Sticking One's Head in the Sand

In a recent article about the impending closing of yet another American orchestra, one executive from a second orchestra was bemoaning the discussion about the reduction in interest in classical music and opera. In particular, he was upset with Peter Gelb's comments about a reduction in demand for opera and classical music. "If you don't believe in the art form and you're not willing to work your ass off for it, then get out," he stated.

I can imagine not wanting a colleague who felt classical music was bad, irrelevant or immoral. I can even imagine suggesting that someone who felt it was impossible to build an audience or attract a donor group look elsewhere for employment. But for the life of me, I cannot imagine that someone who is stating a concern about his field (a concern that is supported by large quantities of data) should be ostracized.

This equates to sticking one's head in the sand.

It is indeed true that there is less demand for classical music than there was in recent decades, that it is harder to balance our budgets and that numerous orchestras (and other arts institutions) are likely to disappear in the coming decades. This results from overly high ticket prices, the lack of arts education in the schools, the aging of our patron group, the reduction in the propensity to subscribe, the abundance of new forms of entertainment, the growing availability of high-quality performances online and several other factors.

This does not mean that every institution is doomed nor that classical music will not be available in the future.

But it does suggest that arts institutions must find ways to distinguish themselves, to make engagement truly fun and rewarding, and to attract new audience members and donors.

We must strengthen our boards, build larger donor families and provide smart, coherent arts education programming to young people.

While, as was stated in the article, there will always be demand for Bach and Beethoven and Haydn, it is not, therefore, necessarily true that there will be as much demand in the past. Nor is it clear that the demand will be met in the same way and by as many regional ensembles as we enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century.

It is entirely likely that some of this demand will be met via electronic distribution, through performances distributed online.

If so, the financial support for regional ensembles may not be substantial enough to fully meet all their costs, and some orchestras (and ballet companies and opera companies and theater companies) will disappear. The challenge many organizations are now facing in labor negotiations is simply one manifestation of this problem.

The reduction in the number of ensembles will not be a happy occurrence; the explosion of arts accessibility in the last 50 years was wonderful. But it is a fair and honest (and possibly incorrect) evaluation of the future of our field.

Stating it does not make one evil. Having this discussion at this time is critical; we must prepare for the changes that technology and changing patterns in education, entertainment and demographics will effect. This is the only way to ensure that more, rather than fewer, organizations survive.