven and Mahler, Stravinsky and Harbison”.

    Do we really know? Knowing the American political correctness is sth people need to survive. But keep repeating that nonsense is a form of stupidity.

    What do we know? We know some Germans composed many of world’s best music works. But who (as a group) is more capable of appreciating Beethoven? Hispanics? or White? or Gemanic White? Yeah, they must be equally capable, no more, no less.

    Really? Do you really know?

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 5, 2012 at 3:42 pm

  8. correction to avoid confusion

    it is funny to hear “I am not saying “Hispanics and non-whites [are] less capable of appreciating Beethoven and Mahler, Stravinsky and Harbison””.

    Comment by Thorsten Zhu — November 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm

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