The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy report, Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy, issued on October 10, recommends that philanthropic investment in the arts “benefit underserved communities and promote greater equity, opportunity and justice.” America’s orchestras affirm these goals, and are important vehicles for achieving them by virtue of their capacity to serve a broad range of audiences. However, the report also unfortunately contains some flawed thinking that positions orchestras and other large arts institutions that deliver the Western canon as barriers to this important work, rather than as partners in it.
The “headline” finding, that 55% of foundation funding goes to the 2% of arts organizations that have budgets over $5,000,000, is misleading as an indicator of inequity. That percentage is no more than the axiomatic result of supporting large-budget organizations. They cost more because they employ more artists, at higher wages and benefits, serve more people, produce a higher volume of cultural activity, and therefore have higher production and operating costs related to the venues required to house them. The Houston Grand Opera’s production The Refuge, developed through extensive engagement with community-based civic and cultural organizations representing Houston’s immigrant populations, was a mainstage production with multiple performances. It included not only a symphony orchestra and cast of singers but additional musicians drawn from the neighborhoods that developed the opera. This was a costly but worthy project. And when the South Dakota Symphony toured the state to perform on several Native American reservations with a newly commissioned orchestral work by a Mohican composer, it, too, was an expensive and highly valued undertaking.
The report also claims that smaller, culturally specific organizations cannot get their fair share because more money is flowing to larger organizations. On the contrary, the synergies between these subsets of art organizations are being realized at a rate never before experienced. Thirteen orchestras across the country are combining instrumental instruction with social justice in disadvantaged neighborhoods, through programs based on the transformational El Sistema music program from Venezuela, partnering in every instance with community-based organizations. And orchestras in Pittsburgh, Knoxville, Madison, and St. Louis have collaborative partnerships to bring music to special-needs communities. It should also be noted that 90% of the League’s adult member orchestras have budgets under $5 million, therefore qualifying as “small.”
The orchestral canon itself needs no defense as a unique art form that speaks powerfully to people of all backgrounds and income levels. The canon had taken root in Latin America more than 100 years before its arrival in the United States, with important opera houses built in Mexico and Puerto Rico early in the 18th century. Mexico City today boasts five symphony orchestras. And as mentioned above, the standard orchestral repertoire, and the unique experience of playing in an orchestra, are the fundamental elements of the Venezuelan social-justice program El Sistema. Japan has a long tradition of classical music and music education, and we are witnessing an explosion of classical music in China. Now the Middle East is growing its capacity to present orchestra performances.
And the good news about the canon as it is presented in the U.S. is that it is growing to include works from immigrant populations. Beginning in the 1980s a generation of young Chinese composers arrived in America with a unique passion for the Western orchestra as a platform to incorporate Chinese instruments and sonorities. Latin American composers, after a long hiatus, are returning to orchestra programs in the form of a fresh young generation of composers. And it is common that performances of such works are accompanied by partnerships with respective community-based cultural organizations.
There is no question that the origins of the institutions that deliver the Western canon in the United States are rooted in close associations with wealth and an elitist understanding of value and purpose. But that was then and this is now. Orchestras have been embracing the challenge to build on a tradition of great music-making to become more far-reaching cultural citizens, who contribute to the overall quality of life of the citizenry, support the arts education of our children, and define audience to include all segments of communities. This journey is far from over, but enormous strides have been made. 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.
America’s orchestras, (and, I suspect, opera companies, museums, and theaters) have all been transitioning from a single-minded focus on the excellence of the performance or art work, to paying greater attention to the value created for the community. To succeed we must work hand in hand with those artists and marginalized communities that help enrich our art form and generate new access points for audience engagement. We strongly support foundation investment in culturally specific and community-based arts activity, but do not believe, as the report suggests, that this must go hand in hand with less support to larger organizations.
Both large and small arts organizations should be supported, recognizing their unique circumstances and needs. And, with the current serious strains on the capacity of all sources of support for the arts, this is no time for a divided arts sector.
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On October 18, radio station WQXR posted a podcast in which League President and CEO Jesse Rosen discussed the new report with Aaron Dorfman, the executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy; Yvette Campbell, president and CEO of the Harlem School of the Arts; and WQXR host Naomi Lewin. Listen to the discussion here.