A new report on orchestral economics

Although American symphony orchestra’s and their professional association are clear leaders in gathering data on their operations, they’ve long been mysteriously quiet about publicly analyzing that data for its implications. Sure, we get gross attendance and wealth indicators (especially when they’re good). But the extraordinary educational and strategic power of this information, if placed in dispassionate and rigorous hands, has been either ignored, delayed, or perhaps even withheld from the public discourse.

Which is why it will be so interesting to watch the reactions to a new study on orchestral operational data, commissioned by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and released last Friday by Stanford University. The study connected a heavy-hitter academic, International Labor Economics and Policy Analysis Professor Robert J. Flanagan, with 17 years of financial data on America’s top-50 orchestras (provided, to their credit, by the League of American Orchestras) to see what one could learn from the other.

Drafts of the resulting 77-page report (the final version available for PDF download, a quick overview from Justin Davidson will give you the gist) have been rattling behind the curtains of the orchestra world for many months (Robert Levine offers one view of the process in his blog here). Some were beginning to wonder if it would ever see the light of day.

Early responses on-line have ranged from politely dismissive by the League of American Orchestra’s Henry Fogel to reactionary pot shots from The Oregonian‘s David Stabler. Robert Levine seems among the first to reflect and respond to the study with something other than denial and dancing (although the category for his post suggests a more passionate bias). Let’s hope future responses approach the rigor and evidence-gathering that went into the original report. That is, after all, how we learn to foster and advance the art we love.

I’m still working my way through the study, and will post more on its contents soon. But in the meanwhile, I thought some would enjoy the political and professional theater this particular spotlight will provide (you can watch it unfold through this Google blogsearch).


  1. says

    I read Davidson’s piece. Reminds me of how many times running a theatre I’ve said “we can’t afford to make any mistakes.” It is frustrating to run an organization with no margin for error. A board member once put it this way: “we’re like a man underwater breathing through a straw that barely breaks the surface; any time a ripple goes by, we choke and risk drowning.” C’est la Guerre.