by Rhonda Hunsinger
Last week I was in chilly New York City attending a Board meeting of the League of American Orchestras (LAO) and their national winter conference for executive directors. As chair of my constituency group (budget sizes $500,000 to $2,000,000), I was responsible for coordinating the day-and-a-half agenda.
Prior to breaking into groups, the conference opened with a plenary session, addressing the need to increase diversity, outreach and the perception of public value in our orchestras. This is a hefty topic for an hour and a half, and we barely touched the surface before our time was up. One orchestra executive did ask a question, however, that got my attention: “We are professional orchestras with the purpose of presenting live symphonic music in our communities. How can we be expected to be educators and reach out to everyone in our community, when it takes all of our resources to simply present the music?”
I had the urge to waive my hand wildly like Hermione (or to date myself further, like Horshack), but since he was addressing a panel and not me, and I would have had to make an ungraceful lunge for the microphone halfway across the room, I simply grunted, earning myself a few sideways glances from the others at my table.
One of the speakers responded directly to the diversity and outreach question, suggesting that orchestras need to help facilitate and enable music education for children of all social and economic backgrounds, especially those who would not normally have such an opportunity. No argument there, but I doubt there was a person in the room who did not already know this (except, perhaps, for the ED that asked the question). It is the “how to” in which we seek guidance.
Given the chance, however, my answer would have been along these lines: We can’t hide behind the idea that we exist solely to present symphonic music. Perhaps we did several decades ago, but in order to survive as an orchestra today, we must be relevant and have public value in our communities. We have to make the effort if we wish to survive and continue to perform.
Today, our funders are challenging us to a much greater extent to convince them of our public value. When they support the South Carolina Philharmonic (SCP), they want to know if they are also supporting the community as a whole. Are we leveraging their dollars in a way that they positively impact the broader community? Often perceived as “the wine and cheese crowd,” are we finding ways to reach out to more diverse audiences and break down social and economic barriers? Does our existence in our communities actually support other equally important arts, health and human services, and animal advocacy organizations?
If we answer no, today’s donors will go elsewhere. Yet as an arts organization, we don’t clothe homeless children, provide support to victims of cancer or house homeless animals. Or do we?
You and I know the intrinsic value of live symphonic music. We also know our community has changed, with a challenging economy and an evolving corporate landscape. We, too, have changed, and in my next blog I’ll share some of ways the SCP has gone “outside the box” to stay relevant without losing sight of its mission.
The plenary inspired candid discussions when we separated into our constituency groups, and I will share some of these in the next blog, as well. Did I say New York was chilly? Let’s try bitterly cold. Horridly, terribly cold, in the teens, with 30 mph gusts and wind chills of zero. I’d like to suggest Key West for next year’s winter meeting. The LAO headquarter is in New York, however, so it’s not likely to happen. But I can dream.