Thursday, December 18th, 2008
Update: I’d like to clarify and stress one point. The challenges I describe here are largely financial in nature and the result of macro trends. They are not the product of poor management or bad artistry. Thanks.
One thing the Midwest could always claim it had on the South and other up and coming areas is that its cities, person for person, had vastly better cultural institutions than their boomtown brethren. Most Midwest cities boast a full complement of traditional arts organizations – symphony, orchestra, ballet, art museum – as well as numerous theater groups and other indie arts. Many of these were built up in an era when the Midwest was top dog and it is difficult if not impossible for the newcomers to replicate them, particularly art museums, where the price of major works has soared off the charts.
But of late we’re starting to see signs that this is changing. First, the newer cities are coming on strong. Charlotte knows it is a straggler in the arts and its spending big money on facilities and organizations to upgrade its game. Similarly, Nashville is trying to do the same, building the lavish Schermerhorn Center as a home to its symphony, and also dramatically increasing the symphony’s budget and level of artistic achievement.
The Midwest, by contrast, is seeing big cracks in the facades of its organizations. Apart from Chicago, which is so big it can fund everything at world class levels, the rest of the Midwest is seeing any number of institutions suffering financial and attendance problems. I’ve covered many of these stories here. The Detroit Institute of the Arts has a massive structural deficit. The Louisville Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony nearly went bankrupt. The Columbus Symphony was more or less gutted. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis may have a Jean Nouvel inspired new home, but they also had a big operating deficit to close last year.
The fact that it is symphony orchestras that have shown the biggest challenges is to be expected as they occupy what is arguably the most indefensible niche in the arts. I say this as someone who is actually a big classical music fan, especially opera. I’m actually the guy that all these organizations are falling over themselves to attract: a 30-something who is passionate about classical music and is willing to pay top dollar to attend. So it’s not like I think classical music is irrelevant or that I hate it. Quite the contrary.
The downsides of orchestras are numerous:
- They require a large (and therefore expensive to maintain) complement of musicians.
- They lend themselves to conducting and performance stars who command high fees. (Opera suffers from this as well)
- They perform the genres, concertos and symphonies, that I would argue benefit least from live performance versus a recording. I can pay $80+ to see a major symphony perform Beethoven’s 5th yet again, or I can stay home and listen to Carlos Kleiber’s legendary recording (original price $12) on my iPod for free anytime I want. (Yes, I know you can get tickets cheaper than that, but in the nosebleed section the comparison is even worse, IMO).
- They have the most fossilized repertoire. This creates an amazing challenge. Newbies probably want to hear Beethoven’s 5th for the first time. Oldtimers may get turned off by hearing it the 50th. On the other hand, they are sick and tired (or at least I am) of having tuneless modern crap shoved down their throats. And it to repeat my last point, it almost goes without saying that all of the core repertoire is available in numerous high quality CD editions at reasonable prices far below symphony tickets.
These are structural problems quite apart from execution and it is difficult to see how they can be addressed.
Consider the differences in comparison with other art forms.
The chamber ensemble is small, a lean, mean machine. It doesn’t have a $30 million/year mouth to feed. There is something magical about seeing a chamber performance. There’s a certain intimacy with the music and connection with the performers (often literally – as you can frequently chat with them after the show) you don’t get with the symphony.
An opera is the original multi-media art form. While you can listen to an opera CD, there’s nothing quite like seeing the theater on stage and every performance you see of an opera can be radically different in its production. (DVD and the Met high def broadcasts, the latter arguably better than being there, may yet do opera in, however).
The vocal works of the renaissance and baroque likewise lend themselves to more intimate performances in churches and the like, where the ambiance and resonance of the venue are difficult to duplicate in a home sound system. I also find that the uniqueness of the human voice across performers and performances is vastly greater than that of the various instrumental interpretations of the symphony repertoire.
Given that the symphony repertoire is not expanding, it is reasonable for a classical music fan to simply acquire a nearly complete CD collection at a fraction of the cost of what it would take to see them by an orchestra live. And in most cases available CD’s contain some of the greatest performance of all time by the greatest orchestras and conductors of all time. So you have a good chance of getting a better product to boot, as in my Carlos Kleiber example.
As the Autoextremist might put it, this adds up to a whole heaping bowl of Not Good for orchestras.
I believe the divergent fortunes of the Midwest and much of the rest of America will force communities to engage in painful soul searching and discussions about what they can realistically afford to support as cities.
I’ll use the case study of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. This is a good example because Indianapolis is one of the healthier Midwest cities and its orchestra has traditionally been artistically and financially strong as well. I noted recently an Indianapolis Business Journal article on the orchestra’s financial challenges. The endowment has been slumping in a bad market, and the orchestra has been drawing down the principal for at least three years to help balance its $27 million budget. This is a collision course with disaster.
There’s a question Indianapolis is going to have to ask: What does it want its orchestra to be? Interestingly, a while back I wrote to the ISO asking if they would send me their strategic plan. I never heard back from them, so I don’t know the plan, beyond what orchestra CEO Simon Crookall said in the article, which is that he wants to boost the endowment to $200 million. But I can offer a few thoughts.
The Indianapolis Symphony falls into a niche shared with several other Midwest orchestras. It’s a full time 52 week orchestra with a sizeable budget and high levels of artistic achievement, but it is not a nationally or globally elite orchestra and it functions primarily as a local ensemble. It does not, with limited exceptions, serve as an ambassador to the city or a major brand builder in the way that the Chicago Symphony or Cleveland Orchestra do. Arguably the Cleveland Orchestra, which you may recall just made Grammophone Magazine’s list as the #7 orchestra in the world, is the most important branding mechanism that city has. Probably many people overseas only know Cleveland by its orchestra. In my view, this is an asset the city of Cleveland simply can’t afford to downgrade, despite that institution’s financial challenges. Similarly, the Cincinnati Symphony is fairly well known, tours internationally on a regular basis, has had a popular and long running series of pops recordings, and has an internationally known music director who is a regular guest conductor at major world orchestras.
Again, the ISO is does not serve this branding function, with the notable exception of its broadcast series. It is simply another artistically solid but reputationally undistinguished American orchestra. It’s function, again, is basically as a regional orchestra. The problem is that it a very expensive regional orchestra. There are other regional orchestras in America with budgets in the $10-15 million range. Also, much of its season is made up of pops concerts and other events that sell tickets, but don’t contribute to the core mission of playing the classics. The entire month of December is dedicated to a Yuletide Celebration, for example.
Perhaps it is time for Indianapolis to think the unthinkable. Should it downgrade the ISO to a part time orchestra that operates on half the budget, more focused on a core classical repertoire, that is sustainable in the long term? Because the way things are going is a collision course with financial disaster at some point once the precious endowment is clobbered by a combination of market declines and principal draws.
I will confess to being a “go big or go home” type of guy, and a very expensive orchestra that serves mostly as a local ensemble is not something I would personally go for. The community at large and symphony supporters may feel differently. But if so, they’ll need to significantly increase contribution levels and boost the endowment in order to put the ISO back on a solid base.
In my view, there are three primary options:
- Downgrade the orchestra
- Maintain the status quo, which requires some level of increased community support
- Upgrade the orchestra to serve a significant civic branding function
The downgrade scenario involves what I laid out before: reduce the budget to $10-15 million, reduce the number of full time musicians, go to a part time schedule (which would reduce salaries), limit the number of high priced soloists scheduled, and get to where the endowment draw maintains an inflation adjusted constant principal. Frankly, I doubt most people would be able to tell the difference aurally, just as most people probably can’t tell the difference between the ISO and the Boston Symphony.
The status quo option means that, at a minimum, the endowment needs to be boosted to enable the symphony to support its budgets without bridge funding or principal draws. This also means coming to terms with what we have in fact observed of late, which is the plateauing of the artistic level of the orchestra. Landing Raymond Leppard, of whom I will admit to being a HUGE fan, was a major coup. But recently the orchestra has been in maintain, not grow mode.
The upgrade option involves probably boosting the orchestra’s budget somewhat, though not necessarily a lot, and adding a significant branding dimension to the orchestra’s role. The cornerstone of how I would approach this would involve a restructured contract with the musicians that significantly boosted base pay – perhaps to as much as $100,000 per year, which I estimate would boost the budget by about $3.5 million, in return for elimination of broadcast and recording fees, as well as restrictive rules of other sorts. Basically it is a flat salary. Plus the musicians would agree to be supportive of upgrading the artistic talent base of the ensemble over time, including making changes to existing members if necessary (not that I’m saying it is). With this, the orchestra would start digitally recording everything and making it available for more or less free downtown, free broadcast, and more. Anything to turn the music the orchestra produces into a brand booster. The second facet would involve regular tours. If the community won’t support one major orchestra tour per year or so, this option probably isn’t a good one. This probably involves boosting the endowment to at least $300 million.
In any scenario, the ISO and Indianapolis need to forge a much closer relationship with the IU School of Music and Bloomington. Bridging the gulf between Indy and Bloomington generally is key to regional cultural and economic growth, and it seems to me that when you’ve got what is the #1 or #2 best music school in the country next to the 15th or so largest orchestra by budget, there’s an opportunity for something a lot more special than what exists now.
Cities like Indianapolis can’t support everything. They’ve got to pick and choose. The city has decided, for example, to focus on sports and conventions, and has sunk large amounts of money into facilities for those things. Where does the orchestra fall on the list? It is a must-have or a nice to have? People like Richard Florida (Mr. Creative Class) might suggest the traditional high arts are an anachronism and that indie arts are a better focus. Others take a different view. Whatever the case, Indy is going to have to make a decision. The current course only leads to a financial crisis and likely downgraded orchestra by default some time down the road. There is no easy answer and if the community wants to preserve or even continue to elevate the ISO it is going to have to significantly increase financial its financial support.
Like I said, I’m an opera guy (I usually attend about 12-15 a year) and have never actually subscribed to any symphony. So perhaps my advice is suspect. Nevertheless, facing up to the challenges that the Midwest will have in financially supporting its cultural institutions in the modern era is something every city is going to have to do. Because of their particular challenges, orchestras represent the canary in the coal mine here. I expect most cities are going to go through one or more financial crises related to their symphony. Other organizations will follow unless the Midwest turns it around economy radically.