Culture and the City

In this guest post, Neil Harris, Professor Emeritus of History and Art History at the University of Chicago, examines how American arts organizations have arrived at this particular moment in time. Born out of civic pride, one-upmanship and good will, our institutions face a unique and challenging legacy. Neil Harris will be a panelist at our live event in San Francisco on October 23.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, over the course of three or four decades, major American cities brought forth a series of cultural institutions–art and natural history museums, symphony orchestras, opera companies, research libraries. They performed mutliple functions. Many of them were designed to credential their civic hosts, to provide them with status in the highly competitive world of American municiaplities, to invoke the rich cultural life of storied European cities. In a number of cases institution founding was linked to some great local event, or the survival of some great crisis. Patronized in large part by wealthy local businessmen and professionals, they were also in part gestures of good will toward the towns where they had done so well.

These expressions of culture, increasingly seen as high culture, served, as well, to identify their supporters with a set of ideals, practices, objects and experiences, which together conferred a status of their own. Motives were multiple and effects sometimes moved in opposite directions, simultaneously liberating and controlling, integrating and separating out, emphasizing pleasure or instruction, meant for connoisseurs to enjoy themselves or trying to seduce the masses into attendance and support.

These diverse aims have left a challenging legacy. While the institutions have survived, now for a century or more, supported by generous private donors, they have suffered from associations of privilege, condescension, and snobbishness. Created simultaneously as asylums to protect and engines to project, they were meant to influence a broad public, but class, ethnicity, and demography have also played their roles. Understanding and building upon this complex heritage, retaining the loyalties of long-time believers while attracting the patronage of new audiences, forms a major challenge. But in the life of these institutions, not for the first time.


  1. Mark Clague says:

    “Not for the first time…” Your post resonates so well with many of my experiences as a musician and historian. One of my own inspirations for trying to bring history and the work of contemporary arts institutions together arose when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. I was playing principal bassoon in the Chicago Civic Orchestra and served as the musicians’ representative to the orchestras board of directors. This was at a time when the future of the Civic was being reconsidered and we were talking a lot about the role of the orchestra for the community and as an educational vehicle for its players. Was the orchestra serving art or serving to bring music to those who couldn’t afford tickets to regular CSO performances?

    At the same time, I was taking a social history of music course with our music librarian Hans Lenneberg for which I was reading through the Chicago Tribune in the 1880s and 90s when the CSO first got underway and the city’s new concert hall — the Auditorium Building — was just being built. What amazed me was that our board conversations in the 1990s were simply echoes — a century later — of the exact same conversations about the role of culture in American communities. Overall, this has given me a lot of hope for today’s cultural institutions. The current crisis has in many ways been a continuous battle for position, purpose, and profitability.

    Indeed: “Not for the first time…”

    Great post!

    • Sommer Forrester says:

      Sommer Forrester commenting from the University of Michigan – PhD student in Music Education.

      Perhaps the issue we face today is the definition of cultural institutions. How can we aspire to succeed with models and definitions that were created a century ago? The change and diversity that North America has seen over the course of the past century is remarkable and should be celebrated; however, aspiring to have cultural institutions fit into the the current culture by simply changing a mission statement that seems more inclusive is a mistake. The legacy of the Symphony Orchestra in America can and should exist in today’s society, but perhaps the aim of these organizations should not be so ambitious. By trying to be everything to everyone, you are essentially nothing.

      The quote: “retaining the loyalties of long-time believers while attracting the patronage of new audiences” – I struggle to understand why large arts organizations continue to be at the mercy of patrons. While I understand there is a reality of making ends meet, this relationship is potentially contributing to what is holding arts organizations back. Considering a revised approach to funding and to the function of arts organizations in today’s society is challenging but necessary to grow and move forward.

      • Phillip Bloomer says:

        The quintessential American value of equal rights at a cursory glance seems to discredit the institutions established for the purposes of fine arts simply because they are elitist and for only the select few. I disagree fundamentally. I believe that equal rights means that in this country it should be our first priority to give every child the opportunity to experience the fine arts, as they are a pinnacle of human achievement.

        I can envision a conversation about the importance of funding these institutions and hear the conversation turning towards “Joe the plumber.” It is all too easy to say that Joe wants to see his football teams, and go to a rock concert, and that a museum of fine art, modern art, or a symphony orchestra are not relevant to modern culture. However our job as musicians and advocates for the art form that we cultivate and believe in so passionately is to implore our political leaders to consider the possibility that they have fundamentally misunderstood the debate, and that the problem is not that these institutions are too “elitist” for “Joe the plumber,” but that our society has failed to educate every child to a higher level and place where everyone is able to appreciate the fine arts.

  2. Timothy Michling says:

    Tim Michling here, principal oboist in the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, oboe professor at Oakland University, and Policy Director in the Michigan House of Representatives.

    Growing up near Detroit, I have seen firsthand the roles which class, ethnicity and demography have played in relation to arts organizations throughout the Detroit Metropolitan Region.

    In 1989, an extreme amount of political pressure was placed upon the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with regard to its hiring practices. At the time, there was only one black musician–violinist Joseph Striplin–in the orchestra, though roughly two thirds of Detroit residents at the time were black. A group of state legislators withheld $1.3M in state funding (more than half of what had been appropriated) to the DSO and threatened to boycott concerts if the orchestra did not hire more black musicians. Due to this pressure, the DSO waived the required audition process and hired Richard Robinson into the Bass section. Robinson told the NY times “I would have rather auditioned like everyone else…somehow this devalues the audition and worth of every other player.”

    Blind auditions (when they occur) are arguably the least discriminatory hiring model, as they rely almost entirely on each candidates ability to perform an excellent audition; the playing–not the player–is what is important. Nonetheless, David Holmes, a former Democratic Michigan State Senator felt that more black musicians should have been hired by the DSO, reportedly saying: “Music is music. Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. I learned that in school. Music has been one of the major contributions of African Americans.”

    Indeed, many symphony orchestras and other arts organizations today still struggle to find balance artistic excellence, financial stability, and likewise the perceived responsibility to reflect the demographics of the communities in which they perform.

    Perhaps one of Detroit’s answers to this dilemma has been the Sphinx Organization founded by Aaron P. Dworkin in 1996. Sphinx envisions “a world in which classical music reflects cultural diversity and plays a role in the everyday lives of youth,” and since its founding, has made great strides to encourage the participation of Blacks and Latinos in the field of Classical music.

    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Tim. Since you refer to the unprecedented manner in which I was hired, let me share with you some of what I’ve learned in the 22 years since.

      I have felt a great sense of ambition to prove myself not only mastering the job but also of acting as a bridge over the cultural misunderstandings about classical music. I have explained to countless African-Americans that the standards of the major orchestras continue to rise, that DSO was one of those major orchestras and that very few blacks were even applying for major conservatories in orchestral instruments, both for lack of resources and interest.

      I’ve heard and still hear many counter-arguments from “Well, who sets those standards? Who controls those resources?” to “My cousin’s son plays trumpet as well as Wynton: why can’t you hire HIM!” The complexities of mastering a single instrument and of 90 musicians attempting to play well together are difficult to explain in a 4-minute meet and greet. And I’m sure you know the trials of trying to explain perfect intonation or strict rhythmic subdivision to a non-musician!

      On the other side of that coin, African-Americans still face an America largely reserved for white males and that we have to be 2-3 times more talented to win the same or begrudging success. I’m able to face it and persevere but most of us aren’t. Black people need black heroes… even in classical music!

      Still, ambivalence being what it is, sometimes I am looked upon as a traitor for defending DSO and those standards by people who don’t accept them. None other than Coleman Young publicly called me a TOM, possibly for the very quote you cited. However, by accepting those standards, one tends to leave everything else behind. Nonetheless, like the Sphinx Organization, I have also developed innovative ways to MODEL those standards that hopefully will also make ALL Detroiters more aware and more proud.

      Just visit to see how I made it possible to take 60 symphonic works like Till Eulenspiegel to schools and churches with the eight musicians of CutTime Players. Listen to my Kresge-winning “Classical Soul” compositions that blend neo-romanticism smoothly with rock, jazz, Latin and gospel. I even manage a free series of Classical Revolution events in Detroit because I believe we can give anyone with an open mind a way into classical.

      Aaron Dworkin is correct that African-Americans CAN contribute positive, quality HYBRIDS of classical music. Refreshing the past with the present is what a great classical performance must do. And I’m actually leaving the DSO in January to prove it nationally.
      Here’s a taste at

      It is very likely that I would have tried to do all this even HAD I won an audition… but it likely would NOT have been in Detroit. I think it worked out.

      • Timothy Michling says:

        Hi Rick. Wonderful to hear from you!

        Whether or not it worked out is hardly a question. You’ve managed to bridge the gap of cultural misunderstandings with the utmost care and personal integrity, and have been a source of inspiration for many (myself included) in Detroit.

        I’ve always found it odd that music, which can so fully and eloquently express the essence of our collective human experience, can sometimes also separate us in such divisive ways. That factors such as ethnicity, educational attainment and economic status continue to be obstacles to the performance and enjoyment of classical music is to me truly disheartening.

        While the circumstances of your hiring may continue to serve as a reminder of the work that yet must be done, your subsequent achievements offer hope for continued progress and models by which this progress may be accomplished.

        Through my own performances at Classical Revolution events, or in venues such as the Taylor Teen Health Center, I have sought to help break down some of the socio-economic barriers that can so often surround performances of classical music. Likewise, I believe that it is absolutely crucial to make classical music accessible to those who might otherwise never experience a concert. Having been raised in a family with no musicians–and before myself, no college graduates–my own exposure to classical music came almost exclusively from outside the home. Indeed, it was because of groups like CutTime Players that I came to know and love classical music.

        I’m looking forward to witnessing all of the magnificent things you have in store for us in January!

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