Random musings on government support of orchestras and of the arts

Late last year, I shared some photos on Facebook that I’d just taken of a new concert venue in México, and a friend of mine who’d also previously worked in Mexican orchestras posted a response on the thread underneath saying, “Let’s hear it for government supported arts.” He knew whereof he spoke, too, as indeed the construction of this hall was 100% backed by government funding. This is a foreign (if greatly appealing) concept in the USA to those of us working in the performing arts, where the closest one usually gets to a publicly funded concert hall is by voters approving a municipal or county bond issue through a ballot measure. And that’s usually only for a portion of costs with the rest often having to be raised through philanthropy.

Salt Lake’s Abravanel Hall. A Salt Lake County facility in which construction was funded via a mix of a county bond issue and local philanthropy.

But my colleague’s comment got me thinking more about the subject as this is a huge area of departure in how Mexican and U.S. orchestras are supported and run. By extension, it’s also one contributing factor as to why orchestras and their managements in both our countries can be rather oblivious to the activities of one another. Conversely, the similarities in structure and funding between Mexican and European Orchestras is but one reason why folks working in Mexico’s symphonies and conservatories are much more more attuned to their counterparts in Europe than to their closer neighbors to the north. (Another reason is that many in Mexico simply consider the U.S. to be less artistically sophisticated than Europe, but that’s another story.)

Mexico City Philharmonic performing at Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Meanwhile, in the United States, statistics on the appallingly low governmental funding of the arts, and of arts education, are an all too familiar refrain. Those in our industry watch this downtrend of local, state and federal support for orchestras over many years and occasionally we too, look longingly towards Europe, with its dramatically higher per capita levels of arts funding, and with many orchestras traditionally backed entirely with public money.

Sometimes, we look (and salivate) at the impressive depth of repertoire programmed by these groups as well as at their their active touring, recording and commissioning projects and think that if only our local, state and federal governments would take a more active role in subsidizing the classical arts, more orchestras than only America’s top dozen could also be pursuing endeavors at such a level. And that’s true. It’s also quite bothersome to many of us.

Chicago Symphony recording Mahler’s 8th Symphony while on tour in Vienna, 1972. Ironically, at the time of this article’s uploading, it’s musicians are having to walk a picket line.

(As an ironic aside, however: in looking ‘across the pond’ like this we usually forget to take into account that – with its plethora of various bands, orchestras and choruses – America’s largest employer of full time performing musicians, BY FAR, is its Armed Forces which is 100% taxpayer supported.)

The U.S. Marines Chamber Orchestra, Washington DC

But for over a decade now, news emanating from a number of countries around the world – not just Europe – reveals some fissures underneath all this greener grass we see, and some of this initiallytook many in our industry here by surprise. Global recessions, increased income inequalities, the emergence of new political parties and other factors have already resulted in cutbacks to some foreign orchestras, forcing some to scale back their seasons or even consolidate with other orchestras. A few other groups, suddenly dealing with reduced support, even began adopting aspects of a more American-like business model, by including Pops and educational outreach programming (some for the first time), with some managements also looking to beef up their skills and efforts at both marketing and development.

Cultural values in Europe have been shifting at the grass roots level as well, often in tandem with the rise of right wing nationalist populism. In parts of the Netherlands, some musicians report that its orchestras, which used to be valued as cultural necessities and treasures, are increasingly being seen as little more than a ‘hobby for the affluent.’

Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Politically, the failure of the recently elected Spanish President to successfully forge a governing coalition between the Conservative, Socialist and VOX (right wing Nationalist) parties has left some orchestra musicians wondering if their funding will end up being forgotten before all this shakes out. Meanwhile, in Mexico, the rise of newly elected President López Obrador’s new Morena Party has a number of orchestra musicians on edge wondering how much value he and the new party actually sees in supporting the classical arts. One Mexican orchestra in particular had been funded, not just by its State Government, but rather by its long standing Governor, a classical music lover who had singlehandedly  funneled state money their way. Then he suddenly found himself having been voted out and replaced by the Morena Party candidate, leaving the orchestra worried that they’ll be left in the lurch. Meanwhile, just a few hundred kilometers to the northwest, another orchestra that rose from its own ashes in a new city when it’s previous home state left them totally in said lurch, is now turning to a new governance structure more akin to that of U.S. orchestras in order to better position itself for future growth from new income streams.

And back here on this side of the wall, even our own top Service Bands weren’t completely immune from the financial effects of political turmoil. One of our premier ensembles – The U.S. Coast Guard Band – which doesn’t receive its support from the Department of Defense but rather from Homeland Security, was temporarily forced to work without pay because of the unsuccessful spat the President picked with his Speaker of the House. They’re just appreciative that whole mess didn’t last longer.

U.S. Coast Guard Band, New London, CT.

So, after more than forty years of observing this industry from the inside, as well as what I’ve witnessed of it from outside our country – I don’t really have any easy answers to this, as there aren’t any easy solutions to share. History has proven time and again that an enlightened and benevolent donor, an orchestra CEO, or Board of Trustees or Board Chair can help lift an orchestra to new heights, while those of the clueless or malevolent variety can quickly bring it to its knees. But the same can be said of a Governor, a political party, a legislature or a President. I suppose all one can say is that any financial support system, or any combination of them can be made to work swimmingly well…that is, until it doesn’t.

¡Ahhh, showbiz!

Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *