ONE of the key issues which underlies this blog and the book which inspired it is the role of public funding in the arts. I hate to give the end away, but one of the concluding points of Culture Crash is the need for more funding in the US, and something closer to a British or European model. (This is hardly an unpopular opinion among my colleagues.)
Similarly, I am skeptical though not opposed to the entrepreneurial spirit in the arts — that is, I often like the kind of specialized and niche-driven groups and series that the market makes possible, but view the whole cultural mix as an ecology. And these private/ entrepreneurial efforts often draw from publicly funded halls, grants, tax-breaks, and the public arts education of both players and audiences. So we can’t neglect the larger arts infrastructure, in the same way a forest needs light, clean water, healthy topsoil, and the right amount of shade to get a rich blend of flora and fauna.
And any reader of this blog knows I consider cultural journalism a crucial piece of the puzzle; and the disappearance of arts coverage aimed at a general audience is a tragedy comparable to the disappearance of arts and music education from public schools.
But this blog, and this post, is not simply about my ideas but a forum and discussion of where culture has been and where it’s going. And while I don’t entirely agree with Adrian Spence, founder of a well-regarded chamber group which has lasted three decades, I take his point of view seriously enough that I’ll follow up here with an answer of his that tripped me up both when he mentioned it over coffee a few weeks ago as well as when he included it in our recent correspondence. (I have removed a surname to keep from making this personal.)
So, here goes:
You say what you’ve done here would be less possible in Europe or the UK. Why does the US seem like the better spot for Camerata, despite the much broader and deeper arts funding over there? Or is it something about the audiences and musical taste in the US that makes a group like yours a better fit?
Ah, a little push back from one of your readers. Excellent. How exciting to actually have a debate about the ARTS!
In form of a preface, I have always found it absolutely astonishing that this wonderful country, my adopted home, shows so little national pride in its arts community; a community that has generated leading, form-changing, artists for well over a century. Does the statistic still hold true that this country spends more on military bands than the NEA? An even greater tragedy is the lack of arts education in schools. Well documented science demonstrates the substantial benefits of musical/instrumental instruction on a child’s cognitive development. That is not just an arts issue but nigh on a human rights issue, that these benefits are deliberately withheld from our youngest citizens.
Here that all is beyond my remit. Scott asked about my Scots/Irish background whence the rest of this has sprung.
I can state categorically I could not have started Camerata Pacifica in Northern Ireland or the U.K. in the late 80s. Back then the notion of an unknown, working class, 25 year old starting what would become a well regarded chamber group would have been seen as preposterous. The still quite pronounced social stratification in the U.K. was also contributory. My ideas would not have been received well and certainly I could not have obtained the seed funding. Perhaps much has changed in the intervening decades, but generally I don’t see it. Not only would it be difficult to sustain a $1,000,000+ budget on whatever small government funding was available, but the musical hierarchy is much more rigid — less so now I think, but still difficult — it is hard to break longstanding traditions. 30 years ago the U.S. offered the American Dream. It promised reward for innovative thinking and I deliberately choose to leave the more closed environment of 1980s Britain.
My intention was never to launch a symphony orchestra or opera house suitable to a capital city. Those institutional pillars of the arts are vital to cities and countries, but there should also be a constant boil of invention and exploration. I became part of a movement in which musicians wrested back control of their, and the greater, musical destiny. I don’t think it is any less than that, and I don’t see how that can happen via an arts council application process.
A healthy arts environment, any business environment, requires the encouragement of innovation and start ups. In classical music today we’re witnessing, in the U.S., Europe and beyond, incredible fertility in that regard, which is driving the renaissance. In any country this will be driven by individual entrepreneurship and funding, not the bureaucracy. Say indeed UK arts councils do have incubator programs to encourage the formation of new ensembles; along comes a recession, arts budgets are slashed, grants withdrawn and groups disappear. That happened. Scott, perhaps a little investigative journalism can precisely determine the extent of it, but in the last decade that happened. Without investment from individuals those groups had nothing once government funds evaporated.
The first sentence of Camerata Pacifica’s mission statement states we exist, “to affect positively how people experience live performances of classical music.”
Are we touching people? Have we affected positively, have we changed, their experience of classical music? Over 28 years I can say we have. Part of that is a result of how this country’s citizens interact with non-profits of all sorts in their communities. Personal investment is key, financial, emotional and otherwise, which I simply do not witness occurs to the same degree in the U.K. or Europe.
Permit me to directly address Mr. [name deleted]’s under informed view of the arts scene in Los Angeles. At best it’s dated or he’s Wikipedia-bound. Certainly he has access to an abundance of statistics and we know what Mark Twain had to say about that ☺
I don’t understand the point being made behind those data he presents. Is it that L.A. would be better served than London if it had 6 orchestras? Off the top of my head in L.A. I can think of: Jacaranda, Da Camera Society, LA Chamber Orchestra, Musica Angelica, Wild Up, The Industry, Salastina, Pittance Chamber Players, Kaleidoscope, PianoSpheres, Colburn Chamber, Salon de Musique, plus all the regional orchestras and operas. I could go on, and Scott I’m sure you know many more than I, but our population doesn’t seem starved for music. Indeed, it seems like a pretty healthy situation to me.
On NPR last week I heard that, per capita, the U.S. has 5 times more mall space than the U.K. Most of empty; desperately seeking retailers and consumers. It’s overbuilt. The number of orchestras in a town tells us nothing, especially if they are primarily state supported. Show me the hard data concerning subscription & ticket sales. Not student outreach tickets or other discounted offers. Not one time sales, which reveal a recruit who didn’t like what was offered and didn’t return. Retention is the most important data point. Year upon year Camerata Pacifica’s subscription sales are up. People come, they stay and, due not in small part to this American model, they become donors and a happy, invested part of a shared, musically inquisitive community.
Camerata Pacifica’s Santa Barbara and Ventura venues sell out regularly. A beautiful new hall at The Huntington has almost doubled our capacity there, and our youngest, largest venue, Zipper Hall in the Colburn School, has plenty of seat availability. In other words, subscription growth will continue. When all of the venues are sold out? It’s chamber music, we’ll add another. The model is sustainable. However, eliminate government funding from any of the European groups, (and in the age of austerity who can say that won’t occur), what’s going to happen?
One can endlessly argue the merits and flaws of each system, and there are many. I’ll leave it to others to continue that debate. For Camerata Pacifica however, pursuing the mission it does at the beginning of the 21st century, this model of personal investment is the most effective, durable and rewarding to all involved.