Here — from a 1975 book by George Seltzer, The Professional Symphony Orchestra in the United States — is another bit of history. (To go along with the 1951 scene of audiences applauding after each movement of a piece, that I shared in my last post.)
Seltzer’s book is a collection of many articles, some short, some quite long, including a New Yorker piece from 1960 (if I remember correctly; I don’t have the book with me) by Joseph Wechsler that gives the best account of what it’s like to play an orchestra piece -— from the musicians’ point of view — that I’ve ever seen.
But what interests me here is something from “Musings on the Duties of the Orchestral Manager,” a short piece by Helen M. Thompson, which was originally published (the book doesn’t say when, or in what form) by the American Symphony Orchestra League. (Which of course is what the League of American Orchestras used to call itself.)
Here’s the quote, from a paragraph titled “Fund raising and ticket sale campaigns”:
The manager cannot personally raise the funds and sell the tickets, but he is responsible (unless otherwise directed by the board of directors) for all phases of the planning, supervision and execution of the campaigns, ticket sales plans, special fund raising schemes, etc. His task is to do all possible to enable the volunteer campaign workers from the board, women’s association and community to work effectively, efficiently and constructively.
What jumped out at me here was the list of people who raise funds for the orchestra: “volunteer campaign workers from the board, women’s association and community.” Or, in other words, not professionals from the orchestra’s development department. Orchestras, from everything I’ve seen, didn’t have development departments back then, or for that matter, marketing departments. In two Philadelphia Orchestra budgets I’ve seen from the late ’60s, there’s almost no expense for marketing or fundraising. And Helen M. Thompson seems to be telling us why; The fundraising was done by volunteers.
I’m a little surprised to see that said in a 1975 book, because it was in the ’70s, as far as I know, that the present forms of fundraising came in. Late in the ’60s, big American orchestras had a giant financial crisis, the result of expansion to 52-week seasons, along with a rise in musicians’ weekly salaries. Consultants were brought in (I’ve read their reports, courtesy of the New York Philharmonic’s wonderful archives), and the conclusions were that orchestras would go out of business unless new money was found. That money should, the consultants said, come from the federal government, which — if European governments funded 90% of their orchestras’ budgets — could easily fund 25% of orchestra budgets in the US.
A writer in Seltzer’s book says much the same thing. The federal government never came through, of course, and instead orchestras (and other nonprofits in the arts) developed the funding process we have now. A story, by the way, that hasn’t been written about in any detail, or at least not in anything I’ve seen. If anyone knows any published accounts of how our present forms of fundraising evolved , I’d love to hear about them.
So again we have a snapshot — a very brief one, this time — of an age very different from ours. Orchestras, I should add, didn’t need professional, year-round fundraising, because ticket sales still paid a large part of the bills. How that changed — how we went from ticket sales in the 1930s making up 70 to 90 percent of an orchestra’s income, to 30% or so now — is a major financial story. Illustrating (though I won’t go into detail now) the progress of the cost disease, the principle of economics that tells us how institutions like orchestras, hospitals, and universities don’t, over time, show the productivity gains that manufacturing companies do, and therefore fall further and further behind financially. Scrambling, year after year, for new sources of funds.
One footnote: Sometimes people laugh at concerns for the future of classical music, saying that these fears have always been with us, but classical music survived. Reading these old books, I can’t find evidence for that. There’s no talk about classical music being threatened. Orchestras had a financial crisis, yes, but for specific, understandable reasons. Nobody thought that classical music itself was threatened — something that, by the way, i can confirm from my own experience, since I’ve been eagerly active in classical music, in one way or another, since my college days in the ’60s. I never heard people talk about danger to classical music until somewhere in the 1990s.
But that’s a story for another time.