I had the opportunity to give a keynote address at the League of American Orchestras conference in St. Louis last week. As always, I find it mind-bending (in a good way) to talk to folks from other nonprofit sectors experiencing the same forces of change buffeting museums, but with their own unique twist.
One of the challenges orchestras share with museums is (big surprise) finding sufficient funding to support the high-quality product we want to present. I think the brutal economics of an orchestral performance crank this tension up even higher than it is in museums. There are corners one can cut (up to a point) to fit an exhibition into existing budget. The costs of putting on an orchestral performance (especially given the strong union representation of most orchestral musicians) are largely set and very high. Take a look at this diagram from the Stanford research paper, “The Economic Environment of American Symphony Orchestras,” that I linked to above.
The “performance income gap” between what you can charge for a concert and what it costs to stage is largely bridged by contributions. Let’s assume for a moment that we can’t come up with a radically different economic model. Who is raising the money that builds the bridge?
There are not enough qualified development directors to fill the available positions
Organizations are suffering from high turnover and long vacancies in development positions
Executives report performance problems and lack of basic skills among fundraising staff
The report concludes that development has to become a shared responsibility across the organization—an embedded part of many people’s work, not segregated into one specialized compartment. This is in accord with the general push for staff to develop “T-shaped” skills: deep in one area, but broad across a range of competencies. Nowadays, it isn’t enough for a curator to be an expert in her or his subject matter. A curator also has to be good at communicating to a variety of audiences, valuing the input of non-experts, and finding ways for people to participate in the creative process. Many people bitterly resent the fact that they can’t just focus on the skill at which they want to excel—I’m told this is a major tension in orchestras, as well. Many musicians who practiced long hours from a very young age and finally made it into a first rate ensemble, want to spend their time on making the best possible music. Understandable, but increasingly unrealistic.
To launch the Center, the arms of my “T” had to stretch to encompass editing, using social media, presentation, business planning and new product development. Now I, as a program staff member, feel like we (the subject specialists) have to learn to take point on raising funds to underwrite our work, as well. I can’t afford to land back at square one every time staff in the development department turns over—again. The time I spend teaching new staff about what I do, and how to speak about it to others, might be better spent delivering the message myself. Do I still want development staff supporting my efforts? Heck yes! But I think I had better not rely on them too much—in the end, no one can do a better job of convincing people of the importance of what I do than me.
So in the age of social media, celebrities, crowdfunding, and an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, who raises the dough for orchestras? Here’s the brief story I wrote for closing event at LAO, a news item plucked from the headlines of 2023:
Congress Passes Arts Patronage Charitable Deduction Act,providing full tax deductibility for private support of individual visual and performing artists.
On the heels of this news came a second announcement: a call for auditions for the New South Orchestra, a musician-founded organization dedicated to musical excellence. “A classical musician today has limited opportunities to focus purely on their art ” said New South spokesperson, cellist Mia Lamm. “The majority of orchestras are premised on community service–even in the big six, musicians spend a significance portion of their time on social engagement, education and community service. The New South Orchestra is currently concluding a successful capital campaign to create a state of the art performance space and a modest endowment. For operating funds, our new orchestra has created a funding model that will allow us to focus on artistic excellence by expecting those most invested in that excellence—the musicians themselves, to fund the organization. Each musician, selected through a rigorous, global audition process, will be expected to bring with them to the job their own salary plus overhead. Some musicians will raise this funding through tapping their individual fan bases, built through social media and mobilized through crowdfunding; some (facilitated by the legislation passed today) will find individual patrons; some may fund their participation through personal wealth. This model will enable the New South to offer free admission to our performances, helping to build a broad & diverse audience for symphonic music.
The tweet version of this story? “People are sexier than their organizations.” I can imagine a future in which social media enables individual musicians to create avid international fan bases. Crowdfunding of musicians is already becoming mainstream—just last year Amanda Palmer raised $1.2M to self-finance her new album. And if current trends continue, in 2023 the top 1% may own over 40% of the wealth in the US (compared to the 36% they control now)—a crop of new Medici poised to be patrons of the arts. So dust off your social skills—both the social media and the cocktail party kind. In that future, funding will go to the creatives who learn to make their own pitch.