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June 17, 2007

Some Questions

by Moy Eng

For a girl whose life was very prescribed, after all, I was raised in a very traditional Chinese household, the opportunity to express feeling, an idea with total abandon was heady and thrilling. The arts, music in particular, became the safest place where I could try out who I wanted to be when I grew up: fierce, intelligent, passionate, fearless, honest and free.

And it is this deeply personal life experience that has driven my work as an artist, fundraiser, consultant and now grantmaker for many years. Making the arts experience and as a diverse array of arts experiences possible for everyone.

It manifests in various ways in my current position as the Performing Arts Program Director at The Hewlett Foundation.

In the multi-million investment in policy research and advocacy in arts education to make quality arts education part of every California school child's education. Our work to date has supported efforts influential in achieving the 2006/07 landmark allocations for arts education totalling over $600 million.

In our efforts to support creative, innovative ways to engage audiences: the three-year investment of $500,000 to seed tests of Concert Companion with major symphonies across the country and the $2.5 million grant for the Emmy Award-winning SPARK, a weekly series on Bay Area arts and culture on KQED: www.kqed.org/spark

In approximately $9 million in 23 cultural facility projects through the Bay Area, which will create over 500,000 square feet of new, affordable, and permanent rehearsal, performance and live/work space for performing artists. Most of the funding went to support centers which are not only artist-centered but community-centered such as ODC Dance Commons, Ninth Street Independent Film Center and Community School of Music and Art.

All of this, in addition to the more than $70 million for performing artists and arts organizations in the Bay Area in the past three years alone.

I'm reading with interest the questions and comments written so far. I ask again to the broader community.

What else should we foundation funders be thinking about to support increased engagement in arts and culture? Experiences, real-time and virtual, which encompass introductory ones to learning how to...dance, make a film, learn how to sing or play an instrument. The experiences which provide a place for reflection, for beauty, for fun, for creation, for spirituality and transformation.

Posted by meng at 11:43 PM | Comments (1)

"You've got nowhere to run, Nutcracker!"

by Vanessa Bertozzi

As I try to write this, I'm babysitting my 6 year old niece in Queens, NY. She's chosen to put on a DVD before bedtime, and, much to my initial chagrin, her choice is a computer-animated version of The Nutcracker performed by... Barbie. At first, I was disappointed she didn't want to watch my choice (Pee-wee), but at least she's too old for Barney. Anyhow, I'm reading through all your amazing blog posts, glancing up once in a while at the tv (during their duel, the Mouse King corners the Nutcracker "You've got nowhere to run, Nutcracker!"). My little niece, peeved, tells me to put away my laptop so I can concentrate on the movie and the CGI ballet with her. Well, so much for this multi-tasking next generation! ...

Wow, I put down the laptop and watched Barbie dance. "Beautiful and amazing" is how Sabina described it. When I asked her if she'd like to learn how to dance ballet someday, she told me "I sometimes dance along with Barbie's steps."

William Osborne's comments to Molly's post raises a very valid point about the systemic lack of funding of the arts. Perhaps if there were more concerts--more less-expensive concerts--as well as more arts and enrichment education in public schools--perhaps then Americans would go to classical music concerts more often. But somehow I don't think this would completely solve the problems described in this college student's account of concert-going.

Eng mentions the expensive business of funding the arts: "IRS tax code regulations and established philanthropic practices have long focused the bulk of foundation support to the creators, producers and presenters of art via nonprofit arts organizations."
And asks: "So...I'm asking you, Vanessa, what roles could arts supporters play in the immediate and longer term future to support the arts? What strategies should we be thinking about or implementing in the very near future?"

In other words, how do we continue to get people to keep on dancing along with the performance like my 6 year old niece (and not just sit their butts in the seats)? (Please pardon my comments if they seem naïve, but my research does focus on youth, culture and learning!)

A number of interesting ideas have come up in discussions here, for example: using screens to provide close-ups of facial expressions of musicians and conductors at large concert halls. Or a comment to one of my posts: "I'm also a huge fan of forcing classical music down peoples throats in strange places" such as parking garages. I do think there's an opportunity here in the not too distant future to engage with the types of young people Henry and I wrote about. Not to stop playing the classics--but to make a radical statement: we the symphony-orchestra have decided to bring music to the people who haven't been coming. Does that mean we should get the musicians to dress up like Barbie? Not necessarily. But you could have your musicians put on a concert in the massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game Second Life. Robert Levine asks: "Should we be emphasizing how historic we are, rather than how cutting-edge? If so, how do we do that? Candles on the music stands? Unwashed musicians?"
Yes, that too! One of the most memorable experiences I had at a non-rock concert was a silent movie projected with live orchestra accompaniment. How more "old school" can you get? Steampunk folk and Japanese manga fans are not the competition! Tap into their networks when you program music from their eras and countries of interest. They will arrive at the concert halls dressed to the nines and make it an evening no one will forget. Offer optional "VH1 pop-up video" style trivia on the subtitle screens on the seatbacks. You could ask local filmmakers to create short videos scored with classical pieces and then perform them live, in a free concert. You could have a concert where no one over 30 is allowed.

Publicly acknowledge the fact that the classical concert-going experience has become stale and then be bold, do something different. Even if it's once a quarter or once a year...I can feel eyeballs rolling, but I do think such "marketing stunts" would generate buzz and goodwill, and if you could get the musicians and arts professionals on board, it would be fun. And if right now you're saying to yourself, "Classical music isn't supposed to be 'fun,'" maybe you'll soon realize that you've got nowhere to run, Nutcracker!

I must say, I agree with Lynne's post: "the most significant opportunities for engagement come before and after the arts event, when audiences are invited to formulate and express an opinion in a public context. I believe today's potential arts audiences don't want the Arts; they want the arts experience."
I think we have to admit that there's a vacuum of meaning when it comes to most Americans' attitudes towards classical music. Most Americans have not grown up in a family that discusses it; they can't afford to buy season subscriptions; they believe their ethnic and cultural backgrounds have nothing to do with classical music (as it's been presented to them). But this void can also be seen as a tabula rasa: it's an opportunity for arts funders and professionals to help the public create fresh and new meanings from the work. Perhaps this could be an event where folks are invited to try to learn some steps with the ballerinas before the show (note: not everyone can be a professional ballerina, but this sort of engagement would foster much greater respect for and a connection to the work and artistry of a ballerina. Maybe one of the kids in the group would go on to take dance lessons or get interested in choreography). And not all of this has to be "fun." Or maybe watching mini-documentary clips of the musicians on the web after a performance. I've often sat in Symphony Hall wondering how the tall guy who plays the triangle came to choose that particular instrument. How about those walls of nameplates of people who've funded the hall or the orchestra? What are their stories? New media allows us many more entry points into the performance, as Lynne emphasized, both before and after, and I would add, on-site during intermission. Here's an idea: what about funding enrichment not just for school children but also their entire families. Documentary storytellers (another sadly under-funded art form!) could work with schools and families to do oral history projects about issues their communities face and to draw in comparisons with say, Carmen's political innuendos or Mahler's tragic life story. Post these online and then offer a concert in the town's square. Do a series like this with other towns and then hold an online conference to share the differences and similarities, ideas for social change. The intersection between online networks and real life is where it's at the future, in my opinion.

The almost spiritual experience of hearing live music comes from the individuals connecting their lives--both personally and collectively, intellectually and emotionally--with the performance. It's an amazing thing. What arts funders and professionals can do is facilitate more connections, reveal more "handles" for audience members to grasp and engage with the material. The creative process of making music and art is fascinating. Let's take advantage of that and use funding alternative programming, new media and our public education system to integrate classical music back into future generations' everyday lives.

One last word from my niece. I asked her if she wanted to learn a musical instrument and if so which one:
"I think it's going to be the voice for me. Because you can always bring it along with you."

Posted by vbertozzi at 8:40 PM | Comments (0)

Analogies and their discontents

by Robert Levine

Sports analogies are inevitable when discussing the business of the performing arts, in the same way that small-business analogies are inevitable when discussing how orchestras operate. No doubt the orchestra business has learned a lot from both, and has more to learn. (How about luxury boxes so that we can treat our wealthy patrons to some exclusivity and soak them for even more money?)

But both analogies are dangerous, because they're fundamentally not on point. Orchestras pay people and vendors, sell and market product, and are deeply concerned with how revenue compares to expenses. But the bottom line is the complete inverse of the bottom line for a for-profit. For-profits make widgets in order to make money; orchestras make money (or try to break even) in order to play concerts. The bottom line for orchestras is not the bottom line on the balance sheet; it's whether or not the orchestra performs its core mission and is seen to do so.

Same with sports. People come to ball games in order to have fun, be entertained, get out of the house, convince their date to sleep with them - whatever. They even come to ball games for aesthetic experiences (and a good double play, like third to second to first, is as beautiful as anything you'll see anywhere). Just like orchestras, right?

Not really. To grossly over-simplify, sports derive from war and the performing arts derive from worship. The Greek theater grew out of religious ritual, and always had a core component of religious content. Much of the canon of western music also came from worship, directly or indirectly (an example of "indirectly;" Sibelius, who wrote nothing related to worship, was profoundly influenced by Palestrina). Opera was originally intended as a re-invention of the Greek dramatic tradition. Obviously theater comes from the same tradition. I suspect that even ballet can be traced back to the same ur-stream.

Given how hard-wired tribalism, and the resulting carnage, seems to be in the human genome, it's no surprise that people still experience sport and the performing arts very differently. Even religion does best, at least in worldly terms, when it allies itself to tribalism.

I'd like to add a caveat, though. The business of sports has changed as dramatically (in some ways far more so) over the past 50 years as has the business of the arts.

One example is enough for now. Most baseball fans (and all of a certain age) know about Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world" in 1951. (I've read up about it because I was named after Bobby Thomson.) Few remember that the game in question, which was the last game of an extremely rare league play-off, and the climax of the most exciting pennant race before or since, was not played to a sold-out park. Think about how inconceivable that would be today, and think about why.

Posted by rlevine at 6:51 PM | Comments (1)

Some Comments from Readers

by Douglas McLennan

"Arts funding in Britain doubled from £198m when Labour came to power in 1997 to £411m in 2004. The articles also note that in 2004 French governmentl spending for the arts rose 5.9%, which was three times inflation. They also discuss the generous funding systems in other countries such as Finland. The economies of Spain and Ireland have skyrocketed since they entered the European Union. Their per capita increases in arts funding have been phenomenal. In general, there is much more lively discussion and debate in the European press about arts funding than in the States. The first clip is from the BBC's website, May 24, 2004 and is entitle "London is 'Classical Music Capitol.'" It argues that public funding actually helps orchestras stay in touch with the public's musical interests and tastes. read more
- William Osborne

The death of "experts" is certainly a good thing. it was 'experts" who told composers in the 1950s and '60s to write serialism or pack it in. Shame on them. On the other hand, I'm not sure that swinging all the way to the other side of the spectrum and saying, in effect, "everyone's an artist" is such a great thing, either. The issue is quality. read more
- Ken

It is assumed that a 20-year old who owns five CD's of their favorite rap star they will do anything to attend a live performance and meet the artist in person, but I find that the reverse is true for classical music. I have heard countless recordings of Elgar Cello Concerto in various contexts but I went and bought my own after I was smitten by a live performance. If only to capture an imperfect reflection of that catharsis experienced live. I bought my own recording of Hélèn Grimaud's performance of Shuman Sonata for Piano and Cello in E minor only after I met her in person and was fascinated by her intense emotional talk of love and friendship. I wonder if the binary opposition of live vs. recorded isn't slightly overrated. Do we really choose one over the other? read more
- Nastya

I have noticed that Americans often try to squirm out of international comparisons regarding arts funding by stating plainly false facts. One of the most common is listing numbers for the huge number of orchestras we supposedly have without noting that the vast majority of them are low paying semi-professional groups. And opera houses in our country are virtually non-existent. So where is the "extensive public funding based on tax policy" going? There must be an awful lot of phantom opera houses around here! And why the fatalistic attitude about increasing our public arts funding? What kind of leadership is that? I am sure people told Martin Luther King that blacks would achieve equality about the same time the US team wins soccer's World Cup. That might be true, but it didn't stop him from making significant progress for his people. Social justice is always a slow process. It doesn't happen if there aren't individuals with the guts and determination to make the first steps. read more
- William Osborne

I hate to speak in such blunt terms, but the naivety of this discussion is appalling, even if based on very common American delusions. You refuse to admit that our problems with the performing arts are systemic, due to our lack of public arts funding. It really is a form of willful denial with the result that your views are not only blinkered, they reflect a chauvinistic ethnocentricity... You all sit and come up with rather superficial, postmodern ideas that are supposedly revitalizing the arts while remaining absolutely silent about the lack of public funding which is what actually separates us from the entire industrial world, and which represents context that overwhelmingly shapes all of the problems you are discussing. (And again, I speak as someone using all of the new media technologies in the creation an presentation of his art.) Let's look at another example, the grotesquely low pay scales that so many of our major orchestras have. read more
- William Osborne

Our field looks for stars and strongmen (persons) to sell our art on the strength of charisma. But is that rational? Other nonprofits thrive by appealing to enduring values of community, the shared experience of growing together, shared conviction, recognition, personal validation, and even the desire for immortality (named a building lately?). Our audience is our orchestra. It is our community, the Petri dish in which we grow our art. It is absurd to treat it like a bunch of commoditized consumers whose wants and needs we need to figure out so we can sell to them. They are our partners. Maybe they don't fully understand the product, but we can still treat them with respect and recognize that they are important, and it's not just their ticket money. If we can shake off our delusions we can build strong, productive relationships with them that will become a solid foundation for our art. read more-
- James Hopkins

What concerns me is all this talk about "market share" and "audience engagement". The arts have evolved into a complex industry in which the commercial and nonprofit sectors have formed an alliance with talent, product and capital flowing from one to the other. Can economic and aesthetic values coexist comfortably? read more
- MadSilence

I don't have the arts' authority to pontificate either but I have observed a change from Art (capital A) as a product to art as a personal action. I think I'm seeing more art as verb than as noun.(?) The DIY approach to self expression through the arts seems to indicate (once again no stats or hard evidence)a desire to take ownership of the arts experiance on a personal level. It appears that it is not enough to live an arts life vicariously through the market blessed luminaries. Does this mean the definition of engagement is changing (or returning to a past approach)? I don't know. read more
- Tony Reynolds

To take part in this discussion click on the "comments" link below any post and write your comment. To see all the reader comments, go here.

Posted by mclennan at 12:23 PM | Comments (0)

A question (or two) before Resurrection

by Robert Levine

Before I go off to work and Mahler's second symphony, I wanted to pose two thoughts for everyone else.

I. Is Retro good?

Much of the conversation about the state of American orchestras focuses on "bringing American orchestras into the 20th (or 21st) century." But look at Disneyland. They focus on bringing America back to 17th century Jamaica, or 18th century New Orleans, or 19th century Missouri. Look at baseball, and all the new retro ball parks.

Are we looking at this the wrong way? Should we be emphasizing how historic we are, rather than how cutting-edge? If so, how do we do that? Candles on the music stands? Unwashed musicians?

II. What about the rest of the world?

I hear that orchestras are booming in China. I don't know what's happening in Europe, but they seem to be holding their own. Is this relevant? European orchestras, at least, have to deal with some of the same competition (from iPods, the Internet, and steampunk) as do American orchestras? Does their experience tell us anything besides how nice it would be to get large checks from the government?

Posted by rlevine at 11:28 AM | Comments (0)

Brave New World

by Moy Eng

I think that we stand on the edge of a new world where what we know as the nonprofit arts and culture sector will be transformed over the next 5-10 years or at the very least, be significantly changed. It is exhilerating, breathtaking in the potential pervasiveness of the change. Scary for Doug and possibly for others, but not me. With all that you described in your posting and in your essay for Bill's book, structures as we know them now may all be deeply affected.

So...for a foundation funder supporting one of the most dynamic, culturally rich regions in the country, the immediate and long-term challenge is for me to figure out how to best support artists, arts organizations, and creativity in this fluid context. Given the long timelines foundations typically work under, foundations tend to be at least 6 months to 1 year behind the curve in beginning to respond to important trends. What we're experiencing appears to be unlike what has gone before and requires creative, bold thinking.

So...I'm asking you, Vanessa, what roles could arts supporters play in the immediate and longer term future to support the arts? What strategies should we be thinking about or implementing in the very near future?

Posted by meng at 10:12 AM | Comments (1)

Being There

by Ed Cambron

Robert Levine concluded one of his recent posts with the statement:

"And orchestras aren't visual experiences."

And Doug wrote regarding attendance at live pop events:

"I suspect the attraction of these events has more to do with having an encounter with someone famous or plugging into the energy of a crowd than it does an appreciation of music."

I could not disagree more. The reason the live concert experience will always be valuable is because it allows for audiences to have a unique, in the moment human connection. And it's not necessarily one of stargazing. An audience in a theater and the artists on the stage forge a relationship that exists in real time, with responsibilities and rewards of both parties. An audience shares their time with the musicians. They anticipate a representation of human expression, not just musical. That's a given. It's the subtleties of facial expression, body language, breath and style that offer a special opportunity for each audience member. It is the small moments of a live musical event that give an audience the gift of a true experience. The strict audiophile may dismiss the romance and importance of this living art in favor of an immaculately recorded work enjoyed in the privacy of one's home. But for those who venture out to a live concert, the last thing on their minds is how far the refrigerator is from their headphones.

The Knight Foundation was on to something a few years ago when they encouraged their Magic of Music grant participants to explore ways to make the concert experience more engaging, with an emphasis on visual enhancements. The projects didn't result in any permanently implemented features. I think the reason it didn't fly is that most experiments focused on adding visual elements instead of taking the visuals we already have and enhancing and exploiting them. I'm currently involved in some research to learn how audiences, new and traditional, react to live broadcasts. It's been fascinating to hear what really makes people feel like they are part of a live experience. And what I'm learning is that when you give a communal audience the ability to feel the human emotion, to see the expressions, they feel connected. It seems silly to say, but I think it's that simple. When you think about it, isn't that why film became the most powerful force in our culture? Remember the debate about video stores putting movie theaters out of business. It didn't happen. Why? Something in us yearns for communal, emotional experiences. Entertainment confirms, art questions, but the way we communicate to an audience and they way the take it in is the same.

Attending a concert is a shared experience. Right now a typical classical music concert may be a lot like church. People come together to share an emotional experience that many audience members refer to as spiritual. I'll never forget a concert I heard right after 9/11 when people came together to heal. They cried, they prayed, they used our music to bond. They lingered longer at the end of the evening, simply to be together. It was powerful stuff.

How do we enhance these emotional, visual, aural concert experiences we keep making? Maybe we should think about screens in the hall that augment what's occurring on stage. Perhaps conservatories should incorporate teaching musicians on how they're demeanor on stage plays some role in audience engagement. Yes, core audiences may bristle at these sorts of ideas, and reject anything outside of traditional presentation. But I've got a significant amount of research that suggests new audiences, especially younger ones, expect just such things in their concert experience. And we can do both. Robert is on to something when he stated:

"But, when we do build new halls, let's build them so that they provide an experience that's better than the iPod and not worse. Than means, in particular, that they should be small."

Not to be crude - but I can't resist - size does matter, but maybe what you can do with it matters even more.

Posted by ecambron at 9:35 AM | Comments (1)

Shaking Up the Ways of Working

by Molly Sheridan

Boy do Eric's points (and disappointments) hit home. And as a longtime concertgoer, I can appreciate how great the acoustics are in Carnegie Hall, but I have to say I don't care all that much when you weigh that characteristic against sharing an experience with fellow fans at venues like Miller Theatre. The former experience can feel like sitting in a beautiful cathedral with a bunch of people who don't believe in God. But we go anyway, hoping, following our love of the art itself. Maybe that can offer a glimmer of hope.

Regarding making opera (or any performing art) connect: I don't think it would take more opera houses, more orchestras, etc. I think it takes supporting the companies already fighting for their lives in a way that allows them the freedom to get far enough outside their usual ways of working (that aren't working). Otherwise, how much longer before the only place you hear a great orchestra is in video games, restaurant commercials, and episodes of Lost...and maybe in LA at Disney Hall.

The MET made strides in this direction this year without dumbing down the art. And they shared that energy with other cities via "touring" they could afford--simulcasting the operas (with attention to direction) in movie theaters. They also tripped occasionally while trying to reach out (i.e. that Letterman appearance). It's too early to evaluate the impact all this is having, but initial reports sound like they gave the blockbuster films a run for it and word is they'll expand the broadcasts next year.

Sorry, Greg, I know this is only anecdotal, but a rock journalist friend asked me to become a MET subscriber with her next season because it will be fun. Something they're doing over there on the Plaza is getting the word out and the job done.

Posted by msheridan at 7:07 AM | Comments (1)