Flashback to 25 years ago: The real reason for declining classical music audience

Guy Yedwab, Createquity blog, 2/10/10

[In] a speech made by Oberlin College president Frederick Starr in front of the American Symphony Orchestra League in 1988, Starr stated that the real reason for the decline in classical music's fortunes was that orchestras had forgotten how to make compelling artistic experiences that connect with audiences. According to Starr, "Americans all too rarely get an opportunity to take pleasure in classical music. Instead, they are being separated from it by a wall of grim convention and self-conscious ritual having nothing to do with the music itself." Starr proposed that the secret to turning around orchestras' fortunes was to focus on revolutionizing the audience's experience of the music. [This led the Knight Foundation to fund a decade-long (1994-2004) initiative called The Magic of Music. Dr. Thomas Wolf documented the impact of the program and the lessons learned in a report, "The Search for Shining Eyes," released in 2006.]  Wolf sums up its legacy by saying that the projects were "intended to be transformational in nature -- [but] most were only marginally so, and some of the most significant outcomes were only indirectly associated with the projects that were initially funded." For Wolf, the most lasting impact of the program was the knowledge generated. The lessons for orchestras included:

  • The problem with classical orchestras is not the music they play but the delivery systems they employ
  • Orchestras that are not relevant to their communities will be in increasingly endangered
  • All of the members of the orchestra family must be involved in changes -- the music director, musicians, administration, volunteer leadership, and trustees
  • Free programming does not tend to create new ticket-buying audiences
  • Audience education tends to serve the existing audience, not new audience members
  • Participatory arts education programs are a much more linked to future audience members than expository arts programs

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And here are some current thoughts on the topic...


Commentary: Arts-in-Ed is no panacea for declining classical music audiences

Anne Midgette, The Washington Post blog "The Classical Beat," 2/23/2013

In the Washington Post Magazine this week, I write on arts education in schools -- ["After years of crouching, Arts Ed is raising its hand again"] -- a huge and complicated topic. Over and over, I hear orchestras, in particular, blaming the decline in music education for their own declining audiences, and I see them putting more and more resources into education to counteract this trend. This is, to me, a dubious claim: the decline in orchestras' ticket sales reflects a general cultural shift in perception and priorities as much as a decline in education. I also think that by investing in arts education, orchestras make themselves feel like they're doing something about a problem that needs to be addressed on a number of levels...administration, programming, artistic philosophy. But to write a whole piece debunking orchestras' reasons for investing heavily in a very worthy cause would be unforgiveably curmudgeonly, especially when kids need arts so much and the importance of getting them more arts is so great. Though I didn't want to focus exclusively on orchestras, I think this education push shows a continuing evolution in their self-definition. A few years ago I said orchestras should consider redefining themselves as educational institutions. I got derisive comments saying I understood nothing about the structure of orchestras, but of course I wasn't saying all orchestras should transform themselves on the model of the New World Symphony, simply that there were lessons to be learned. Meanwhile, the existing structure of orchestras is working no better now than it was then, and more and more orchestras seem to be investing more and more in education as a hope for their future.


Commentary: A nontraditional approach is needed to increase audiences

Larry Murray, Berkshire On Stage blog, 2/7/13

Nothing pains me more than to watch the decline of classical music in America. It is due largely to the inexcusable obliviousness of American symphony orchestra boards and leadership. When hundreds of thousands turn out for a Fourth of July concert on the banks of the Charles River, or fill the Hollywood Bowl to overflowing you know that classical music is not dead. Just the way it is presented. As the 21st Century proceeds, we are sure to see more declining audiences. Attitudes towards increasing earned income are mixed. "We've tried everything," is a lament you often hear. But many of these efforts are half-hearted, poorly thought out, short-lived or underfunded. [T]he Knight Foundation reports that education may not be the answer. While orchestras everywhere expanded their educational programs in an effort to encourage concert-going and attract new audiences, research indicates that in the long run education in itself does neither. Other strategies - such as nontraditional concert formats and performances that link classical music to other art forms - are more effective ways to expand and diversify audiences, energize the concert experience and increase ticket revenues over time. In some cities, the chains of the old ways are being thrown off and young people are returning to hear the amazing sound a symphony orchestra can make. There is good news in the initiatives orchestras in smaller cities are taking to attract new audiences. [And some] larger orchestras are working at it, too, as with the Watch, Listen, Learn approach in San Francisco. One hopes that many more innovative steps will happen before more of our great orchestras slip away.


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And on a related note....


Museum seeks 'paradigm shift' to reverse trend of declining audiences

Will Higgins, The Indianapolis Star, 2/21/13

Charles Venable, new director at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, envisions a giant car show -- an automobiles-as-art thing. Maybe it's timed to coincide with an Indianapolis 500. People would come, Venable is certain of that. They would come in the hundreds of thousands. Customers. Dollars. Please exit-through-gift-shop. Cha-ching. An art museum may be a place of beauty and truth and inspiration and epiphanies. But it's also about money. And money-wise, the Indianapolis Museum of Art is struggling. Its endowment has not fully recovered from its 2008 goring, and its board is leaning toward fiscal restraint. And so its new director isn't dreamy, he's pragmatic. "We need to maximize audience and perform financially at a different level," Venable said. His goal is to cut spending by $2 million, which amounts to 10% of its budget. Venable arrived in October from a highly successful five-year run at Louisville's Speed Art Museum where he reduced spending and raised nearly $50 million. Right off, he fired the IMA'S chief operating officer and eliminated the position. He plans to hire a marketing director from the corporate world. Last month he threw open the museum's doors for the first in a series of late-night "Final Friday" cocktail/dance parties. He voiced his displeasure at a recent exhibit of Islamic art because it drew 7,000 people but cost $500,000 to stage. He talked about the importance of packing the house. Some purists are squeamish. But an art museum must exist in the real world, and today's real world offers only modest returns to endowment funds, which are the mother's milk of nonprofits. Venable is moving quickly at the IMA.  He rearranged the organization chart so that all curators now report to Preston Bautista, who joined the staff in 2011. Bautista has a Ph.D. in art history but also studied advertising and knows statistics. "Arts audiences over the last 50 years are getting smaller," Venable said, "so you've got to appeal to more people." Bautista chimed in: "Paradigm shift," he said.

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