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A Question of Arts Survival?

Lately I have been asking my younger friends a question, and the response is always the same:

Andrew: So do you think that some of the traditional art forms are just going to die out?

Twentysomething friend: [10-second silence]

Andrew: I can’t say that you are giving me a lot of hope.

I started asking this question after attending a data-loaded presentation on generational trends and behaviors in arts patronage. Afterwards I did more research on “Gen Y” or “Millenials” – i.e. the generation now in its 20s – finding compelling work from RAND, Pew Research, the Americans for the Arts Artsblog. My favorite sojourn was being schooled by one of my former students, Amelia Northrup who now works for TRG Arts and who composed an excellent article titled “Getting the Most Out of Gen Y.”

All of this research is informative as we put on the hat of the arts “marketer,” and the authors provide many good suggestions for navigating the landscape of 21st-century communications and patron behaviors. The simple mathematical truth is that Millenials have a propensity to give, to volunteer, and to consume art. Yet as wonderful as those facts are, they do not necessarily add up to the preservation of specific art forms. Yes, all that magnificent data does not answer the one fundamental question that I have: Are some art forms at very real risk?

I am going to go out onto a limb and name names: ballet, opera, and classical music strike me as being in rather precarious places. I am not the first to make the statement, and Alex Ross has offered a detailed and well informed perspective on the subject, with a particular eye to the crisis at the New York City Opera, in a 2011 article in the New Yorker (click here for a related story from New York Times). Indeed, the word “crisis” seems to be making the circuit these days, and it does not seem to be just alarmist fretting.

In the world of the orchestra, stories of peril abound. Current and recent lockouts include symphonies in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Indianapolis, and Atlanta; and the musicians of the Seattle Symphony have authorized a strike. The Philadelphia Symphony has been the biggest story, having just recently passed through bankruptcy (click here for NPR coverage), and others passing through bankruptcy in recent years include Louisville and Honolulu – and you can add a dozen more symphonies that have had crises of varying natures. Something about the model just does not seem to fit with the time (cf. Bloomberg News “Orchestras Fight Hard Times“).

The plight of orchestras is not a simple one. It involves issues of labor relations, collective bargaining agreements, defined-benefit pension obligations, dependence on endowments that took devastating hits in the economic downturn, and rising capital and venue expenses. A 2008 study by Robert Flanagan of Stanford University examines some of the daunting conditions faced by orchestras, and he summarizes the situation by saying, “Performance (earned) revenues fall short of performance expenses by ever-increasing amounts, and attendance per concert is declining for virtually all types of concerts, despite steady increases in the proportion of the population with a college education.”

Lincoln Center, former home to the New York Opera (Photo: Nils Olander)

To the woes of declining attendance and an increasing gap between earned revenue and expenses add one more: the individual donor base comes from those who first come to listen and then later give. In some cases, ticket revenue accounts for less than 30% of an organization’s total revenue – which is to say that a $50 ticket may need to be matched by $50, $100, or more in contributions from annual gifts, grants, or endowment revenues – the last of which are the byproduct of charitable bequests from patrons of the past. One has to wonder if the number of donors will decline with passing generations, and with declining attendance we also see declining individual gifts and endowment bequests.

Classical music has been a transformative artistic experience for me, and few things can carry me away into an aesthetic wonder the way that a Beethoven concerto can, or a beautiful piano miniature from Chopin or Schumann. I am sure that many others can say the same for opera or ballet – and here I think of Tom Hanks’ character in the film Philadelphia, as he sways to a beautiful aria while contemplating his mortality. So my concern is an aesthetic one, with an obvious tie to the bottom line.

I brought my question to Tiffany Wilhelm of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, and she offered encouragement but also some sober wisdom. Art forms are not going to die in her opinion looking across all arts, but “there are art forms that are going to have to change their delivery.” She believes that we are looking at new delivery forms and new ways of engagement, in particular more intimate and informal presentations of the performing arts. Her words give me some encouragement, but also summarize two pressing issues: first, whether my younger friends will choose to support these art forms in some way; and second, whether my generation will recognize the need to change operating assumptions about sustainability before it is too late.

The matter for me is not just about “arts marketing.” No, this is a question of the survival of art forms in the face of demographic shifts and concurrent shifts in participation. I do not necessarily ascribe to some notion of arts Darwinism – that some things perish as part of the natural order of things. Yet the truth is that there are indeed some art forms that have largely passed away. Yes, I can’t remember the last time I saw someone working on a fresco. So I wonder if my beloved sounds are like horse carriages, things that have largely disappeared everywhere except Central Park and Colonial Williamsburg.

Graph of participation by generation (League of American Orchestras)

The League of American Orchestras shares this concern, articulated in a 2009 study done on the subject. In another widely circulated piece for the New Yorker, Alex Ross discusses the grim news of a graph showing that Gen X has not had a bump for increasing their attendance, which in turn bodes ill for the upcoming Gen Y. He writes, “Every classical organization in America should print out this graph, pin it on the bulletin board, and ponder what is to be done” (full article here).

However, Mark Stern of the University of Pennsylvania resists this entire notion of what he appropriately terms “demographic destiny.” In a rigorous study done for the NEA (available for download, click here), he counters the argument of the League of American Orchestras and the general notion that generational succession will determine the survival of art forms. “Age and cohort have little statistical power in explaining changes in arts participation,” he writes. He continues, “More importantly, this perspective underestimates how broader changes in personal life are influencing civic and arts participation.” In other words, the way we live our lives is changing – when we marry, have children, retire, and so on; and these changes are more important than how old we are. Interesting, and perhaps good news for my friends in music, opera and ballet – though I still think it may be too late for fresco.

I am ready to do my part, and the next time that I meet with some of my Millenial friends, I think that I will share the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto…and I will keep my fingers crossed that they melt into the music like I do and that they help me find a way to seek the new ways to present art forms that hopefully will endure.


Related Articles from The Muse Dialogue

“A Tale of Two Kreutzer Sonatas,” by Andrew Swensen

“Some [Don’t] Like it Hot: A Perspective on Targeting Young Audiences, Part I” by Kelly Englert

“Generational Shifts” by Elyssa Jechow

Tweets, Texts and Tchaikovsky: Live Concerts for a Contemporary Audience” by Marc Giosi

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting and insightful argument here. Generational change impacts on so many aspects of the arts sector. It is also a serious concern of many organisations who rely on volunteers as well. An article that considers the ways that young people can be motivated to engage in arts and cultural organisations as volunteers in order to replace the ageing volunteer would be very well received.

  2. Matt Heller #

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. It’s worth noting that the Seattle Symphony is not on strike.

    • Thank you for reading, and thank you for the clarification. Best, Andrew Swensen

  3. In the world of orchestras it is interesting to note that there has been no decline in the numbers of people listening to classical music but rather a decline in people attending classical orchestral concerts in bricks and mortar concert halls. More people listen to classical music in their cars than anywhere else. I believe that orchestras need to embrace, not fight, the digitization of their work and be open to different formats of performance. For example, I have been presenting concerts for more than 5 years in MMPORPGs (virtual reality). Right now existing union contracts and hall contracts make it extremely difficult for orchestras to offer 1 hour concerts for example. While the dust settles I believe community orchestras (non-union) will be the lifeboats of classical music in many places, while a few key professional orchestras will attract the support they need, pulling that support away from less valued orchestras.

  4. Diane Ragsdale has a great post about this topic that discusses in depth some of the ideas you mention around sustainability and our current system of institutions and delivery mechanisms:

  5. The creative act, the creation of art in all media is being impacted by technology in this country along with the marketing, pricing, delivery and copyright protection as we move into the Creative and Digitized Economy that is here now. Just look at film, music, graphic arts, etc. etc…we also see a change in the cultural entrepreneur who creates the new markets here at the Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship. We must decide how to engage technology in our new economy, and that is where the innovators and entrepreneurs come into play.


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  1. Developpez votre auditoire » Blog Archive » Vous voulez joindre de plus jeunes publics, mais ferez-vous les changements requis pour y parvenir ?

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