Do America’s Orchestras Serve All People in Our Communities?

In this guest post, Jesse Rosen, President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras and panelist at our October event, responds to a recent report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and reflects on the question of orchestras and community. The NCRP report examines foundation giving and the organization’s press release featured this stark headline: “Arts Philanthropy Not Doing Enough to Reach Poor and Minority Populations.” Read the full report.

Since participating in our panel on the question of orchestras and community, I have been giving some thought to a new report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy that challenges the extent to which orchestras serve their communities and suggested that small organizations might be a better outlet for support.

Among the several blog posts I have seen and conversations I have had about the contents of the report, no one has questioned the need for greater philanthropic support of smaller, culturally specific arts groups and of art that promotes greater equity. In fact, art itself is a vital means of advancing justice and understanding in a democratic society. While there is no question that symphony orchestras are rooted in close associations with wealth and an elitist understanding of value and purpose, a lot has changed in recent years. It is important to set the record straight and recognize the enormous strides orchestras have made to become more far-reaching cultural citizens who support the arts education of our children and define audience to include all segments of communities.

One fact that surprises people is that 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. Another positive trend is the increase in synergies between orchestras and other arts organizations and agencies that serve communities in need. 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. The South Dakota Symphony recently toured the state to perform on three Lakota reservations with a newly commissioned orchestral work by a Lakota composer. And orchestras in Pittsburgh, Knoxville, Madison, and St. Louis have collaborative partnerships to bring music to special-needs communities.

A number of assumptions about the music orchestras play are also outdated. The good news about the canon as it is presented in the U.S. is that it is growing to include more 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, as the San Francisco Symphony has cultivated.

The fact is that orchestral music is a unique art form that speaks powerfully to people of all backgrounds and income levels. Interest in live performances, recordings, and playing classical instruments has deep roots in Latin America, so it is not surprising that the League’s 2009 Audience Demographic Review analysis by McKinsey forecasts that Hispanics will increase their share of the total live classical audience from about 12% to 20% by 2018. Classical music is growing at an extraordinary rate in Asia and is now being explored in the Middle East, with composers from these regions adding influences from far beyond Western Europe.

Finally, The National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) in 2009, showed that 45% of the classical audience is from households with total annual income of less than $75,000. This is a far cry from the picture often painted in the media. By the way, it should also be noted that 90% of the League’s adult member orchestras have budgets under $5 million, therefore qualifying as “small” according to the definition used in the NCRP report.

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