The environment — solutions 2 (second in an occasional series)

Problem: You’re involved with a classical music organization, maybe a big one. And even though you might describe your institution as “a vital community cultural resource” (to quote one orchestra’s website), you know that once you get beyond the “cultural” part of that — which basically means the contribution that you make to the community with your music — you don’t have all that much to offer. You sense that you’re not a vital part of the community when other issues — non-musical issues — might arise.

Solution: Do something for the environment.

I’m writing this on Earth Day. The main news section of the New York Times has three full-page environmental ads, from Macy’s, Starbuck’s, and the BBC. Macy’s website, on its home page, suggests you ride your bike or walk to work, and offers a link to a Macy’s Earth Week celebration, where you can get environmental tips, and learn what Macy’s is doing for the cause. The IBM home page prominently asks if you’ve recycled all your old computers, offering a link to an environmental page that tells you how to do so, with further links to pages like this one, which offers an entire green campaign, with the slogan “Good for business. Good for the planet.”

And of course there’s more. The New York Mets are building a new stadium. It’s going to be green, says the team, built almost completely from recycled steel, and with a green roof over the administrative offices, plus other green initiatives. Major League Baseball has its own green initiative, the Team Greening Program. The Pittsburgh Pirates have an environmental program; the San Francisco Giants generate electricity with solar panels.

And what do classical music institutions do? Nothing I’ve ever heard of. Which doesn’t mean that nobody is doing anything — that would just about defy belief — but certainly we don’t hear a lot about this. Have any of the new concert halls boasted that they’re green? Not that I’ve heard of. The Nashville Symphony’s page for their new Schermerhorn Symphony Center says not a word about anything environmental. The LA Philharmonic’s site says nothing green about Disney Hall.

And sure, some — a lot? — of the corporate environmental stuff is hype. A computer newsletter I get, “PC World Daily Tech News,” asks “Are Big High-Tech Companies Green Hypocrites?” The baseball initiatives have been questioned, as the articles I linked to show. (They generate huge amounts of carbon playing night games.) Back in January, the New York Times reported that the FTC was asking whether corporations really did offset their carbon footprints, after saying that they’d done so.

But classical music organizations don’t even take phony stands (if that’s what the corporations are really doing). I’ve blogged about this before, and asked the American Symphony Orchestra League (as it was called back then) if any major orchestras had ever tried to offset the carbon dioxide they generate when they tour. I never got an answer.

So that’s my solution to a community relations problem — take a stand on the environment, and do something about it. It’s just about expected, these days, and it’s almost shocking (when you think about it for a while) that classical music organizations don’t seem to know this.

Footnote: Maybe this is related to something else, the way people who aren’t classical music initiates (especially if they’re young) can be surprised that big classical music institutions don’t do anything for charity. Pop stars do, after all. The almost indignant answer from the institutions is that, hey, they’re charities!

But this doesn’t wash. From the outside, big classical music institutions look like they’re rolling in money. From the inside, they often enough can barely pay their bills, but still their whole presentation (I’m talking about major orchestras, big opera companies, and major concert halls) is lavish.

So they ought to do something for charity. I once privately advised an orchestra about this, suggesting that, since they wanted to raise more money from subscribers, it would help to work for charity themselves, so they’d create an atmosphere of giving. I’ve heard they’ve done this, with some success. One way, it seemed to me, would be to stress the charitable work of individual musicians, and also to join in community-wide fundraising efforts.

But each institution can figure this out individually. Just so they do something!

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  1. brett says

    The classical music world may not be cultivating its green credentials, but at least one major theater is. From the website of Portland Center Stage:

    “Originally built in 1891, the building was reborn as the Gerding Theater at the Armory on October 1, 2006, with a community celebration and block party attended by a throng of thousands. Shortly after opening, the building was certified by the US Green Building Council as exceeding the requirements for designation as LEED Platinum (go to for more info).

    During its first year as the home of Portland Center Stage, the Gerding Theater at the Armory was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, nominated for the Portland downtown Rotary Club’s Environmental Excellence award and the Portland BEST award for green building. It was also recognized by Forbes magazine as among the top 12 green buildings in the country. Alongside the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, the Gerding Theater at the Armory received honorable mention from the American Institute of Architects Council on the Environment’s Top Green Projects awards. In April 2007 the Urban Land Institute selected the Gerding Theater at the Armory from among 170 nominees spanning two continents for its Award for Excellence, the Americas.”

    Admittedly, this is here in Portland, the greenest major city in the U.S., which places a high value on sustainability, but every major American city’s arts institutions should be pursuing environmental responsibility for its social as well as PR value.

  2. David Cavlovic says

    I definitely agree. And performing the Pastorale Symphony or the Four Seasons is NOT ENOUGH!

    Yes! Though come to think of it — would it kill them to do a little Earth Day programming? Especially if they were more imaginative than just taking the obvious road you so rightly make fun of. They could commission pieces that reflect our current problems. Or do “The Seasons” (Haydn) with video showing rampant development, deforestation, endangered species. Maybe also an obvious idea, but more thinking along these lines is long overdue.

  3. Yvonne says

    Re Earth Day programming and whether that’s “enough”: Apollo’s Fire (Cleveland Baroque Orchestra) presents Earth Day concerts. Not every year, but with a reasonable frequency, driven mainly by the personal convictions of the music director. And I believe they’ve commissioned at least one new work on an earth day theme in the past (not a bad show of commitment for a period instrument band).

    I think there are two main things a performing arts group can do on this theme. One is to be responsible as an organisation and as “green” as possible in their operations and building plans. Whether they choose to tout that or make PR mileage from it is ultimately up to the organisation.

    But beyond that they have to do what they do best, which is their mission, which is creation and performance. (Macey’s, the Mets or Starbucks can’t give us the Pastoral Symphony or a new earth day cantata – an orchestra can.) So it could be argued that it absolutely is “enough” (in addition to organisational responsibility) to present awareness-raising programming.

    I’ve heard nothing but good about Apollo’s Fire, quite beyond whatever they do for Earth Day.

    But as for the rest, Yvonne, aren’t you almost saying something like this? “I’m a concert violinist. That’s my mission in life. So I don’t have to be nice to anyone.”

    And yes, that’s a caricature. But don’t we all have ethical imperatives in our lives, quite beyond our professions? And isn’t environmental consciousness creeping into that area? Or maybe it’s already crept. It’s hard, these days, not to think we all ought to be doing something, even if we just replace a few incandescent light bulbs in our homes with fluorescents.

    And couldn’t you just as well say, “The Mets can play baseball. [Erratically — parenthetical notes from this long-time fan.] The Philharmonic can’t. So shouldn’t be concentrate on what we do best, and not bother with a green stadium? The fact that the Mets, and major league teams generally, don’t say anything like that shows that they’re trying to be good citizens, or at least that they’re trying to look like good citizens. And at this point, something like that is pretty well expected from anyone who does business — especially big business — in public. So why should classical music organizations be exempt? IBM can’t play the Pastoral Symphony, but the NY Philharmonic can’t deploy corporate software solutions. To me, Yvonne — and I hope this doesn’t sound harsh — you’re coming close to saying, “We in classical music are so special that all the usual rules don’t apply to us.”

  4. says

    I try, as a composer, to encourage prospective clients to review work in pdf format and via download, rather than asking for CD’s.

    This does a number of things for me:

    – 1 it trims my printing costs

    – 2 is saves on postage

    But it also is more environmentally friendly.

  5. says

    Bravo for making this charge.

    Musicians can and must use their art to make a difference in the world around them. I applaud the idea that the organizations could do this by simply highlighting and thus incenting community outreach and “cause” impact by their artists.

    I am surprised at how many musicians seem to lost touch with the fact that by simply doing what they do.. they really do change listeners’ and even colleagues’ lives.

    My wife and I are using this premise to teach/build musicians at all levels.. they must have passion, discipline and application. We aren’t in Portland Oregon, as the Da Capo Institute is located in Richmond VA, so perhaps there is hope even for the East Coast. that is if we can do anything about it.

  6. Yvonne says

    Greg, I wouldn’t normally come back to an old post like this, but I think you’ve ignored the central point in my comment. Italics added this time:

    “I think there are two main things a performing arts group can do on this theme. One is to be responsible as an organisation and as “green” as possible in their operations and building plans. Whether they choose to tout that or make PR mileage from it is ultimately up to the organisation.

    But beyond that they have to do what they do best, which is their mission, which is creation and performance…”

    So the analogy might be:

    I’m a concert violinist. That’s my mission in life. Also, not because I’m a violinist but because I’m a human being, I try to be as nice to everyone as I can. And sometimes [perhaps not often enough] I see if there are ways I can use my violin playing – since that’s what I’m good at and really understand – to be a more influential force for niceness.

    Point taken, Yvonne. Thanks for clarifying.

    But I do think that the issue is a little larger than this. If you look at a single classical violinist, or a single orchestra, fine, they can do anything they like. But when you look at the entire classical music field, then you see (or at least I think I see) people and organizations who do much less about the environment, or at least do it less publicly, than is now the norm in the world at large.

    I can agree that how much one publicizes one’s support for one cause or another could be an individual choice. But there can be political consequences. For instance, if if some reasonably large city the local baseball team opens a new stadium, and talks with some excitement (even self-promoting excitement) about how green the building is, and at the same time the local orchestra opens a new concert hall, and doesn’t utter a peep in that direction — well, you can see how it looks. Suppose also that the local newspaper does a story on the maternity leave policies of large local enterprises, and the orchestra’s is one of the least generous. And then there’s a sexual harassment lawsuit involving the orchestra, and it turns out that the orchestra hasn’t put in place any policies about sexual harassment — no statement of what’s not permissible, no mandatory workshops for musicians and other employees. How does the orchestra look, after all this? Pretty shoddy, I’d think.

    I want to stress that I’ve been talking about institutions in these posts, and not individual musicians. And from that point of view, Yvonne, please forgive me if I ask whether what you’re saying might not seem ingenuous. Fine, we can agree that an orchestra’s main mission, and maybe what they know best (or ought to know best) is playing music. But still they have, as an institution, a whole range of things that they’d better know how to do, either by law or for sound business reasons. If their main mission is playing music, does that mean they’re allowed to get confused about collecting sales tax in the gift shop in their concert hall? Can they offer a shoddy health insurance plan to their employees, because their main mission is playing music? Can they run their box office in a way that isn’t at all friendly to people who want to buy tickets? Well, in fact many orchestras used to run their box offices very badly, and learned the error of their ways during the past decade.
    Lately (as I hope I get around to writing in another post) orchestras are putting great emphasis on their contacts with their communities. They see this as essential, because they’re falling behind financially, and want far greater community contact so they can raise more money. So then they have to care — whatever they think their main mission might be — what their community thinks of them. And if now we’ve reached some kind of tipping point, and the community expects organizations of all sorts to pay public attention to environmental issues (which would be a good thing, in my view), how can orchestras not do that? They’ll sabotage the community efforts on which they think their financial future depends.