Getting With It: Money Flows to Help Classical Music Stay Relevant

These are interesting times for classical music, a field buffeted by changing demographics, tough financial challenges, and pressing questions about relevance. 

It's also an interesting time for philanthropy in this niche, with some funders keenly attuned to how classical music needs to evolve and broaden its mission. 

We've come across a number of funders who are on the case, including both individual donors and major foundations. A while back, I wrote about David Bohnett, a top donor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who has been boosting the L.A. Phil's efforts at music education and community engagement in one of America's most diverse cities. 

Related: What's Behind This New, Massive Give to the LA Philharmonic?

And we've written a whole bunch about funders who see the arts, including classical music, as a key driver of urban vitalityand all the good things that flow from such vitality, including drawing young professionals to cities and creating more robust local economies. 

Many arts funders keep an eye on two tracks—helping mainstream arts organizations survive and thrive, fueling economic development, by engaging the young creative class through improved programming and outreach; and helping these organizations reach more diverse populations through better community engagement and by themselves becoming more diverse. 

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is among those funders with an eye on both tracks, and nonprofit music organizations would be wise to acclimate themselves to Mellon's thinking.

One Mellon grant that recently caught out attention was $50,000 to help the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO) develop a "musician diversity fellowship program." First, though, some background. 

Back in November of 2015, we looked at a study by Createquity titled "Why Don't They Come?" It examined why individuals with lower incomes and less education (low-SES) tend to avoid arts events. One reason, according to Createquity, may surprise you. It's television. As we noted:

Createquity cites supporting research noting that "individuals with less than a high school diploma spent 3.77 hours per weekday watching TV in 2013, almost double the TV hours consumed by those with a bachelor’s degree and higher." These less-educated individuals spent twice as much time consuming television than all other leisure activities combined.

The study also notes that individuals in this demographic simply don't consider themselves the "kind of person" to attend an art opening or a musical performance. So what's it have to do with Mellon? Quite a bit, as you might guess.

Mellon remains committed to boosting diversity across the classical ranks. And while Mellon's grant to fund the MSO musician diversity fellowship program isn't about explicitly addressing the dearth of low-SES arts participants, there's an obvious connection between who's on stage in cultural events and who's likely to be in the audience. If classical music wants to engage an increasingly diverse U.S. population, its professional ranks need to be similarly diverse. This basic insight, we might add, lies behind efforts by many major institutions in U.S. society to become more diverse. 

And so Mellon's gift to the MSO aims to attract young musicians from Latin, African-American and other "underrepresented" communities to the orchestra by recruiting emerging professional musicians from conservatories and music schools to spend a year or two with the orchestra, participate in full performances, and community events.

We'd like to draw your attention to that latter phrase—community events. As if responding to the sentiments of the Createquity study, the symphony has pivoted toward community engagement lately, highlighting the need to recruit minority players. "People, frankly, need to see musicians who look like they do, so they know this is music that speaks to everybody," said Rhonda Causie, a longtime MSO supporter and administrator.  "The reality is we've failed to connect to a lot of people in the past."

Well, that may be true, but better late than never, right?

In the meantime, check out similar news out of Nashville, where Mellon gave Nashville Symphony's Accelerando music education program a $959,000 grant to help prepare gifted young musicians from underrepresented communities to pursue music at the collegiate level and beyond.

Related: How is Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Seeking to Boost Diversity in the Classical World?