Yesterday morning, more than 800 delegates to the League of American Orchestras’ 2011 conference in Minneapolis-Saint Paul gathered for “Red Alert,” a 90+ minute plenary session that framed the critical issues facing American orchestras and proposed solutions. Jesse Rosen, the League’s president, began by putting a stake in the ground, stating that the current problems faced by many (not all) orchestras cannot be attributed to the economy but instead are symptomatic of underlying trends and conditions that have been brewing for decades. It is time, Rosen said, to “face our brutal truths.” Here is his diagnosis:
1 – Declining revenues and rising costs. Orchestras’ share of corporate, foundation, and individual gifts is down sharply. Fewer tickets are being sold per household. Audiences are moving away from subscriptions. Fixed costs (labor, occupancy) are rising.
2 – Donor fatigue. Donors — individuals, foundations, and corporations — at the local and national level are telling us that until fundamental issues of the field are addressed, they are unwilling to invest.
3 – Commitment to performance excellence is not enough. Striving to attain world-class performance levels is no longer enough to assure that orchestras’ case for support is strong. Orchestras must find new ways to relate to and serve their communities in order to attract and retain support philanthropic.
4 – Stagnant product delivery systems. Too many orchestras are stuck in the two-hour, evening, subscription concert format and there is insufficient experimentation with other ways to bring music to listeners. Orchestras are too absent from electronic media.
5 – Lack of diversity and its effect on our case for support and our long-term prospects for vitality. Despite our efforts, orchestras and their boards, staff, musicians and audiences remain overwhelming white at a time of increasing diversity in the American population.
What to do? Rosen said that the League would re-focus its efforts across all programs and services to help orchestras “crash proof themselves.” And he proposed three things that every orchestra needs to do:
1 – Understand and take responsibility for our orchestras’ true financial condition. The frail condition of orchestras results in an inability to innovate. Though most orchestras understand their capitalization problems, we are not acting swiftly enough to change them. Boards must not only understand this but must support management’s efforts to change it. (After Rosen’s presentation delegates heard from Susan Nelson, who has been working with organizations and funders on capitalization issues. More on that in another posting.)
2 – Realign with community needs. At the local level, orchestras need to become more relevant, more engaged in their communities in ways that make them invaluable participants and contributors to community life.
3 – Foster creativity. Orchestras must draw on the latent creativity within the orchestra itself and within their staffs to become more vibrant creatively. There is overwhelming evidence that audiences can be engaged around innovations such as performances in intimate and unlikely venues, programming that speaks to broader humanities themes, programming partnership with other cultural institutions, and programming that offers interesting juxtapositions of repertoire and/or artists.
While none of the messages in Rosen’s diagnosis or in the League’s re-focus are new to observers and participants in the orchestra field, the energy and urgency with which these messages were delivered is new for the League.
The conference continues today. I will post more about it over the coming week but thought you would all be interested in yesterday’s session and its contents. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is co-host (with the Minnesota Orchestra) of this year’s conference. Tonight we perform for delegates in a program led by Thomas Zehetmair.