Not a Zero Sum Problem

by Jesse Rosen (bio), president & CEO, League of American Orchestras

I heartily support the NCRP report’s recommendation that philanthropic investment in the arts should benefit underserved communities and promote greater equity, opportunity, and justice. But I take issue with the suggestion that foundation support to large-budget organizations and those that perform the Western canon is, by definition, at odds with these goals. The NCRP presents this as a zero sum problem; i.e., take from one to support the other. At a time when resources to support arts and culture are strained, everyone wins when we work together to realize the capacities of cultural organizations large and small, traditional and culturally unique.

It should be noted that 90% of the League’s adult member orchestras have budgets under $5 million, therefore qualifying as “small” according to the definition used in the NCRP report. The report mentions that it does not fully take into account foundation support that broadens and diversifies access to mainstream cultural offerings, and I would suggest that this is not an insignificant omission and worth additional data collection and analysis. What we know about the full range of our membership verifies that all have the capacity to serve diverse communities and increase access to the transformative power of orchestral music.

More than 60% of the 32,000 concerts given annually by League member orchestras are specifically dedicated to education or community engagement, for a wide range of young and adult audiences. Nearly half of those concerts are presented free of charge. The increase in partnerships between orchestras and other arts organizations and nonprofit agencies that serve communities in need is most recently and clearly evidenced in the thirteen major orchestras across the country that are combining instrumental instruction with social justice in disadvantaged neighborhoods, through programs based on the transformational El Sistema music program from Venezuela. Other examples include the South Dakota Symphony’s recent tour of their state to perform on three Lakota reservations with a newly commissioned orchestral work by a Lakota composer. And orchestras in Pittsburgh, Knoxville, Madison, and St. Louis have collaborative partnerships to bring music to special-needs communities.

A number of assumptions about the music orchestras play are outdated. The good news about the canon as it is presented in the U.S. is that it has broad appeal and is growing to include more works from immigrant populations. The fact is that orchestral music is a unique art form that speaks powerfully to people of all backgrounds and income levels. Interest in live performances, recordings, and playing classical instruments has deep roots in Latin America, so it is not surprising that the League’s 2009 Audience Demographic Review analysis by McKinsey forecasts that Hispanics will increase their share of the total live classical audience from about 12% to 20% by 2018. Classical music is growing at an extraordinary rate in Asia and is now being explored in the Middle East, with composers from these regions adding influences from far beyond Western Europe. And, a new generation of composers in the U.S is creating vital and relevant orchestral music that draws upon America’s popular and vernacular genres.

America’s orchestras have all been transitioning from a single minded focus on the excellence of the performance, to paying greater attention to the value created for the community. Orchestras still have much more work to do to serve communities beyond our traditional concert audiences, which remain predominantly white; and more work to reduce barriers and spread the word that we contribute not only by delivering performances of high quality but also valuable educational and community-service programs. To succeed we must increasingly work hand in hand with those artists and diverse communities that help enrich our art form and generate new access points for audience engagement. Both large and small arts organizations should be supported, recognizing their unique capacities to serve the circumstances and needs of their communities.