FROM TC: From time to time, I read an important commentary that is not easily condensed into one neat paragraph and requires its own dedicated edition of You've Cott Mail. Below is an excerpt from a speech given by Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, at the School's Convocation on Monday, June 24 -- marking the official beginning of the 2013 season for the 630 music students and 130 artist-faculty in residence. And while this excerpt is already a long post, I encourage you to click on the title and read the whole text if you have the time. Also, for those of you who think these remarks only apply to the classical music sector and not to other parts of the arts and culture industry, then think again.


Commentary: What to do about tensions between artists and administrators

Each summer I like to say something hopeful and encouraging to all who gather here: ready to work, ready to be part of something wonderful, ready to create something beautiful and meaningful. And this summer is no different. I have so much confidence in you, and confidence in what we are doing.


This leads me, though, to want to say some blunt things about what our profession is experiencing. This has not been a good year for many people we care deeply about in the world of music. I feel it wouldn't be right simply to say that everything in our future is bright and uncomplicated. So I'll make some observations about the state of classical music. I entirely respect that not all of you are going to agree with all I will say, and I welcome the opportunity to talk more about this. In fact, part of the solution to our current challenges is to have more, not less, constructive and respectful discussion.


A large part of what is happening stems from the global recession from which we are just emerging. People have been afraid and have lost confidence, in every sector, and this loss of confidence has a profound effect on musical organizations that depend on belief, confidence, and generosity.

Classical music in the United States depends on four groups working together: musicians, donors, administrators, and listeners. No one of these groups "owns" the music, and no one or even two of them can keep the music going without the others. Too often we've been hearing from one group or another that someone else is unimportant, or worse, that "they owe us." But everyone involved here is making a free choice to be involved, and is mutually obliged to make the enterprise work.

We've been seeing some terrible fractures in the historic cooperation that is needed to create music. For me, the very worst of it has been in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where two great orchestras were locked out of their halls. This is not the place to try to describe fully what has happened -- the complexity of the problem is intense -- but what happened, and is still happening, has no place in our art form. A strike is a very unhappy thing, but a lock-out is unworthy of us all and unworthy of our beautiful profession.

In almost all of the problematic cases in recent years, one or more of the "sides" in a dispute is saying that they can't, or won't, recognize another side's good faith, and the rhetoric all around the country has been remarkably poisonous and negative.

We really must find a way to work together, and this fracturing makes that seem impossible.

Let's start with one of the most wrongheaded ideas: that, since there are so many good musicians out there, the particular composition of any given orchestra doesn't matter. It is not true that musicians are interchangeable - one of the most essential things about music is that every interpretation is unique. The sounds of Chicago, Philadelphia, or Cleveland are not only significantly unlike each other, but they change with different conductors, and they change over time. It is one of the most important truths about music that the audience should want to hear these differences, and value them, not believing that there is a single "best" orchestra or interpretation.

Further, every city should have its own orchestra, not only as an expression of civic pride, but because having music made in your community by your fellow-citizens is different from experiencing it as a remote thing.

The wrongheadedness is not all on one side, though. A friend of mine, a composer, wrote this year that it is the boards and managements of great orchestras who should be locked out. My view is that no one should be locked out. We need to end the adversarial tone of confrontation among managements, musicians, boards -- before it tears our system apart. No one is free from blame in this.

For me, it is clear that some managements have made catastrophic mistakes, and some boards have supported these mistakes, instead of helping correct them. There's no excuse for this. But to turn it into a sweeping condemnation of all philanthropists, boards, and administrations is also wrong. It is not true that the musicians create everything important about the music, and staff are merely assistants. An orchestra is a complex organism in which everyone plays a role, and everyone makes a contribution.

I fear many musicians undervalue the essential contributions that management, operations, marketing, finance, and education departments make, and especially fundraising departments. Because the fact is that nowhere in the world does classical music thrive without external support. Ticket revenue is never enough, and will never be enough.

At this point, it may seem that I have a long way to go to make these remarks positive and encouraging! But I think part of the answer to all of this is right here in Aspen. Not only because your great positive energy, your dedication and ability, is the best possible predictor of a real future for music, but also because, behind the scenes here, we have a unique idea for how to integrate musicians, administrators, and donors.

Some orchestras have the representation of a few musicians at board meetings -- generally not voting, and generally just one or two. Here, we have a Corporation with a majority membership of faculty that explicitly sets the mission for the organization. Our Board, with fiduciary authority, includes 11 fully-voting members of our faculty among its 50 seats. All of the board's standing committees include musicians.

I think we will ensure a much better future for our profession if we start crossing the lines of old-style labor/management distrust, and include musicians at the heart of decision-making. Musicians will see how choices are made, and whether they are motivated in the best interests of the music. Maybe they will understand better the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Administrators will know that they have an obligation to formulate plans and policies that can be explained and justified in public.   

So what can we do?
Think about what others do to help sustain our musical organizations. Rather than stoke the heated rhetoric, try to calm things down. Develop genuine relationships with people whose role is completely unlike your own. Don't approach problems thinking about what an organization owes you, whether as a musician, a donor, or a devoted staff member -- rather, think how you can build up the organization by building up appreciation for what everyone contributes. Be at the table before there is a crisis.

I have complete confidence that our profession will endure, and that there is a meaningful role in it for all of us. How we make that happen is up to us. It's what we live for.

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