Who's Afraid of Symphony Orchestras?

Nancy Glaze and Dr. Thomas Wolf

Who's afraid of symphony orchestras? It seems that lots of foundations are these days. It has been exactly a half century since the Ford Foundation's massive sixty plus million dollar program was introduced to stabilize orchestras. Ford's initiative was followed by others and foundation funding became a major component of orchestra support for a few years. But today, only one foundation has a major national funding program for orchestras. Even many local foundations seem cautious about supporting them. At a recent session at a Grantmakers in the Arts conference, we were surprised by the level of ambivalence, confusion, and concern on the part of funders with respect to funding orchestras.

Orchestras are critically important arts institutions and their health is often a bellwether of the health of the performing arts in their communities. We believe orchestras deserve support — under the right circumstances.

So let's look at some assumptions and cut through some myths.

Classical music is a dead art form and people don't really care about it any more. Not true. A comprehensive study funded by the Knight Foundation found that huge numbers of Americans appreciate classical music — though only a small fraction of these people attend orchestra performances in concert halls. Foundations could play an important role in helping orchestras expand their connections to their communities.

If we get involved, we will get burned. Possibly, especially if you are responding to yet another “save the symphony” campaign and are providing cash that will disappear into a grand black hole. Chances are you will get the same request a couple of years hence. Orchestras that are in a lot of trouble often have difficulty turning things around. But when orchestras are in trouble may be the best time to get involved — not with an unrestricted cash grant, but with some technical assistance and carefully targeted money (coordinated with other funders so the dollars make a difference). Set the bar high for your involvement. If the orchestra is unwilling to change, hold your ground.

There is no exit strategy and I will have to provide funding forever. Not true, if you design things right. If you are not in the business of giving ongoing general operating support, then you certainly must be careful what you fund and for how long. One typical problem is that foundations think in terms of time-lines that are too short for orchestras. Short-term in the orchestra business is six to ten years. Remember, orchestras tend to be large institutions, often with collective bargaining agreements with unionized work forces, and they are by their very nature slow to change. Be clear what your expectations are when you get involved and be prepared to be involved over a long time frame. But be sure that your exit strategy is conceived at the front end.

Our dollars are too small to make a difference. This is probably true, which is why it is so important to work in concert with other funders. On the other hand, most funders do not make the same complaint when they support their local hospitals or universities, where their dollars are equally small in relation to the total institutional budgets. They see their support of these institutions as a logical obligation to major community assets. At their best, orchestras are similar community assets. If you want your dollars to do more than just support the status quo, however, find partners who can combine their dollars with yours to get the attention of the orchestra.

Orchestras don't get it — they are hopelessly out of touch with reality. That may have been true ten years ago but things have changed. The crisis in the orchestra business is so significant that even the largest orchestras are no longer ignoring reality. In smaller communities, the very survival of orchestras depends on change. Significant and exciting things are happening on the stage, in the community, and in the leadership structures of many orchestras. If your orchestra seems to have its head in the sand, encourage its leadership to get more involved with its peers. The American Symphony Orchestra League — once an apologist for the status quo — is monitoring and reporting and helping orchestras bring about change. That service organization is a good place to start.

There are more efficient ways to support classical music. True, but let's not forget that symphony orchestras are at the top of the classical music food chain. They provide more employment for musicians (which in turn benefits all classical music organizations in the community), they provide visibility for the art form, they often have the organizational capacity to provide services to other cultural institutions, and they can give a positive image to a community.

We believe that foundations should once again become an important positive force in support of symphony orchestras, especially in the current changing environment. Is it time for some of us to get together and discuss how to do this more effectively?