The Search for New Approaches

Stan Hutton, Jesse Rosen and Angie Kim

Re-imagining Orchestras: A forthright report on the mixed results of one foundation's efforts

Stan Hutton

It seems that nearly every week an article appears somewhere demanding that foundations be more open in revealing how funding decisions are made and more candid in discussing their failures. The Search for Shining Eyes, Thomas Wolf's succinct summary of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's Magic of Music initiative, should satisfy a few critics of philanthropy in this regard. The program's shortcomings are exposed before our very eyes. If it's true that we learn more from our failures than our successes, then the Knight Foundation has done us a great service by publishing this short and readable book.

The death of the symphony orchestra has been predicted on and off for at least fifty years, and the late 1980s and early 1990s were a particularly bad time for orchestras. Wolf reports that the Knight Foundation, which focuses its funding on twenty-six communities, was receiving "save the symphony" requests at an alarming rate. Creed Black, then president of the foundation, came across a reprint of a 1988 speech delivered to the American Symphony Orchestra League by historian, jazz clarinetist, and Oberlin College president Frederick Starr. Starr called for orchestras to be more responsive to their audiences. Among other things, he urged musicians to speak about the music from the stage, vary concert starting times, and, in a nod to Mozart, suggested that patrons be encouraged to applaud between movements.

Some of these ideas were expressed later in the "Americanization of the Symphony Orchestra," an American Symphony Orchestra League report that contained the recommendations of a task force convened to address the severe financial problems facing orchestras and the perceived lack of relevance of orchestras in an increasingly multicultural society. The report generated much controversy and drew a strongly disapproving review from New York Times music critic Edward Rothstein. By this time, national foundations had more or less washed their hands of the task of trying to rescue orchestras from the dire situation in which they found themselves.

In the midst of this despair, the Knight Foundation stepped forward and launched the Magic of Music initiative. They wished to help orchestras enliven the experience of attending concerts in the hope that audiences would grow and orchestras would flourish. Beginning in 1994, and over the next decade, the Knight Foundation awarded grants of over $13 million to fifteen orchestras
in an attempt to revitalize the concert hall experience
and put more people in the seats.

Knight began by issuing a call for proposals that asked for innovative ideas to "intensify and deepen your audience's experience of orchestral music." Orchestras were invited to be experimental. But none of the twenty proposals submitted brought forward a new approach. Not a single orchestra had devised an idea that, in Knight's opinion, satisfied its call to "re-imagine your orchestra." It also seemed clear that no music directors, orchestra musicians, or board members had been consulted in formulating the proposed projects. On reflection, Knight blamed itself for the disappointing results. Wishing to give free rein to potential grantees, the first request for proposals had been too vague.

In their revised request for proposals Knight gave more specific direction and required that signatures representing management, artistic leadership, musicians, and trustees be added to proposals. They also sent the request to a larger group of orchestras. Results were better the second time around. Ten projects were approved.

Knight also decided to convene grantees in order to better explain the foundation's goals and to develop a forum in which orchestra personnel could share their problems and their ideas for solving them. The meetings became a regular event during the course of the initiative and the attendance (or lack thereof) of music directors pointed to a significant problem orchestras face when attempting to create innovative programming. Music directors, with some exceptions, were noticeably absent from the meetings. Most music direc-tors hold two or more positions and travel frequently to appear as guest conductors. Securing their participation became an obstacle that was not overcome during the initiative.

During the first phase of the initiative, projects included teaching young musicians how to communicate with audiences (New World Symphony), developing educational events to accompany thematic concerts (Brooklyn Philharmonic), and adding large video screens to the concert experience (Philadelphia Orchestra). The non-union Kansas City Symphony and the musician-operated Louisville Phil-harmonic Orchestra participated in the first phase of the project, in part to test the idea that orchestras with non-traditional management would be more effective at making changes. As it turned out, the Kansas City orchestra unionized during the course of the project and the Louisville orchestra appeared to operate in much the same way as groups with a traditional management scheme.

Overall, at the end of the first cycle of funding, although some increase in audience numbers was observed and greater collaboration among orchestra managers, artistic staff, and musicians was seen, the most obvious result was to point out that building new audiences is a complex endeavor. In Philadelphia, for example, the experiment of adding video to the concerts met with such disapproval that the project was jettisoned early on and the grant was used for other purposes. Innovations designed to bring in new audiences can drive away core audiences. And, while new audience members might come to a single concert because of a new method of presentation, it was not apparent that these audiences would return for later performances.

Before launching the second phase of the initiative, Knight determined that it was crucial to get a better picture of audiences and potential audiences. The foundation commissioned a massive consumer survey that included over 11,000 random telephone inter-views in fifteen orchestra markets. The results were surprising. Well over one-half of those surveyed expressed an interest in classical music, and one-third of this group reported fairly frequent listening to classical music, primarily on the radio. But, only five percent of this group said that they had attended a concert given by their local symphony and nearly half of those attendees had attended with a ticket purchased by someone else. Very few people expressed interest in buying a subscription. And although orchestras have provided free concerts to children for many years, no evidence was found that these children turned into ticket buyers as adults. In-stead, it was discovered the nearly three-fourths of the people who actually bought tickets for themselves, their families, and their friends had played an instrument or sung in a chorus as a youngster.

Thirteen orchestras received funding during the second phase of the project, eight of which also were included in the first phase. The projects focused on three strategies to reach new audiences: using orchestra members in outreach efforts, using education and technology, and using program innovations in the concert halls. Collaborative groups were organized around these three themes. Orchestra staff met frequently with others in their group to exchange information. In some cases, music was commissioned jointly, the cost of developing software was shared, and concert formats were borrowed. As had been true during the first phase, music directors were mostly absent from the meetings.
Again, results were mixed. Although innovative programming brought new people into the concert halls, these new audience members rarely joined the audience for the orchestras' regular concert season. Community outreach efforts strengthened orchestras' standing in the community, but did not translate into increases in paid attendance. Overall, subscription ticket sales declined, following a trend that has been seen across the industry over the last two decades. Single ticket sales increased slightly but not enough to make a difference.

Despite the failure to make a significant impact in building new audiences, the results of the Magic of Music initiative shatter some basic assumptions that we have lived with for a long time. For instance, among the nine lessons learned for orchestras are the findings that free concerts do not turn people into ticket buyers, adult music education efforts are used primarily by those who already go to concerts, and, perhaps, most importantly, it appears that playing an instrument or singing in a chorus as a child does far more to build future audiences than music exposure or appreciation programs.

The Search for Shining Eyes also lists eight lessons for funders. While most if not all of the lessons should already be known by most of us — that evaluation planning should be part of the project design, for example — it is useful to have them validated again by experience. Maybe the most important lesson we can learn from Magic of Music is that being forthright about our failures can lead to a better understanding of the challenges we face and, ultimately, to success.
Stan Hutton is program officer,

Clarence E. Hutton Charitable Foundation.


Jesse Rosen

The “Shining Eyes” report was a product of one of two major national foundation initiatives for orchestras that took place at about the same time — the second being the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Orchestra Forum. Both offered orchestras time and resources to identify and explore their greatest challenges and, in the case of some orchestras, to test alternative strategies. To capture some of the thought-provoking dialogue around the Knight Foundation initiative in particular, the American Symphony Orchestra League convened a group of Magic of Music participants and observers for a roundtable discussion that will be excerpted for the May-June 2007 issue of SYMPHONY Magazine.

Roundtable participants shared how outcomes that diverged from the study's original path nevertheless resulted in institutional transformation. As one manger asked, Should success be measured in ticket sales alone or, instead, by true audience engagement in neighborhood programs that may lead to new and increased contributed revenue streams? All roundtable participants were surprised at the report's observation that youth concerts do not have an impact on paid attendance, since orchestras long ago moved away from stand-alone youth concerts in favor of ongoing in-school activity integrated into the classroom curricula. Further, participants concurred that the Magic of Music program stimulated important experiments: some succeeded, others didn't, but all moved the field forward in understanding how to meet its challenges.

Orchestras Respond to a Changing Environment

Jesse Rosen

Evidence of the state of the field was apparent as delegates to the American Symphony Orchestra League's National Conference in Los Angeles last June witnessed a remarkable clash of viewpoints between Esa-Pekka Salonen (music director, Los Angeles Phil-harmonic) and Peter Sellars (a leading theater, opera, and television director) in their successive remarks. Salonen, seated on stage in the visually arresting Disney Hall, the hall that “democratizes” the listening experience, made the plea for an orchestra to be experienced in its home, where the sound is pure and true; not to venture out. Sellars followed, recounting his most memorable orchestral performance: Beethoven's Egmont Overture, conducted by Salonen, in a church in East L.A., attended by family and friends of a young man murdered in a gang shooting.

These seemingly paradoxical views are nothing less than the dynamic and healthy tension of a field striving to preserve its core while adapting to the demands of a new era. Sellars and Salonen are frequent and close collaborators; their partnership reinforces the notion that these opposite outlooks live comfortably together in a larger view that values both artistry and engagement. This represents an advance for orchestras as they gain the confidence to balance competing priorities and to live with the uncertainty of change.

Three years ago, and coinciding with the Knight and Mellon foundation's initiatives, the League began a strategic planning process that provides further insight into orchestras as they confront and adapt to the challenges of today's world. It will come as no surprise that the landscape depicted in the League's plan is an environment in rapid and profound change. Many factors contribute: shifts in demographics, culture, values, and priorities; evolving technology; changing consumer patterns and tastes; and competition for philanthropic funds, leadership resources, and the ever-scarcer leisure time of audiences. These changes are straining business and organizational models as attendance and funding are increasingly difficult to sustain. Yet, studies provide continuing evidence of the enduring power of the art form and the orchestra field expresses a new appetite for change.

Through the planning process, we learned that an individual orchestra's response to the changing environment can be complicated by a variety of factors. These include inadequate data to inform decisions, difficulty among constituents in working constructively together, a reticence to grapple with the toughest issues, unclear governance roles and priorities, and a need for stronger leadership at all levels and among all constituencies within an orchestra's organization.

In the course of its planning, the League identified three core challenges. Orchestras are challenged to become vitally engaged, connected, and meaningful to more of the public. They need a better understanding of artistic, business, and organizational models in order to create viable new ones for the future. And they need to align and connect their stakeholders. To support orchestras in meeting these challenges, three goals emerged for the League itself:

  1. Civic Stature. The League will be an irreplaceable resource to orchestras as they shape new relationships with their communities.
  2. Model the Future. The League will be a catalyst for change and a primary resource for understanding artistic and operational models that will retain and enhance the vitality of orchestras.
  3. Common Cause. The League will lead, encourage, and support orchestras in the work of building mutual understanding among orchestra stakeholders, fostering collaborative environments, and bridging differences to achieve optimum alignment around common purposes.

These goals will provide a template to focus resources on the most critical issues and opportunities for orchestras. The League plans to address its new goals through four overarching strategies:

  • become a powerful engine for innovation and R&D,
  • be an indispensable source for meaningful information,
  • be an expanded source of talent and leadership development, and
  • be a stronger advocate and connector for the orchestra field.

The first of these strategies — research and development — is new for the League. It recognizes that today's circumstances call for new knowledge and for testing the knowledge and applying it to the biggest challenges. Contextual knowledge that illuminates the external circumstances with high impact on orchestras will play an important role in this new work. So, at our National Conference this June in Nashville and in partnership with the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy, we will host the introduction of Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life. The book presents the findings of eight researchers who have studied the momentous changes in cultural life in the United States. Their results challenge old ways of thinking, raise probing questions, and uncover deep and important currents in how the public engages with arts and culture. Four of the authors will present their findings and interact with practitioners and conference attendees to explore the intersection of research and practice. And through a partnership with, the session will be open to a worldwide community as a live blogging event on the web.

Additionally, the League plans to identify, attract, and generate funding to encourage innovation and experimentation — both artistic and operational — at individual orchestras. These resources will help mitigate the risk associated with change and thereby promote a culture more inclined toward experimentation. Furthermore, to permit learning throughout the field, the League will track and report information and outcomes of these innovations, and we will conduct our own research, often partnering with research institutes, to bring greater understanding to subjects such as financial models, pricing, and audience participation.

The League has a created a new position, a vice president for R&D, to drive the important new work of building a knowledge base and developing a culture of inquiry that values research and embraces intelligent risk-taking.

The studies of both the Knight Foundation and the Mellon Foundation resulted in some remarkably similar findings and reinforce overarching strategies of the League. The need for more and better data, the necessity of bringing all stakeholders together, the grow-ing importance of deeper community connection, and the need for both the culture and the resources of orchestras to support experimentation — all form a picture of a field in motion. While many challenges lie ahead, these recent foundation investments in under-standing and experimentation are helping define a path toward a vital and healthy future for orchestras.

Countering Impressions of Secrecy with True Stories

Angie Kim

Recently a Wall Street Journal article (1/11/07) titled, “Generous to a Fault? A Close Look at Giving,” caught my attention. The author, Ben Wildavsky, opens by mentioning a Business Week cover story about CEOs who share their mistakes and the opportunities these mistakes created. This prefaces his main point, which is a critique of foundations for not sharing stories of failure enough, thus perpetuating the impression of foundations as “arrogant, secretive, and insular.” I've heard the criticism before, but the actual criticism hasn't resonated with me: I certainly have not seen colleagues arrogantly boasting of their perfect grantmaking. What I observe more often are colleagues seeking to learn from mistakes and eagerly trying to improve their own practices. For myself, I am more aware of how many actions I “could have/should have” done differently than the number of times I did something “just right.”

Wildavsky's article is one more in a growing body of criticism about grantmaking's lack of transparency. So why is there an impression that foundations are secretive, and what can be done to improve our communications? I certainly don't agree that we avoid sharing our stories of failure because we are arrogant. Rather, the field tries to do good work at the best possible level: we are, after all, in the business of trying to “make a difference” and “make the world a better place.” However, it is not easy to re-hash mistakes, especially publicly. There are also barriers that keep us from being too frank and open about mistakes. We know, for example, that building trust and confidence has currency in our practice, and there is a delicate balance between being transparent and looking like a weak partner who doesn't know what to do. Although I disagree with Mr. Wildavsky's assessment that grantmakers are secretive or arrogant, I think the more important point is that we can do a better job of revealing how grantmaking works.

This brings me to The Search for Shining Eyes by Dr. Thomas Wolf. From his vantage point as consultant to the initiative and an “outside” observer, Dr. Wolf had the fresh eyes to chronicle the Knight Foundation's efforts and failures without window dressing and had the insight to recognize successes due to good grantmaking decisions. Throughout the initiative, the foundation staff members, led by former Knight Foundation vice presi-dent Penelope McPhee, were a critical human resource in attempting to mobilize the orchestra field toward deep and long-lasting improvements. Ultimately, the mixed results of these large and concerted efforts reveal how difficult it is to transform either a single institution or an entire field.

I was riveted by Dr. Wolf's account. After first opening The Search for Shining Eyes, I couldn't put the 54-page publication down. I read it cover to cover. And, that tells me that Dr. Wolf's account can serve as a useful model for all grantmakers about how to be transparent: tell an interesting and good story about how grantmaking works. If Dr. Wolf had only related the successes of the initiative and not included the failures, the story would have been unbelievable — even arrogant.

The examples described in this publication give us an opportunity to learn and improve our own practices through the shared experiences of others. An important lesson is that the real opportunity for success is to be open about the grantmaking process, revealing blemishes and all. By sharing mistakes, Knight Foundation earns credibility and trust: who wouldn't want to work with funders who are human — so interested in positive impact as to dream large and risk failure? Dr. Wolf's chronicle of Magic of Music is not so much a model of how to make grants, but rather is an excellent example on which to build our own storytelling efforts to demystify grantmaking, humanize our efforts, and build trust.