By now, there are probably few in the arts world that do not know about Venezuela’s El Sistema, its U.S. (and other) franchises, or its principal ambassador, LA Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. The results of that national system of community youth orchestras has taken the breath away from thousands of music lovers around the world. José Antonio Abreu’s vision of every Venezuelan child playing in an orchestra has yielded stunning results and taught the world lessons about the power of music and the potential of all children, regardless of economic background, to succeed beyond the wildest expectations of society.
There are probably more lessons here than can be summarized in a single post (that anyone would take the time to read). One of my first thoughts, upon learning about Gustavo Dudamel, was, “How many Dudamels are there living in poverty in the U.S. that will never be discovered nor have the opportunity to transform the world with their talent?” Knowing that there are undoubtedly many, imagine the waste that represents. That is, of course, the “exceptional individual” question. Another thought had to do with the transformative experience enjoyed by all those children who do not go on to musical careers. The fact that they toured their state, country, region, or the world playing in an orchestra that knocked the socks off the musical community will give them confidence, a sense of possibility, that will enrich their lives and enable them to make powerful contributions to society. And the millions of children around the world that have no such opportunity? Again, what a tragic waste.
Createquity recently had a lengthy guest post by Eric Booth and Tricia Tunstall about the introduction of El Sistema in Colombia: An inside look at Colombia’s “Sistema”. In that model, music is clearly a means to a greater end. The Colombians say “Social action is the mission; music is the tool.” The Los Angeles Philharmonic has recently announced that it will be advancing the El Sistema program in the U.S.: Los Angeles Orchestra to Lead Youth Effort, joining El Sistema U.S.A in spreading the concept here. The phenomenon is gaining traction.
Of course there are some in the arts community that observe these developments and say that while they are important, laudable, and have a powerful impact on society, they fall outside the arts mission of their organizations. I continue to see that view as dangerous to the future of those organizations, short-sighted, and potentially damaging to us all. At what point will such narrow missions fall outside the support of their communities? [If you feel compelled to revisit the point, see Engagement Uber Alles?]
So what are the lessons of El Sistema? Clearly, there will be (and have been) bumps in the road in attempting to transplant an indigenous enterprise from Venezuela to the U.S. One set of lessons then is specific to emulating a vast orchestral enterprise. But for me the meta-lessons (I love getting the chance to use “meta”) have more to do with imagining opportunities for serious engagement with the arts for all children and what the role of established arts organizations is in creating those opportunities. Many such programs that currently exist grew up outside mainstream institutions (e.g., Artists for Humanity in Boston–more on them another day). But the LA Philharmonic’s lead in this effort might encourage other major arts institutions to follow their lead, not in the specific program but in getting serious about making a difference in the lives of their community’s children. (Yes, I know Dudamel’s presence was a huge factor in their decision.)
As more established arts institutions come to understand the need to establish community relevance as part of their long-term prosperity (or survival) the more necessary it will be to develop models of work with communities that produce impressive results. Some of the best options have not yet been imagined. Think on these things and then