Thursday, December 18th, 2008

The Decline of the Midwest Cultural Institution

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:

  1. They require a large (and therefore expensive to maintain) complement of musicians.
  2. They lend themselves to conducting and performance stars who command high fees. (Opera suffers from this as well)
  3. 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).
  4. 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:

  1. Downgrade the orchestra
  2. Maintain the status quo, which requires some level of increased community support
  3. 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.

Topics: Arts and Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

24 Responses to “The Decline of the Midwest Cultural Institution”

  1. Randy Simes says:

    I feel pretty confident that newly emerging southern cities will never achieve the cultural amenities currently seen in the Midwest. The desire and demand for those institutions just isn’t there; and those cities are fine with that (sans the older people). This is directly out of the Richard Florida thought process, but it is what it is.

  2. Maddy says:

    I know I don't comment here very often, but I must say that you lost me at "tuneless modern crap." I think it's a real shame (and a real hindrance to the Indianapolis arts scene) that so many people take this position on modern composition. If we listeners aren't willing to open up our minds to 20th century composition, what do we have EXCEPT "fossilized" rep options?

    No other genre of modern art takes this kind of abuse. Imagine the IMA was in trouble. Would people suggest that the museum pare down to a core of Rembrandts and sell off all the Warhols? No.

    I understand that Glass and Reich don't have the immediate appeal of Beethoven. I didn't like them at first, either. But sustainability of classical music in Indianapolis or anywhere is partially the responsibility of the listeners — and I don't mean our ticket money. The rep can't expand if we don't encourage local musicians to take chances.

    You're right, there's no reason to go if there's nothing new to hear. Let's create a demand for modern music. It's easier to listen to the 20th century if you know something about it already. If you don't, I'd recommend And the Rest is Noise by Alex Ross, or this authors @Google lecture by the same author:

  3. Anonymous says:

    A): Why do you think the ISO needs to explain anything to you.

    B):I think the ISO does a great job balancing and introducing “tuneless modern crap”, so that we have feel for what is going on in comtemporary music. I am sure some people felt Bach’s music was “tuneless modern crap” at the time.

  4. Mrs. Denneldoff says:

    After reading your remarks about the ISO, I feel certain that you are not up to date on information about the orchestra. Mario Venzago has been our music director for the last 6-7 years, not Raymond Leppard. The artistic level of the orchestra is not on a plateau, it is rising meteorically. The orchestra has already given up this year’s radio broadcasting fees. We are already forging stronger relations with IU. The way for this orchestra can only be upwards now.

  5. SpeedBlue47 says:

    Reading some of these comments are actually horrifying to me, but then again I’m a classical music guy. I think the structural flaw lies in culture – i.e., the attitudes and beliefs not only of music consumers, but also music producers. There simply is no music being produced in the same spirit as that heard in the classical repretoire.

    So, in defiance of Maddy above, those of us who would like to see the ISO prosper should be upset about the “tuneless modern crap”, especially if the ISO is promoting it in any way. The Orchestra that will rise to the next level and cement their city’s artistic status will be the one who bucks this trend and starts producing or at least introducing to the public a product whose quality is high to those whom the Orchestra is trying to target.

    No institution reaches greatness by debasing the values they are supposed to be exposing the public to. Spending a lot of time on Pops concerts and the such is time wasted on creating a product that can not be had elsewhere. Instead, focusing on new composition and spirited reproductions of highly demanded classics, will create a brand identity that will not only attract locals to frequent the ISO, but draw people from far and near to see the performances as well.

    As far as other modern “art” goes, if the IMA decided that is was going to be a museum of representational art, then yes, it should sell such works to those institutions that value the Warhols. But right now, the IMA is an institution that tries to “bridge the gap” between representational and non-representational(modern) art. I think that is a flaw, unless they focused on all things called art that come from Indiana or made by Hoosiers. Just saying that you are a museum of art, in general, tends to water down the quality of the product offered in both of these types of work – which tend to draw very different audiences.

    That’s just my 2 cents.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    No other genre of modern art takes this kind of abuse.

    You clearly haven’t read what conservatives say about modern literature and visual art.

    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.

    Saying that leading cultural institutions lead to cultural development is like saying that paying high taxes makes you rich. Big box institutions are a late stage of cultural development – they come after all the locally owned bookstores and art galleries generate the demand for them.

    A working city region, Jane Jacobs tells us, will have room for small business to thrive. This means that when there’s demand for art, stores will start selling it. For example, Morningside Heights supports not only the Columbia bookstore and library system, but also three separate stores, a New York Public Library branch, and a small art gallery; until a few months ago, it also held a DVD store that rented boutique foreign films.

    As long as a city has those, it can be certain it’s still a cultural center. If it doesn’t, nothing it builds will bring high culture to it.

  7. Adam says:

    I think one great point was the connection between IU and ISO. I don’t know the extent to which Mrs. Denneldoff says that they are working together, but This is a huge opportunity for the two groups.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Honestly I would have to say your advice is as you state “suspect” when it comes to the ISO. They show now signs of becoming financially unstable. They are strengthening their ties with IU and they have a very solid base of corporate and memeber support that has no intention of letting this symphony slip. I see only good things for the ISO.

  9. thundermutt says:

    Anon, dipping into one’s endowment principal to cover operating deficits is the FIRST sign of becoming financially unstable.

  10. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 9:02 – This is a “blog”, which is a vehicle for purely personal opinion. Obviously, the ISO doesn’t have to explain anything to me.

    Regarding modern compositions, I can say that I actually like a lot of modern composers. I love John Adams (please go see Doctor Atomic if you get a chance), Ligeti, and some Philip Glass. I think Alban Berg was a great opera composer. And many newer composers wrote very tuneful music, like Benjamin Britten. But a lot of what is promoted as great music is bad. What’s more, it is often presented – and I’m not saying the ISO is the culprit here, I’m talking generally – as music of such self-evident worth that if the audience fails to appreciate it, well the audience must just be stupid or unsophisticated. I don’t agree with that. There’s great modern music, but there is an awful lot of garbage that is passed off as good music. Fortunately, I think today’s composers are moving in a better direction than their predecessors.

    By the way, I think there’s a lot of contemporary art that is also no good. The fact is, most of the music composed in the time of Mozart or Beethoven was utterly un-memorable. The judgement of history is yet to be written on which pieces of music, art, etc. will be viewed as the best of our era. I think people ought to be passionate enough to take sides and not just sit there and politely clap or wander around a gallery nodding at whatever the presenter happens to feel like putting on at that moment. Disagreement with the artistic choices is part and parcel of having an engaged patron base. If people say they literally like everything, that to me is a sign of trouble.

  11. The Urbanophile says:

    Mrs. Denneldoff, I’m aware that Venzago is music director. I actually like the guy, and think he’s solid. The ISO today is comparable in quality to the top major orchestras in America.

    I was trying to draw the connection to what, I believe, was a major jump upwards for the orchestra when it brought on board Leppard. While I think Venzago has carried on a strong level of excellence and has put his stamp on the orchestra, I would not say that the ISO is on some meteoric rise. With budgets flat, it is unlikely that the ISO is going to be able to significantly raise its game. That’s actually ok given the high standard that has already been set, but you have to be comfortable with more or less staying there, with mostly incremental improvement over time.

    anon 5:03, in addition to over-drawing the endowment, the ISO has also relied on bridge funding in at least some recent years, IIRC. To say the ISO is financially solid requires a combination of ticket sales, annual support, and endowment draws that lead to a balanced budget, an endowment balance that is constant or rising on an inflation adjusted basis, without accumulating shadow liabilities such as deferred building maintenance. It’s not in terrible shape yet, but with the endowment below $100 million, that is only going to support a sustainable draw approximately half of the ISO’s current rate.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Re: Anon 9:02 AM

    A): Why do you think the ISO needs to explain anything to you. [sic]

    If the ISO maintains such a disgusting attitude in a free and open society, then I will take my money down State Road 37 to Jacobs.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Re: Anon 9:02 AM

    A): Why do you think the ISO needs to explain anything to you. [sic]

    Moreover, how can you legitamitely ask my family or anyone else for financial support if you scorn openness and accountability? Arts patrons typically support multiple institutions, and they need to be able to evaluate their investments.
    This remark is absolutely galling to me.

  14. meghan...or is it? says:

    There is hope for symphonies to turn themselves around. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra has done a great job of making itself relevant to the “next generation.”

    A few years ago it introduced its “Classical Connections” series, designed for young professionals. The series engages the audience by sharing anecdotes about the pieces and lives of the composers. It’s all very relaxed and hip and there is a pre- and post-reception. The series is reasonably priced (our group rate for four performances was around $75 TOTAL for orchestra level, center).

    The symphony also performs in parks and coffee shops throughout the year, engaging non-traditional audiences that way. Additionally, they partner with non-stodgy music venues to do modern shows like “The Music of Led Zeppelin” and “Hitchcock Live!”

    Based on my experience with what’s happened here, I don’t think the solution is to throw in the towel, but rather to reinvent the towel.

  15. Anonymous says:

    No what I think is “galling” is the fact a blogger out here in the blogshere feels as if an orginzation like the ISO needs to pander to him by answering requests to him and any bloggers for that matter, in what seems like an sense of entitlement above and beyond what is easily accessed by the public and via a statement of their published mission statement.

    Instead the blogger seems to feel a personal response is required taking up staff and resource time of the symphony.

  16. Anonymous says:

    After all the Symphony need manage to become on of the few full time symphonies in the country, and a healthy one at that thank you very much, long before this blogger came along.

  17. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 8:13/8:17, obviously the symphony doesn’t owe me anything. On the other hand, one would think a non-profit, community supported organization would want to actively get their message out to the community about what they are doing and where they are going. The ISO publishes a nice annual report for just this reason. I think it would be nice if they could give the public an equally good picture of where they want to go as an organization as they do when describing what they did in the last year.

  18. Anonymous says:

    As they used to say in Philly, “what an ATTY-tood”.

    Resting on your fat endowment doesn’t get very far these days…especially as you have to take money out of the endowment’s principal to pay bills.

    That’s an “annuity” strategy: milk the cash cow dry, then both the organization and the endowment die at the same time.

  19. Anonymous says:

    “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.” This is not the first time this has ever happened at the symphony and I doubt it will be the last. If you haven’t noticed lately, we are bailing out most of Wall Street. The fact the symphony is dipping into the endowment more than they would like right now is hardly shocking.

    “There’s a question Indianapolis is going to have to ask: What does it want its orchestra to be?”

    Their mission statement as mentioned somewhere else is out there for the public to see and it’s kinda of obvious if you follow the symphony at all most of the things they do yearly.

    “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.”

    Do you have experience in stratgic planning for a full time major Symphony? If not I think they probably are better qualified or know other sources that are. But, if you do have some experience, present and explain your experiences and volunteer.

  20. thundermutt says:

    anon 10:17: The business side of a symphony is no different from another non-profit entertainment or civic business, like a museum, a ballet, an opera, a theatre organization, an arts center. It is not that much different from ANY business.

    When arts elitists start to huff and snort that “our (fill in blank) is DIFFERENT”, that’s a sign of trouble.

    When the arts side of the house looks down on the business side as somehow beneath them, that’s a sign of trouble. News flash: business is best left to businesspeople, not artists and not patrons and docents.

    And when the boosters respond to honest serious questioning of a civic institution as if it is insult or provocation, that’s really a sign of trouble.

  21. Anonymous says:

    “No what I think is ‘galling’ is the fact a blogger out here in the blogshere feels as if an orginzation like the ISO needs to pander to him by answering requests to him and any bloggers for that matter, in what seems like an sense of entitlement above and beyond what is easily accessed by the public and via a statement of their published mission statement.

    Instead the blogger seems to feel a personal response is required taking up staff and resource time of the symphony.” [sic]

    Making this post to the blog was far more time-consuming than attaching a PDF file of a requested long-term plan to an e-mail would have been.
    It’s troubling and suspect if relating to the public is such a foreign concept.

  22. Anonymous says:

    I am sorry you and the blogger feel so challenged to find out what the ISO is all about but, here is a pretty quick way to find out.

    This is the annual report, of course there is entire web site to explore too.

    BTW, I will not claim to have done a search on every symphony in the US, but I couldn’t find one that acutally released it’s annual report, not Botson, Cincinnat, etc.

    The blooger himself says he doesn’t even subscribe to the
    Symphony. The Symphony embraces it’s audiences during live preformances and active in membership drives and it’s current subscribers, which I am one.

    The Symphone also uses main stream media to communicate it’s message and has a great web site.

    Why should the Symphony start answering every request from every blogger in the blogshpere (many which are totaly baseless) regardless of qualification?

  23. Jeffrey C says:

    I think the ISO still has a lot going for it (as you note) but it does seem to have less prominence on a national level than when Leppard was around. I travel about 100 days a year for business and remember seeing the ISO mentioned or hearing it talked about more in other major cities than I do nowadays.

    I think they are making some decent outreach efforts (Happy Hour programs, etc.) to attract a wider audience, but the overall visual identity and marketing still seems a bit traditional.

    Increasingly I think any cultural institution will need to become even more deeply woven into the fabric of its host community, particularly through partnerships and programmatic efforts with nontraditional partners and to reach underrepresented audiences.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Is there anything bloggers don’t know?

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