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The Arts in America — Is the Pandemic a Perfect Storm?

In 1987, my Understanding Toscanini was the most discussed, most reviled book about classical music to have appeared in recent memory. Its subtitle was “How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music.” I used Arturo Toscanini — for decades, the most famous and influential classical musician in the US, hailed as a “priest of culture” and “prophet of enlightenment” – as an illustration and metaphor for the post-World War I failure to generate a distinctively “American” classical music. To this day, American orchestras mainly program European symphonies. American opera companies mainly program European operas. My Cassandra warning was that the United States had proudly acquired a musical high culture built on sand. 

Many found my warning risible.

Eighteen years later, my Classical Music in America: A History of its Rise and Fall, with warnings even more dire, provoked mere ripples of vociferous dissent – including oppositional harangues from within the American symphonic community. This reception made my point: between 1987 and 2005, the American audience for serious books about classical music had diminished exponentially. And American orchestras, with aging templates and aging European repertoires, were still unwilling or unable to innovate. 

After that, our Western cultural inheritance came under general attack as elitist, sexist, and racist. The precipitous marginalization of American classical music I had long predicted accelerated at a pace that took even me by surprise.

And then came the pandemic – a perfect storm. At a moment when culture could vitally contribute to national pride and resilience, the arts are newly challenged financially: concert halls and museums are closed; ticket revenues are nil. The reverberations, internationally, disclose a  sudden, naked disparity in the role of long-inherited culture as a component of the national experience in the US compared to attitudes abroad.

All this was the topic of a recent trans-Atlantic zoom chat sponsored by PostClassical Ensemble and The American Interest. If that sounds important, please consider spending eighty minutes watching and listening to what was said. Here is the link.

Days before our chat, the British government announced a $2 billion infusion into the arts sector. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “The UK’s cultural industry is the beating heart of this country.” Months before, governments on the European continent had moved decisively to buttress their signature cultural institutions. 

In the US, the silence remains deafening. When the UK government response initially proved sluggish, warnings from Sir Simon Rattle, music director of the London Symphony, and Sir Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director of the Barbican Center, were heard and heeded. In Washington, nothing remotely resembling a Culture Ministry exists to listen.

Traditionally, Americans have believed that the arts should pay for themselves. In practice, this has meant (in contradistinction to Europe) heavy reliance on private donations, supplemented by box office and by gifts from foundations and corporations. But the charitable foundations that once supported classical music – Ford, Rockefeller, Mellon, and Knight, among others – have given up on orchestras in particular. There are some good reasons for that, and some not so good reasons. In the opinion of Jesse Rosen of the League of American Orchestras, the new emphasis on inclusivity and diversity is unlikely to allow an emergency round of symphonic  grants.

As for government support: Washington has twice undertaken a policy of massive arts subsidies. The first, during the Depression, was initiated by the New Deal and subsidized American artists at home. The second, during the Cold War, was initiated by the CIA and State Department and sent American performers abroad. The pandemic – a third such crisis – will according to Rosen not inspire a third such response. In our chat he said that the notion of an activist central government serving “the public good” has been “seriously eroded and continues to be eroded.” A federal infusion of arts subsidies comparable to the New Deal’s WPA, or to European initiatives today, seems to Rosen “completely off the table. This is deeply unfortunate, but by no means surprising.”

Rosen also points out that tax code changes enacted in 2017 reduce incentives for private giving. He might have added that new wealth is less disposed to sponsor the arts than disappearing old wealth.  

The New Deal historian David Woolner, in our chat, emphasized that FDR’s notion of the arts was aggressively democratic, that the WPA and kindred agencies regarded the arts as a “cultural right” for all Americans. “The whole idea was to create American art,” to “integrate art into the community.” 

As I proceeded to remark, this was a clear instance of a guided federal policy trumping free enterprise. The interwar “music appreciation” movement, called by Virgil Thomson “the music appreciation racket,” was an entrepreneurial commercial initiative. Its most conspicuous leader, David Sarnoff of NBC and RCA, was a genuine visionary. But his vision was parochial: great music, for Sarnoff, meant dead European masters. It took Roosevelt, and such federal art initiatives as Pare Lorentz’s classic documentary films The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, to creatively celebrate America and American achievement. In the long view, I suggested, it proved too little too late.

(In the 1930s, Sarnoff and William Paley of CBS were instrumental in staving off an “American BBC” that would likely have nurtured a more progressive American arts audience than the NBC/RCA instructional bibles and recordings. Both Sarnoff and Paley were succeeded by network executives less invested in culture and education – a little-known story I tell in Understanding Toscanini.)

Our chat, hosted by the historian Richard Aldous, concluded with an excerpt from PostClassical Ensemble’s Naxos DVD presenting The Plow that Broke the Plains with Virgil Thomson’s score newly recorded by PCE led by Angel Gil-Ordonez: the film’s ending, for which Thomson superimposes a divine tango on a parade of sad cars fleeing the dustbowl. “There you go, Joe,” quipped Nick Kenyon. “It ends in the major!” 

And so it might, if – as some of our panelists predicted – the pandemic will paradoxically ignite new thinking.

Here is PCE’s More than Music film “FDR’s New Deal and the Arts: The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River– what can they teach us today?”

And here’s an index to the entire 80-minute conversation:

1:38 – JOE HOROWITZ (Executive Producer, PostClassical Ensemble; author of 10 books about the American musical experience):

The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938) are classic documentary films exemplifying government-sponsored artistic endeavor during the New Deal, in response to the Great Depression. How will governments support the arts in response to the pandemic?

4:00 – JESSE ROSEN (President of the American Symphony Orchestra League):

Massive federal support for the arts during the pandemic “is completely off the table.” The need to rely instead on the private sector is “deeply unfortunate but not surprising.” Related federal initiatives incude PPP loans, supplemental unemployment insurance. Meanwhile, the foundation community believes “orchestras have failed to adapt” to changing demographics; “they painted themselves into a corner,” were “extremely slow to acknowledge what was going on.” But there are “some promising signs.” “An intense period of learning” has been engendered by the pandemic and fraught race relations. If not “optimistic,” Rosen is “hopeful.”

22:16 – SIR NICHOLAS KENYON (Managing Director of London’s Barbican Center, formerly Director of the BBC Proms):

The pandemic has powered “some real soul-searching about what orchestras are there for.” “Civic engagement” will matter more. International travel will matter less. Their motto might be: “We will be back, but we will be different.” The recent UK arts bail-out “will get us through to the next stage,” but is not a long-range plan. “We woke up in time” but need “a whole new model” for the arts and their civic role. Before Sir Simon Rattle and others rang the alarm, the government’s pandemic agenda had ignored the arts even though “over 70 per cent of visitors to London” say they come primarily for cultural fare, to which other economic props – e.g., restaurants – are attached.

32:16 – ETTORE VOLONTIERI (Switzerland-based artists’ manager whose clients include Gianandrea Noseda):

The tradition of major public funding for arts institutions remains intact in Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland. Unlike the UK, these countries responded to the pandemic with “firm and clear measures [of arts support] from the very beginning,” mainly in the form for subsidizing salaries even when artists are not working. In Austria, the Vienna Philharmonic is already resuming major concerts with 100 players onstage. The Salzburg Festival is on track to open August 1, albeit with socially distanced audiences. Because the Vienna Philharmonic is self-governing, the musicians can take responsibility for their own affairs – and the risk is theirs as well.

44:05 – ANGEL GIL-ORDONEZ (Music Director of PostClassical Ensemble, formerly Associate Conductor of the National Orchestra of Spain):

Government support is absolutely vital – but it matters who is in charge and what criteria are applied. Similarly, individual philanthropy – not part of the European model – is indispensable. A “hybrid model” would be ideal. Washington needs to be “much more committed to culture.”


In response to the pandemic, PostClassical Ensemble has crafted a distinctive response – More than Music. We are not streaming concerts, but creating films in which past performances and recordings are embedded. This comes easily to PCE, because all our concerts are thematic – they tell stories. And our films will also be used in remote classroom instruction, e.g. at Howard University. 

48:58 — Sampling the most recent PCE film, “FDR’s New Deal and the Arts”: the opening sequence of The River, with the soundtrack freshly recorded by PCE conducted by Gil-Ordonez. James Joyce praised this New Deal film for featuring “the most beautiful English language prose” he had encountered in a decade. It won a first prize at the 1938 Venice International Film Festival.

52:05 – NEIL LERNER (film-music historian, Davidson College):

And yet the US Film Service was terminated in 1940, opposed by Congress and Hollywood. “I marvel that it happened at all.”

57:05 – DAVID WOOLNER (New Deal historian, Roosevelt University)

The creativity of the New Deal was something new in American government, predicated on the notion that “government has a responsibility to support the public good.” Roosevelt envisioned a program of New Deal arts subsidies in response to a suggestion by the artist George Biddle, who cited the Mexican muralists of the twenties. Roosevelt realized the New Deal could propagate its social values via artistic endeavor.


Classical music in America was “built on sand.” Today, the arts remain a vital part of the national experience in European nations. In America, the place of the arts is threatened as never before.

1:02:12 – DONATO CABRERA (Music Director, the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic):

“We’re all re-imagining a different path forward.” By “really engaging with the community,” the California Symphony has realized increased subscription sales for the last for years. It also maintains a bi-lingual website because 35 per cent of the population of Contra Costa County is Hispanic.

1:06:07 – DELTA DAVID GIER (Music Director, South Dakota Symphony):

Because of community engagement initiatives like the Lakota Music Project, the South Dakota Symphony is “ahead of the game.” “The community is stepping up” — SDSO has raised over $500,000 more than a year ago. The US is the only country in which Gier encounters no Ministry of Culture – “I can’t even get US funding for American culture abroad.” “The gap has always been there – Americans are anti-elitist at our core. . . . The vast majority of Americans will bristle at the notion that there might be something higher or better than something else. . . . It is a hard road to hoe.” 


The New Deal challenged notions of elite art. To FDR, “art belonged to the people.”


The arts were both subsidized and guided during the New Deal – an improvement over commercialized “music appreciation.” “A clear case of the government not only being generous, but enlightened.” 

1:18:48 – The closing sequence from The Plow that Broke the Plains(1936), with PCE led by Angel Gil-Ordonez. 


  1. Culture Ministry? No thanks. Government money, government art.
    I make my living in the Arts. I have declined grant money from the government because there are too-often strings attached that make it all political.
    If I can’t get the money in your wallet then how can I justify what I do? If I’m good enough, I’ll get it. There is a fabulous glut of bad ‘art’ in the world and so many ‘artists’ who need to be doing something else. But if they can write a good grant proposal and jump through the hoops and kiss the right ass, they can make a living in the ‘arts.’
    Local orchestra can’t make ends meet? Maybe that’s because the community doesn’t want to pay for it. Is it a terrible struggle here in the USA? Damn right it is, but true art, necessary art, will make its way through no matter what. Art needs to be a sacred calling that might well mean a miserable life in poverty, but a real artist will make it happen because his or her art is more important than comfort or ease.
    Art that needs tax money isn’t art; it’s theft.
    But thanks for your writings. I always read them and find you essential in the art scene. (No quote marks around art.)

    • Guy McLain says

      This writer is expressing typical American Conservative ideas. All too many Americans think that everything must controlled by the marketplace. But even Adam Smith, conservative’s holy saint, argued that there was a role for government, a fact that American conservatives conveniently ignore. The fact is that most of the great art of the Renaissance and the Baroque would not exist if it wasn’t for government support. Most of the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven wouldn’t exist without government support. In fact, most of the great art of every era in every culture would not exist if it had not been subsidized by the governments that existed at that time. Yes, quite often government support goes to mediocre art, but let’s face it, most of the art created in any era is not of the highest quality. It’s hard to know what is great when it is first created. We all know hundreds of stories of artists and composers and poets who weren’t fully appreciated in their own time. But the truly great creators would have been unable to produce their art, and it would have been unable to find an appreciative audience, without being subsidized.


  1. […] At a moment when culture could vitally contribute to national pride and resilience, the arts are newly challenged financially. The reverberations, internationally, disclose a sudden, naked disparity in the role of long-inherited culture as a component of the national experience in the US compared to attitudes abroad. – Joseph Horowitz […]

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