The Case for Subsidizing Ticket Prices

If you go to symphony concerts in Europe or South America, you see audiences that tend to be more diverse than ours in the United States--more young people, more ethnic diversity, more apparent diversity of economic and demographic background. Since the criticism often leveled at American orchestras is their lack of such diversity, one certainly starts wondering just why it is different here. I was most strongly struck by this in São Paulo, where the São Paulo Symphony plays to almost sold-out audiences night after night and there are enormous numbers of young people--as well as racial and ethnic diversity that an American orchestra manager would die for. But the same tends to be true to a large degree in Amsterdam or Moscow or Hamburg.
I haven't done any research into the reasons for this, and if there is research I am not aware of it. But common sense tells me a significant factor is that ticket prices are much lower in these countries. Why? Not because orchestras are less "greedy" there, but because higher levels of government support make it possible--or even mandatory--to keep ticket prices down. This in turn removes, or at least minimizes, economic class as a determinant of who can attend concerts.

I do not advocate the levels of government support that one finds in these countries. (Government provides around 80 percent of the São Paulo Symphony's operating budget, for example.) One always worries when a huge percentage of an orchestra's revenue comes from one source. If that source ever changes its mind, there's big trouble ahead.

On the other hand, it continues to be a scandal to me that governments in the United States do not see the arts as worthy of support in any truly significant way. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, at the local, state, or national level--or through some combination of the three--there was a move toward a truly significant increase in government support, and it was tied directly to a concomitant decrease in ticket prices?  I know that some of my former colleagues in orchestra administration are likely to get upset with me for suggesting that support have a condition attached to it, but in this case I dig my heels in. Look what happened in Baltimore when PNC Bank gave the Baltimore Symphony a major grant conditional on ticket price reductions. Attendance increased dramatically.

There is no question in my mind that ticket prices are a barrier to entry for many people. Orchestra administrators keep tickets priced at the level they do because they all struggle to balance budgets. I know--I did it in Chicago for eighteen years, although I tried hard to keep increasing the spread between the lowest and highest prices. In our current system of arts support, we have no choice but to maximize earned revenue. Many orchestra board members will push market-economy thinking on us, saying that we should price concerts at what the market will bear. But we do in fact receive both public and private funding--and, indirectly, more public funding than we admit, thanks to the tax advantages enjoyed by our donors--in order to make our art available to as many people as possible.

At the very least, one wishes that we could have a meaningful national dialogue, led by intelligent people from the NEA and from our state and city arts agencies, on the place of the arts in American life. Such a dialogue, bringing all viewpoints into a higher level of visibility, would be an extraordinarily healthy development for a country that still does not seem to consider its artistic and cultural achievements as a meaningful priority.

October 16, 2009 10:32 AM | | Comments (2)



It would be interesting to know if someone has studied any contrast in US municipalities' willingness to subsidize or otherwise support artistic groups and cultural events, versus their willingness to provide millions in tax and financial incentives to bring sports teams to the same municipalities. Or, perhaps to build a new stadium/arena for housing an existing team--often as a reaction to that team's perceived threat to relocate from the area. [One assumes the Cleveland Orchestra or the NY Phil don't really have the option of bolting their hometowns for a more financially attractive offer from a well-heeled Sun-belt location...]

Of course, the level of sports enthusiasm (can you say World Cup?) is at least as great in other countries, including those that provide culture/arts subsidies, so the US situation would need to be examined in the context of the circumstances in those other countries.

I also wonder if the ability to fill up concert halls using more affordable tickets could not be assisted by the charging of less astronomical performing fees by big name soloists and conductors?

Glad to see you included the point of the two-edged sword of funding. Here in IL, small arts orgs are seeing how painful it is to depend on the IL Arts Council grants....because the state is broke, and the grant amounts have been dropping.

For a small org, a small grant or even a private sponsor giving more than $2,000 is going to be hard to make up with private donations.


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Artistic Authority in Orchestras: A Tricky Balance was the previous entry in this blog.

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