The Orchestra Forum: A Discussion of Symphony Orchestras in the US
1998 Annual Report
Background: The Symphony Orchestra Field
Numbering approximately 1,200 and generating nearly one billion dollars in annual revenue, symphony and chamber orchestras constitute a large part of the performing arts market in the US. Most orchestras are small; only 153 (13 percent) have budgets of more than $750,000. Of these, 17 have 52-week seasons and budgets over $10 million. The remaining 136 orchestras, with budgets between $750,000 and $10 million, generally have seasons shorter than 52 weeks and collectively represent the largest portion of the field's activity. Orchestras employ 78,000 musicians and 11,000 administrative staff, and they give 27,000 performances annually for 32 million people. (Note 1)
Since 1969, the Foundation has provided over $22 million in grants to orchestras, primarily for general operations and endowment. Following a major initiative from 1977 to 1984, the Foundation suspended support to the field, concerned that an unhealthy environment, reflected in poor financial performance and debilitating labor disputes, would render continuing investment ineffective. In 1989, the Foundation shifted support to period instrument orchestras and then, more broadly, to chamber orchestras. Final grants in the small orchestra program were made in 1996, and Foundation staff, with encouragement from the Trustees, once again turned their attention to an investigation of symphony orchestras.
Context: Historical Influences on Orchestras
Many of the institutional influences on contemporary orchestras were already in place a hundred years ago: a financial system based on subscriptions and contributions; programming shaped by 19th-century German and Austrian repertoire; an organizational structure that canonizes the music director; a volunteer support system that creates tension between the art of music-making and the business of orchestra management; and a reliance on community sponsorship that juxtaposes "popular taste" with the "moral virtues" of serious art. (Note 2)
The idea of a "full-time" orchestra as the norm to which all professionals aspired was first realized in Boston through the efforts of businessman Henry Lee Higginson, but it was the Chicago Symphony, under music director Theodore Thomas, that established the model that would shape orchestra development for a century. Thomas placed himself firmly at the center of all his orchestra's activity. "As the first great American conductor, [Thomas] established the preeminent role of the music director--the resident leader of the permanent orchestra--as a unique and integral feature of the symphony orchestra in America." (Note 3)
This "cult of the conductor" was almost immediately institutionalized, and it has remained unchanged in American orchestras since Mahler and Toscanini fought for supremacy in New York in the early 20th century. (Note 4) Thomas' influence was also important in other ways. Not only did he believe that symphonic music represented the "highest flower of art," he also believed that only the most cultivated people could understand it. While he did conduct free concerts for the "general public," he believed that it was inherently unproductive for orchestras of significant artistic stature to provide such concerts. This tension still exists today, reflected in the ambiguous relationship between orchestras and their communities.
During the 1960s, orchestras entered a period of unprecedented growth. The National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965. That same year, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund published a study of the performing arts in America which recognized orchestras as "the longest established, most widely dispersed, and most stable" among the country's arts institutions. (Note 5) Expressing concern that 20 percent of musicians in major cities also had to teach on the side in order to earn a living, the Rockefeller Report focused on artistic growth and recommended that orchestras' seasons be expanded. At the same time, the Ford Foundation, which had been conducting its own research, announced an $80 million initiative to support orchestras. According to McNeil Lowry, who developed the Ford program, the objective was "to improve both the income level of the instrumentalists and the performance standards of the orchestras, ultimately raising the prestige of the player's life as a career for talented young musicians." (Note 6)
The results of this enormous investment were mixed. In spite of the good intentions of funders and the sincere efforts of orchestras, the programs themselves had serious unanticipated consequences. Grants inspired rapid expansion for which many orchestras were unprepared, and some were unable to absorb the increased artistic activity or raise the funds necessary to continue it. Financial problems ensued, and labor relations deteriorated. In 1977, concerned about the steadily worsening net current liability position of orchestras, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation began making endowment grants to a limited number of orchestras to help them improve long-term stability. That program was suspended in 1994 after an investment of nearly $10 million failed to change the situation measurably. Although these programs had a number of arguably negative effects, they were also successful in many ways. Orchestras became more professional, pay for musicians climbed significantly, longer seasons attracted new audiences, and many orchestras emerged in stronger positions. These were not inconsiderable achievements, even if the longer-term effects have brought their sustainability into question. (Note 7)
There has been no shortage of recent discussion about the demise of classical music and, consequently, of orchestras as a primary caretaker of the art form. At the heart of the debate is the suspicion that orchestras themselves are unclear about their missions. In 1987, Ernest Fleishman, managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, proclaimed that "the symphony orchestra is dead." (Note 8) He went on to decry the shortage of inspiring conductors, the lack of imagination exhibited by administrators, and the increasing boredom and frustration of musicians. He called for the dismantling of the rigid organizational structure of orchestras in favor of a flexible "community of musicians" that could operate as a variety of musical ensembles. Thomas Morris, managing director of the Cleveland Orchestra, said instead that the problems among orchestras resulted not from the structure of the artistic ensemble, but rather from a diffused leadership structure that gives no explicit authority to managers and results in "decisions by default." Morris criticized what he saw as a fundamental lack of leadership, governance, and strategic focus. Better artistic planning, a consistent approach to programming and repertoire, and strong boards are the keys to revitalizing orchestras, he said. (Note 9)
Orchestras are also threatened by a variety of external influences, including competition from inside and outside the industry, a decline in general education standards, the elimination of music education, changes in the broadcast and recording industries, market saturation, donor hostility, pressures of multiculturalism and diversity, the dominance of pop culture and consumerism, and unequal regional and urban economic development. Yet some suggest that orchestras themselves are outdated organizations whose current homogeneity indicates dangerously low rates of innovation and variation, concluding that unless orchestras can adapt successfully to the rapidly changing environment, they are susceptible to failure, even extinction. (Note 10)
The Orchestra Forum
In January 1997, Foundation staff held a preliminary meeting with a small group of orchestra managers and decided that further discussion was required in order to understand the current dynamics of the orchestra field. To that end, the Trustees approved the Orchestra Forum, a series of four weekend meetings held between January and May 1998. Participants included 14 musicians, ten executive directors, six conductors, 12 trustees, and 11 other staff members (some of whom were also musicians) from ten orchestras. Three advisers were also engaged: Paul DiMaggio, chairman of the sociology department at Princeton University and co-director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies; J. Richard Hackman, professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard University; and James Kendrick, intellectual property counsel at Thacher Proffitt & Wood who holds degrees from both the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School.
The intent of the Forum was to solicit from practitioners in the field information about the current environment orchestras confront; about ongoing and emerging problems; and about new strategies and practices in the areas of programming, artistic leadership, organizational decision-making, and education. Rather than focusing on external cultural factors (which are difficult to influence) or on the achievements of orchestras (which are significant), the Forum sought to illuminate internal organizational challenges in hopes of determining whether financial support from the Foundation could be strategically important to orchestras. Forum agendas were therefore structured to help probe "root causes" of problems, gauge the readiness of orchestras to pursue individual solutions, and understand the degree to which current problems affect artistic quality. Several key questions ran throughout the investigation:
Is the American orchestra capable, within the bounds of current organization and practice, of functioning effectively in artistic, financial, and community terms?
Are symphony orchestras the right vehicles to preserve and advance classical musical tradition?
What constitutes effective leadership within symphony orchestras and where does (or should) it reside?
What characterizes an individual orchestra's artistic identity and distinguishes it from other orchestras?
How do (and should) orchestras define and measure success?
Pool of Participants and Selection Process
According to many observers, mid-sized orchestras face the greatest threats to their organizational health. They generally have inadequate endowments, are understaffed, suffer high rates of staff turnover, and have a history of financial instability. Without the endowments, international touring schedules, national and international markets, and recording contracts of many larger orchestras, they have had to rely exclusively on local resources for their survival and, as a result, they have close historical ties with the communities they serve. These and other considerations suggested that an assessment of the critical challenges in the field would best be addressed by looking first at this group of orchestras.
Requests for proposals were sent to 50 orchestras ranging in budget size from $844,000 to $21.4 million. Orchestras were asked to involve staff, music directors, musicians, and trustees in responding to a set of detailed questions about issues in the field, including the state of artistic, governing, and administrative leadership; training of musicians and conductors; programming; changing expectations of employees; the orchestra's role in education and the community; labor relations; and the role of unions and service organizations.
Twenty-eight orchestras responded to the RFP, and nine were selected to participate in the Forum: Hartford, New Jersey, Brooklyn, Richmond, Fort Wayne, Oregon, Seattle, Kansas City, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. In addition, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (UK) was invited to provide an outside perspective. The goal was not to select orchestras that responded competitively to some preconceived notion of model institutional performance, but rather to construct a conversation among organizations that appeared structurally quite similar but that had different experiences, different approaches to problem solving, and different perspectives about the current state and future of orchestras. The Foundation's intent was not to exclude anyone from the investigative process, but rather to identify a representative group of organizations whose ideas could form a meaningful basis for a continuing dialogue with the field.
Each of the Forum meetings focused on issues that had been consistently raised in preliminary discussions and in proposals submitted by the 28 orchestras. The first meeting focused on leadership, decision-making, and collaborative cultures; the second on community relationships, education, and marketing; the third on composers, conductors, and repertoire; and the last on research, risk, and change. The agendas were consciously interdisciplinary, and a number of professionals from other fields were invited to contribute outside perspectives on the issues under discussion.
Following the four sessions, Foundation staff compiled results and met with representatives of the national service organizations and the union to share the report and to discuss the degree to which the Forum results reflect concerns of the entire field. Among this group, there was consensus that the Forum had clearly identified key issues of widespread importance to orchestras. To further test the validity of the Forum's conclusions, staff then circulated the report on the Forum to the largest 75 orchestras in the country, asking them to comment on the extent to which the central issues reflect their own concerns. Thirty-nine orchestras have responded to date, and their comments confirm that orchestras in all budget categories are concerned about the quality of leadership throughout the field and about their own orchestra's ability to define more clearly its artistic role in its community. Many in this group cited a lack of adequate training for managers and trustees as a major weakness in the field.
Forum Results: Critical Issues in the Orchestra Field
Throughout the Forum, participants expressed strong consensus about four primary areas of concern: leadership, the role of musicians, changing community expectations, and programming. Clearly, not all orchestras suffer equally from the same problems, but Forum participants agree that they all have these four concerns at least to some extent. Variations appear to have little relation to budget, size of community, or other such factors.
Among participants in the Forum, the deterioration in institutional leadership is the most consistently identified threat to orchestras. Musicians and managers fear the actions of trustees who are essentially unfamiliar with the art form and who allow their parochial interests to subvert artistic goals. Managers say that the daily demands of production, financial management, and fundraising do not allow them the freedom they need to undertake the critical strategic tasks of planning and organizational development. Many complain that the strict work environment has precluded musicians from assuming leadership roles within the organization. Everyone agrees that service organizations are not doing enough to build expertise, train managers, and encourage orchestras to reward institutional leadership.
The absence of artistic leadership, however, is considered the greatest problem. This has little to do with the technical ability of conductors, but rather with their capacity to articulate artistic plans for their orchestras, to educate and motivate constituencies within the organization to support it, and to inspire the audience and community to commit adequate resources to ensure its success.
Overwhelmingly, the biggest problem for this group of orchestras is the absence of the music director during large parts of the year. To confirm the point, only four music directors were available to participate in the Forum; the rest had outside commitments. Extended absences of music directors cause numerous artistic problems for orchestras. Rarely is anyone else assigned responsibility for scholarly programming research. Decisions regarding orchestra personnel are easily avoided. Guest conductors are rarely observed by music directors. Likewise, assistant conductors are seldom evaluated by the person responsible for their artistic development. Finally, the music director rarely judges the musical performance of the orchestra itself except when he or she is on the podium. Inevitably, this lack of supervision results in erosion of quality, a lack of discipline and pride among musicians, and inconsistencies in performance. The current system also seriously inhibits the development of young conductors, as prominent and experienced music directors increasingly abdicate their responsibility for mentoring less experienced colleagues, leaving them to learn on their own before an orchestra that is often impatient, even hostile, to inefficiency and inexperience.
Absenteeism is especially problematic because of the manner in which authority is delegated. Unlike artistic directors of theater companies or general directors of opera companies who typically serve as CEOs of their organizations, music directors are assigned broad responsibility for artistic matters but are relieved (in practice, if not in intent) of the obligation to provide overall institutional leadership. The business management of the orchestra falls to the executive director, and there is not always a designated CEO, a situation that often creates serious conflicts. This decision-making structure is inherently ambiguous: one person is given power without responsibility, the other responsibility and accountability without authority. An organization that looks like a team is, in fact, hierarchical. This creates an essentially unhealthy climate for orchestras, say Forum advisers---two "half-leaders in an awkward relationship." Performance quality suffers, morale declines, the institution "drifts," and "a vacuum is created into which trustees may be sucked."
Although this ambiguous division of power is often debilitating, orchestras seem reluctant to abandon their dependence on the music director. Executive directors speak of their duty to "protect" and "support" the music director, while musicians describe the almost complete isolation of the music director from the players in the orchestra. Said one musician, "The bigger, the more eminent a music director gets over the years, the less likely (he or she) will ever hear any negative comment whatsoever from anyone. The sky can be falling behind you, but people are afraid to say anything to the music director."
Not all of the blame for this situation falls on music directors. Trustees, especially, cling tenaciously to their reverence for the maestro, often stifling artistic leadership in others and focusing attention on the "business" of the orchestra without giving adequate attention to artistic matters (which they claim they do not understand and which are, besides, the responsibility of the music director). At the same time, they have conflicting expectations of music directors and do not always provide vigorous support for a music director when he or she is present. In addition, although trustees insist that artistic ability is the most important consideration when hiring conductors, they tend to judge them instead on their ability to function within the community as public speakers, educators, and fundraisers. Trustees expect, probably unrealistically, that music directors be superstars on and off the podium, but they have difficulty holding them accountable for anything.
The natural reluctance of music directors to cede authority and the limited musical knowledge of trustees reinforce the status quo. Tenure patterns within the organization also contribute. On the average, musicians have the longest tenure in orchestras, but they are typically uninvolved in institutional planning and decision-making. Music directors have the next longest tenure (approximately eight to ten years among the 28 orchestras submitting Forum proposals). Executive directors serve an average of four to six years, and senior marketing and development staff just two to three years. Often, staff are not adequately trained or experienced in artistic matters and are therefore not well equipped to provide artistic leadership in the absence of the music director. With the disenfranchisement of musicians, the absence of the music director, the questionable position of the executive director, and the high turnover in senior staff, orchestras easily become lethargic, their sense of artistic purpose weakened.
This weakness is reflected in poor artistic planning. While all orchestras do regular long-range planning, substantive artistic planning is not effectively integrated into the process. Participants cite a number of resulting problems, among them the lack of specific objectives regarding the improvement of overall orchestral playing, the lack of an imaginative multi-year programming strategy, the failure to address professional development for musicians, and the failure of the board to evaluate the music director. While artistic planning must include the music director, say participants, it must not depend solely on him if the organization is to understand its artistic aspirations and create a set of artistic goals to which everyone can subscribe.
Role of Musicians
A recent study comparing the motivation and satisfaction of musicians in 78 American, British, and German orchestras with those of employees in 12 other occupations shows that orchestra musicians' "internal motivation" is very high, but their general job satisfaction is modest (ranking seventh out of thirteen behind airline flight attendants and even Federal prison guards) and their satisfaction with opportunities for growth even lower. Here they rank ninth, behind mental health workers and beer sales and delivery teams; in all categories, musicians in string quartets ranked first. (Note 11)
There is good reason for musicians to be discouraged about advancement opportunities in orchestras. The study shows that musicians advance infrequently relative to other occupations. The typical orchestra, for example, has only four to six vacancies per year. Musicians over 40 years of age have served with their present orchestra for an average of 21 years, and the typical orchestra player has been employed by only one or two orchestras other than the one in which he presently is serving. There is clearly a bottleneck at the largest orchestras, and for those musicians who do not advance beyond the regional orchestras, frustration about pay, working conditions, and lack of mobility is heightened.
Much has been written about the growing dissatisfaction that Allmendinger, Hackman, and Lehman document in their study. Forum participants cite four contributing factors:
Musicians have little control over their working environment and thus experience alienation, frustration, low morale, and hostility. Robert and Seymour Levine suggest (and Forum participants agree) that this general dissatisfaction manifests itself in the orchestra's labor-management structure:
Much of what is inexplicable to observers of professional orchestras can be explained by stress caused by chronic lack of control and musicians' attempts to deal with it. Musicians' first line of defense is the classic tactic of avoidance. It is no accident that...the collective bargaining agreements under which orchestras labor spell out in exquisite detail the limits of a conductor's authority over the musicians. Such agreements attempt to limit the amount of time over which musicians have no control, as well as to express their need to control at least something about the workplace. (Note 12)
Musicians have not previously been considered a resource within the organization and they have not been encouraged by the union to take leadership roles. Artistic quality will not be enriched, say participants, by giving more concerts, but rather by giving musicians a greater role in shaping the institution in which they work. The goal is not necessarily to expand the role of musicians in management or governance, but rather to use their musical training and talent to benefit the organization in other ways: by teaching; directing independent ensembles; programming; or providing education for staff, trustees, and audiences.
Musicians are not being trained for the jobs that exist, nor are they being given the skills to adapt to other careers. Musicians complain that conservatories are not providing "sufficient preparation for life within an orchestra." Said one participant, "Musicians are not trained to be part of a society--that is, the orchestra. Conservatories need to be preparing people with skills to work as a team." Another added, "despite the clear relationship between job satisfaction and non-playing activity, the systems of training, recruitment, and reward continue to emphasize only performance qualifications." While no one argues for diminished standards of musical training, many say that the changing marketplace requires conservatories to reconsider their curricula and to think about "educating" their students, not just "training" them. Unlike many other professionals, musicians receive their professional training at the undergraduate level, and given the rigor involved in developing musical proficiency, musicians generally do not receive commensurate education in the humanities. What is needed, say many, is a broader approach to conservatory training that would expand general education requirements and help musicians develop a variety of skills that would increase their versatility. Many argue strongly that a broader conservatory curriculum would ultimately strengthen the orchestra field by supplying better teachers, more satisfied employees, and stronger institutional leaders.
Orchestras have neglected to provide ongoing professional development for musicians. (Note 13) Musicians' artistic growth should not stop when they get a job in an orchestra, and addressing this problem is becoming increasingly important, say participants, as expectations of musicians change.
Today, musicians find themselves in a host of nontraditional settings. They are increasingly required to perform outside the concert hall and to be teachers, public speakers, and fundraisers. Many also serve on boards of their orchestras, requiring them to understand the orchestra's finances and governance. Despite these additional requirements, musicians are expected to practice and to perform at the highest possible level. Nonetheless, Forum participants believe that this shift in the balance of responsibility is healthy. Musicians want more variety in their jobs, and managers want to use musicians more effectively as artistic resources. "We believe," said one participant, " that the purposeful engagement of the musicians--at the organizational level as well as in the art of music making--is fundamental to transformational change." Another added, "A workplace that recognizes the specific individual contribution which each musician can make to the well-being of the institution and the communities it serves, will be a workplace far less demoralized than it is today."
Changing Community Expectations
In the face of changing public attitudes, orchestras report ever increasing difficulty in balancing their own intrinsic artistic interests with community expectations for diverse services. As external and internal measurements of success begin to conflict, orchestras experience significant stress and often imagine a false dichotomy between their own interests and the needs of their communities. Increasingly, they fear that their worth is being measured by standards of community service rather than artistic quality. Forum participants say that to be successful they must "work with the community to reach community goals." This should not require them to abandon aesthetic principle or to choose access over excellence, say participants, but rather to diversify their activities in order to serve a variety of interests, many of them musical. They must work harder than ever to offer quality programming in a variety of venues. Frustrating as it may be, most believe that diversification is necessary (and inherently healthy) if orchestras are to avoid becoming irrelevant to communities with other "strongly advocated values and pressing problems."
Despite this acknowledgment, many still fail to see community work as integral to the orchestra's mission; instead they speak in terms of "either/or"--either concerts or community work. Participants argue that to achieve proper integration of this work into the orchestra's overall plan requires some serious readjustments within the organization: changes in job descriptions for music directors and musicians; new economic models to replace the subscription revenue system; reshaping of the organizational structure; and improvements in programming. Yet, they say, until everyone understands how community work can actually reinforce and sustain the orchestra's artistic purpose, these programs will remain "the ugly step-sister of performance, existing on the periphery of the main life of the institution."
There is no disagreement about the orchestra's burgeoning role in education. Witnessing the dearth of music education in the schools, the lack of musical activity at home, and the declining emphasis on learning to play an instrument avocationally, those involved in professional music recognize the responsibility of musical institutions to provide core educational services in the community. Forum participants say that much more attention must be focused on participation--on getting people to play instruments and write music--and that orchestras must be at the center of this activity.
Clearly, these issues affect everything from an orchestra's programming to how it structures its staff to how it engages its board and volunteers. The practical question for orchestras, however, is how to assimilate the community's voice, its values, its heritage, its sense of place with their own interest in preserving a body of worthy repertoire and creating an environment in which new works can be added to the canon. This is often as much a structural issue as a programmatic one.
Repertoire and Programming
Unlike theater and dance companies, orchestras have been largely unsuccessful in fostering the creation of new work and in involving creators in the artistic life of the institution. Composers today find much friendlier territory in dance, theater, and chamber music. Many orchestra professionals blame composers themselves for their isolation. Others blame the academy, and still others blame broadcast media, recording companies, performers, conductors, and audiences. Most agree, however, that whatever the problems in contemporary composition, orchestras (which were once contemporary music ensembles) have neglected, perhaps even abdicated, their responsibility to create an environment in which new creative work flourishes.
According to some, this failure to build the repertoire for the ensemble has led to predictable programming and has diminished the musical individuality of orchestras. A recent ASOL statistical report shows that of the ten most often performed works by orchestras, five were written by Beethoven. Beethoven is the most frequently performed composer, with Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms following. Performances of work by early 20th century composers falls off dramatically, and no living composer is represented on either list. This trend is confirmed by a review of brochures from 100 symphony orchestras as well as the programming information submitted by the 28 orchestras responding to the Forum RFP. Certainly, orchestras should be encouraged to play great music of the past, but the lack of connection between living artists and the ensemble for which they write, is, say many, inherently unhealthy.
Generally, Forum participants agree that their organizations struggle with programming--not simply with how to integrate new work but also with how to present familiar and unfamiliar work from the past in new and enlightening contexts. Said one participant:
"I think we have a bigger programming crisis than we're acknowledging. In the data from our focus groups it's not our programming they talk about--it's bathrooms and restaurants, the experience. That's a serious problem for us, and I don't think we're acknowledging it completely. If our product is programming and concerts and no one's paying any attention to that, that's an issue....There's too much product, and too much of it is simply uninteresting....The goal is to fill weeks, not create fascinating and interesting programs."
Participants tend to blame a lack of resources for their failure to experiment, but they also cite the following obstacles to strengthening orchestral programming and building a body of exciting new repertoire:
Programming and marketing plans are developed independently, and marketing tends to focus more on immediate ticket sales goals than on market development through effective programming. The programming process has intrinsic weaknesses, say both executive directors and marketing directors. In many cases (though certainly not all), music directors make programs, give them to staff, adjust them for budget purposes, "present" finished programs to an artistic advisory committee, and then disappear. Marketing directors "sell" the programs, with little input into the process and little general insight into the music director's programming strategy. There is no institutional programming perspective and little discussion within the organization. Neither is there an organic, multi-year programming strategy that serves to enhance artistic quality over time or to deepen commitment from audiences. The results are weak promotion, minimal "buy-in" from staff and musicians, and confusion among audiences.
Orchestras have not developed sufficient audience trust to allow them to experiment. Not many question that "classical music audiences appear to be out of step with their counterparts in the other arts, who have largely embraced this century's innovations." (Note 14) Orchestra administrators admit trepidation about programming against the familiar tastes of their core audience, yet they also see the value of performing new or unfamiliar work that does not pander to audiences. In fact, they say, interest among the youngest audiences is more likely triggered by performances of Bartok, Janácek, Corigliano, Lutoslawski, Barber, and Reich than of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mozart.
Orchestras have little or no relationship with composers. While orchestras may commission or perform works of living composers, they have not identified a meaningful role for composers to play within the organization. As a result, orchestras do nothing to raise the stature of composers or to create a positive environment in which to write music. The lack of great new works for orchestras, therefore, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to Paul Griffiths, "Anybody with a concern for classical music must wish that there might appear some giant who, like Beethoven, would introduce a radically new sound and at the same time be greeted by more or less universal appeal. But it has not happened, and it is not happening. And the lack of a new Beethoven is not the cause of music's stagnation but a symptom. We do not have a new Beethoven because we are not expecting to." (Note 15)
Orchestras have not developed organized strategies for assimilating new works into the repertoire. In "Rebuilding the Repertoire for the 21st Century," Boston Symphony musician James Orleans describes how works traditionally make their way into the permanent repertory for symphony orchestras. (Note 16) Single, isolated performances are ineffective. It is, Orleans maintains, the music director who must serve as champion for specific works by programming them regularly. The Boston Symphony took such an approach under conductors Pierre Monteux, Serge Koussevitsky, and Charles Munch. Hindemith's Mathis der Mahler, for example, was premiered by the orchestra in 1934 and then performed every three years until 1958; Stravinsky's Petrouchka received 13 performances between 1920 and 1945; Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 was performed 14 times between 1939 and 1947. All pieces are now part of the standard repertory for orchestras.
There appears to be no one in the organization thinking about these issues in a coordinated and strategic manner. Much has already been said about the lack of artistic leadership in symphony orchestras. Music directors are absent, and boards appear to accept this absence "with little more than a shrug of the shoulders." Artistic planning is negligible, managers and trustees are reluctant to express ideas, and musicians are almost universally uninvolved in artistic matters.
The Foundation's Response
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has a significant and longstanding commitment to the performing arts, each year allocating a major share of expenditures to supporting activities in music, opera, theater, and dance. The Foundation's consistent emphasis on supporting "core activities" reflects its view that the creation, performance, and presentation of artistic work are the central imperatives of performing arts organizations, although such things as sound financial planning are clearly necessary to bring artistic work to fruition. Similarly, the Foundation expects that meaningful audience development, education, and community-based projects will be natural components of the work of effective performing arts organizations.
The Foundation's support for the performing arts is national in scope, significant in total amount, and concentrates on achieving long-term results. The Foundation works closely with grant recipients to develop individual approaches to solving problems, nurturing leadership, or otherwise strengthening the institution. Although the Foundation does not confine its support to large organizations with national visibility, it does seek to support "leading" institutions, that is, those which contribute to the preservation and development of their art form, which exhibit creative leadership in solving problems or addressing issues unique to the field, and which represent the highest level of institutional performance.
In this context, four clear needs emerged from the Forum that are consistent with the Foundation's approach to grantmaking:
Orchestras often do not have a clear sense of their own artistic individuality.
Orchestras have generally vague mission statements that neither express their individuality nor assert their musical leadership. They tend to state their artistic goals in the broadest possible terms (to perform concerts of the highest quality or to introduce audiences to the beauty of classical music, for example). Music, they say, is at the center of everything the institution does, yet in most cases there is a clear discrepancy between the orchestra's stated goals and the actual behavior of the organization. Without a clear mission, orchestras avoid dealing effectively with issues of repertoire and programming. They fail to understand the critical relationship between preserving the classical tradition and continuing to enlarge the repertoire through new work.
These problems result from (and are perpetuated by) the absence of strong artistic leadership. They are manifested in the exclusion of creators and performers from artistic decision-making, the tacit release of music directors from institutional responsibility, and the nationwide homogeneity among orchestras. This directly affects the quality of performances and can result in orchestras playing consistently "beneath their capabilities."
Lack of artistic guidance also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for an organization to evaluate alternatives, to make informed decisions that balance artistic intent with available resources, and to measure success. The result has been a slow, but clear, shift in core institutional purpose--from long-term artistic goals to short-term financial objectives.
No one suggests that orchestras abandon financial integrity as an operating principle in favor of plunging headlong into blissful, but artistic, oblivion. Yet orchestras must find a way to develop the requisite artistic leadership to enable them to regain their artistic centers. The responsibility of leaders is to understand the organization's multiple, intrinsically contradictory, aspirations and to allocate resources to advance each of them in appropriate balance to the others.
Current organizational structure and culture do not encourage or reward leadership.
The conservative climate in orchestras is inherently at odds with the nature of artists and with the process of creating art. Writing and performing music for the public require courage and a willingness to experiment and provoke. Performance is essentially about leadership and taking risks. Yet as institutions, orchestras are risk averse and leadership poor, and the bifurcated leadership structure reinforces the lethargy. An environment that discourages innovation and experimentation, that does not invest capital in new initiatives, and that continually sacrifices long-term development for short-term gain does not attract "leaders" but rather "administrators" committed to the status quo.
Orchestras do not have a clear and distinctive idea about what constitutes success.
Behavior in orchestras is deeply institutionalized, growing out of practices that had their beginning over a century ago. With large infrastructures to support, little room for financial "error," unclear missions, and ambiguous leadership structures, orchestras are have difficulty risking changes in programming, internal structure, or community relationships. For this reason, they all tend to look alike, copying each other (for better or worse), and measuring their success according to how their budgets and performance statistics compare to those of their colleagues. They remain heavily focused on activities in the concert hall, and while successful concerts are clearly a valid measure of success, they should not be the only one.
Orchestras do not adequately understand the historical, social, cultural, and political factors that influence their communities.
When orchestras talk about their community roles, they generally speak in terms of "outreach" or marketing activities that suggest delivery of orchestra services rather than an assimilation of community values or traditions into the organization's mission, operations, and decision-making. As a result, they continue to make an artificial distinction between their core artistic values and their community role. Failing to understand the principles on which the community operates and which in turn influence the community's perception or expectations of the orchestra reinforces the orchestra's isolation and limits its ability to reach important new constituencies. The result is that orchestras think of community needs as infringing on their artistic goals rather than supporting or enhancing them.
As these observations illustrate, orchestras have problems, but there is also reason to be optimistic about their future. The level of commitment to orchestras and to classical music among trustees and managers is compelling. The quality of individual and ensemble playing among musicians is high. The financial stability of orchestras has improved, and though they face continuing problems of undercapitalization and cash flow, these problems do not seem to drive organizational thinking to the extent they did a decade ago. While confrontations between labor and management still occur, they are less debilitating, and there is a growing willingness on the part of the union and orchestra leaders to participate in discussions about field-wide issues. There is a general awareness of problems and opportunities as well as a readiness to go in new directions. Orchestras are seeking to enrich the lives of musicians, to improve artistic quality, to strengthen management, to establish firmer connections with audiences and communities, and to contribute to a healthy environment for classical music.
With these considerations in mind, the Foundation has initiated a long-term grant program for symphony orchestras aimed at helping them strengthen their core artistic values, reinforce core activities, and improve leadership within the organization. The Foundation is particularly interested in issues of artistic definition and identity, the role of musicians and composers, the integration of artistic and institutional planning, multi-year strategic programming, and the orchestra's relationship to its community. In keeping with its practice in other programs, the Foundation will not publish formal guidelines but instead will work closely with organizations to craft plans that address their particular needs and aims. While it is too early to specify exactly what orchestras will propose to do, some activities might include diversification of musician services, professional development, team leadership projects, residencies and fellowships, conductor training, new approaches to programming and artistic planning, community-based music projects, and educational initiatives. Grants will not support ad hoc projects, but will focus on activities that are clearly integral to increasing the capacity of the organization to operate creatively and effectively. The Foundation will avoid funding projects that are not integrated into the organization's culture or which result in budget growth that is artificial and therefore not sustainable.
Proposals may be made only by invitation. Approximately six grants will be awarded annually in the orchestra program, with the first round of grants scheduled for June 1999. Initial grants will be for three years and will be renewable for up to three cycles, provided that meaningful and measurable progress is made throughout the term of the grant. This approach reflects our belief that productive change and development cannot occur without clear purpose, constant stewardship, realistic goals, honest evaluation, and sufficient time to institutionalize behavioral, structural, and cultural modifications. The program will, therefore, encourage organizations to take the long-term view. While there is no guarantee of continued funding, the Foundation's intent is to provide sufficient security to enable organizations to undertake work that is substantive, strategic, and has long-term institutional benefit.