No, Mr. Kristof, Donations to the Arts are Anti-Elitist

Nicholas D. Kristof, writing in The New York Times on December 21, 2008, gave further life to a canard of which I am getting really tired: that classical music organizations (along with other arts institutions) are, to put it bluntly, mostly for the rich folk. 
Kristof's column was an attempt to demonstrate that conservatives are more generous than liberals in their charitable giving, a premise for which he presented precious little real evidence. But then he went on:

"...liberal donations frequently sustain art museums, symphonies, schools and universities that cater to the well-off. (It's great to support the arts and education, but they're not the same as charity for the needy. And some research suggests that donations to education actually increase inequality because they go mostly to elite institutions attended by the wealthy.")

I'll let the world of educators explain scholarships to Kristof, but I cannot keep letting go comments by public figures about how arts institutions are for "the well-off."  It may well be true that a higher percentage of symphony audiences are in upper economic brackets than is represented in the total population; Lord knows there are many reasons that may shape such an outcome. But the fact is that symphony orchestras are investing more and more financial and human resources in community-engagement and educational activities that reach across all socio-economic boundaries. Whether you look at programs that collect instruments and lend them at no cost to children from families not in a position to purchase them; or to music-therapy programs that send musicians into hospitals; or to partnerships with community organizations and churches throughout our major cities; or to the many programs of low-priced and subsidized tickets that permit and encourage ticket purchase by anyone regardless of economic situation, the truth is that great art is not a frilly entertainment for the upper classes.

I've heard a fair amount of this nonsense lately--some of it from politicians advocating the elimination of the tax incentives that support charitable giving to the arts, some of it from columnists who should know better. Every orchestra administrator I know considers it a responsibility to engage with an entire community, and to remove the barriers of "social elitism" that are perceived to surround our art form and others. In fact, charitable support to orchestras helps them to move in that direction, because community engagement and education programs are the things orchestras do that least pay for themselves. So it is enormously frustrating to read a columnist who with one hand charges orchestras unfairly with appealing to the "well-off," and with the other hand encourages a philanthropic policy that would be more likely to force them to do just that.

January 9, 2009 1:04 PM | | Comments (8)



Hi Immanuel,

Thanks for your response. I'll try to respond in turn.

First of all, I was only talking about the US. I agree that in France, Belgium and other places in Europe the classical music world is not dominated by the interests of the rich (however I have to disagree with you about innovative programming - are you seriously trying to dismiss the achievements of the Edinburgh Festival, the Proms, the London Sinfonietta, Théâtre de la Monnaie/de Munt, the Holland Festival, de Nederlandse Opera, the Festival d'Automne, the Salzburg Festival, Bregenz, Lockenhaus, les Arts Florissants, etc etc etc?).

Second of all, I never suggested that the rich are "reviled" (your word). I can think of a number of wealthy and generous arts donors in New York who I am sure would heartily welcome increased federal funding for the arts. Which is my point - they too recognize an imbalance.

Thirdly, I see no meaningful comparison between the San Francisco Symphony performing the music of Metallica and the Grateful Dead and the Berlin Philharmonic performing Heiner Goebbels in a performance/installation context. The former involved transcribing music originally written for a rock band, the latter was an orchestral composition from the start. Plus Goebbels has a peerless record of success in creating the kind of "sui generis" music-theatre work we saw in Berlin, whereas Metallica and the Grateful Dead - excellent bands though they be - have no such record.

And your comparison of five theatre students performing Bernstein scenes with a world premiere of brand new choreography commissioned for over 100 amateur performers from the ages of 5 to 85 - created by a leading international choreographer, to boot - basically proves my point.

Finally, I don't think we should dismiss Berlin as an exception, but rather take a good long look at what is happening there and learn from it as a model of new ways in which a community can be connected with and gain ownership of its orchesta.

I once heard Beverly Sills introduce the New York Philharmonic as the world's greatest orchestra. I'm an admirer of Beverly Sills - in my opinion, she earned the right to say just about anything she liked! However, I would argue that in the 21st century, you can only make that claim if you are energetically committed to the kind of public programming we are seeing in Berlin.


While I agree that the Berliner Philharmoniker does a great job of its marketing and community-focused efforts, I disagree entirely with your assessment; Berlin is a hip place with relatively modern tastes; by contrast, classical music in France, Belgium and other places in Europe exhibits neither a dominance of the interests of the rich nor innovative programming.
I personally think the statement that "USA classical music world is, in fact, dominated by the interests of the rich" is somewhat insulting when I've been nothing other than delighted with the amount of attention and opportunities I've gotten as a 20-year old college student, both in Boston (where all tickets for young audience members are subsidized by those reviled 'rich') and in San Francisco, where Michael Tilson Thomas has not only performed in a rock concert arena, but even playing rock music (remember Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony? or with the Grateful Dead?). A more recent example: earlier this season the SFS did a Bernstein program with five theater students playing scenes from the respective musicals/operas.

The community-oriented programming of the average American orchestra is decidedly superior to that of the average European orchestra and one Berlin Philharmoniker is not going to correct that imbalance. The fact of the matter is that I'm regretful to have to move to Brussels later in 2009, where I've found classical music to be much more conservative, elitist and certainly much more of a fringe element in the everyday cultural life. This, however, is neither directly nor inversely related to the influence of rich donors as far as I can tell.


Immanuel Gilen

"First, we need to stop putting 'classical' music (or any music for that matter) on a pedestal"

The role of any good teacher in the Arts is to impart a sense of aesthetics to their students. Trust me that the absolute "last" thing wrong with education today is an overreliance on set standards.

Let's be honest, Bach and Mozart are on a pedestal because they belong there just as Dante and Shakeseare do in their field. Claiming that everything is equally worthwhile is destructive of everything worthwhile.

On the contrary, we need more government funding. Look at Europe, where levels of government subsidy are far higher than here - censorship in the arts is barely an issue, and artistic expression is more widely valued (take for example Tracey Emin's weekly column in The Independent).

Plus, since European artists etc are awarded significiant sums of money on the basis of artistic merit rather than fundraising acumen, they can spend more of their time making art and less on donor cultivation. (Yes, European governments award grants to individual artists).

(By the way, the subject of this blog entry is funding of classical music. I'm not aware of any cases of censorship of classical music due to US government funding, are you?)

I'm not saying we should copy the European funding system. In Britain and Germany at least, problems are such that they are in many respects trying to copy ours.

What I am saying is that government subsidy is essential for maintaining a healthy arts ecosystem, and significantly higher levels of government subsidy are necessary to establish the right balance between public and private support here in the USA. Only if this happens will arts organizations and artists be able to take full, and necessary, advantage of the new opportunities to transform the relationship between arts organizations, artists and their public as we enter a post baby-boomer (and post culture war?) era with a new President in this new century.

I wrote a letter to the Times in response to that article which did not get published, so I will try it here:

To the Editor:

In his column, "Bleeding Heart Tightwads," Nicholas Kristof equates gifts to favorite liberal charities such as symphonies, schools, and art museums as being essentially gifts to the elite. On the contrary, those gifts are designed to make those institutions available to all, not just the elite wealthier class. They allow institutions such as the Houston Symphony to provide a large number of free or low cost concerts, and lower the ticket price for standard concerts to a price which is in reach of most Americans outside of the wealthy upper class. In addition, we feel that exposure to the arts and education is the type of gift that enables people to reach for a fulfilling life on their own, making them less likely to be in need of charity in the future.

I've just come back from a year in Berlin, where the Philharmonic has an astonishingly rich and invigorating multi-level relationship with its community in which its programming is on a completely different level from that of comparable American classical music organizations. Anyone who experiences the difference will know that the USA classical music world is, in fact, dominated by the interests of the rich.

Sir Simon Rattle himself once hinted strongly that this was why he declined the overtures of the New York Philharmonic, pointing to the "cachet" attached to classical music concert-going in the US as a significant drawback.

I think we should just face the fact that for too long the funding mix for classical music has been lopsided due to anaemic government funding and a subsequent over-reliance on the generosity of the rich. Then demonstrate how increased government funding can transform an orchestra's relationship with its community, and bolster the community programming you mention to the point where they are truly integrated into the life of the orchestra.

Example: in 2007, the Berlin Philharmonic performed Heiner Goebbel's "Surrogate Cities" in the round in a rock concert arena, as dozens of local amateur performers of all ages danced in a circle around them, choreographed by one of Europe's leading choreographers. The relationship between amateur and professional was seamless.

Another example:

If anyone knows of community programming this ambitious which is happening in America, I'd be very glad to hear about it.

Music educators may be partly to blame for this line of thinking. First, we need to stop putting 'classical' music (or any music for that matter) on a pedestal and second, we need to make 'people' (as in the persons making music) more important than the music itself.

Making music is valid at any and every level and comes naturally to most humans. When music teachers begin to impose personal tastes and or assessments, a false sense of hierarchy is introduced and all too often large groups of musicians are dismissed. It is unhealthy for the profession of teaching music and for the community at large.

I'm convinced that if we got rid of government-funded arts, ridiculous comments like his would stop.

Quite clearly, art is for everyone. However, public funding muddies the waters, and tarnishes the beauty that art can provide. I'm fully against public funding, as it has led to censorship and dimished expression for artists.


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