For orchestras, how long can this keep going on?
In a recent edition of the StarTribune newspaper, Twin Cities attorney Lee Johnson put forth some admirably common-sense ideas for solving the disheartening Minnesota Orchestra stoppage (excellent summation in today's New York Times ) . Good for him; these are some of the smartest and fairest recommendations I have yet seen about this or any other orchestral crisis. Then why am I not completely satisfied?
Because while Mr. Johnson's ideas might be helpful in the short term, I have serious doubts about how their long-term viability for Minnesota or for any orchestra facing a similar crisis. Note, for instance, that his last three ideas involve increasing the orchestra's unearned income, i.e., funds that come from other than ticket sales. In short, more donations. But the percentage of unearned income in most orchestra's budget is already at an all-time high. Management has to hustle harder, and patrons have to fork over more, than ever before, just to maintain the status quo. How much more money can there really be out there? And even if the notably philanthropic Minnesota's patrons step up their gifts for now, how about in five years, when the orchestra's audience is five years older and (pardon me for this) deader? And five years after that? And five years after that?
It wouldn't be a problem if there were young and wealthy patrons coming up, like rookies from the minor leagues, ready to fill the gap. But in most places there aren't, or at least aren't enough of them. (Perhaps the Minnesota audience's demographics are different; if someone knows the facts and figures, please pass them along.) You could say, like Mr. Johnson, that the musicians should get into the schools more to develop new audiences. No question, that would be a very good thing, with far from negligible consequences. But would it create new audiences in sufficient numbers, and in enough time, to replace the current audiences created when classical music was a much bigger part of America's everyday life than it is now? Sorry, but I don't think so.
So go ahead, Minnesota management (whatever it is you're trying to do) and musicians (who really should come up with a counter-proposal), and management and musicians across the country. Implement Mr. Johnson's ideas, or something like them. Let's get the music started again. But from day one, plan for the time, not too far away, when the next crisis will come, as it surely will. And start getting used to the idea that however glorious what you have is, it is going to be extremely hard, if not impossible, to maintain it.
(Photo: The Minnesota Orchestra's Osmo Vänskä, about to emphasise one hell of a downbeat.)