We'll Come to You: How Are These Funders Bringing Classical Music to the Masses?

A classical pianist plays in Washington Square Park, New York. 

A classical pianist plays in Washington Square Park, New York. 

How can you generate audience interest in classical music?

It's a question that weighs heavily on the minds of everyone in this space, and moreso all the time. Organizations are finding this challenge to be even more acute as various modes of entertainment vie for the attention of increasingly distracted, tech-savvy audiences.

The Wallace Foundation is unusual among funders in how much attention it's given to audience engagement in the performing arts. In October of 2014, it pledged a whopping $40 million to help performing arts organizations fill seats and expand audiences through its Building Audiences for Sustainability (BAS) program. Later it upped the ante, earmarking an additional $12 million towards the initiative.

For a more immediate look into the foundation's work in the classical space, we turn to the Palm Beach Post, which looked at how orchestras are ditching the symphony hall to perform among the people. For example, last year the New York Philharmonic, funded by a 2015 Wallace audience-building grant, launched a series called "Off the Grid," hosting free concerts in unconventional locations including a used bookstore, a rooftop bar, and an Indian restaurant.

If this approach sounds intuitive, it's because it is intuitive. Funders like Wallace understand that to engage audiences, it's much easier to come to them rather than compel them to leave their apartment, get on the subway (in the winter, no less!), and purchase a pricey ticket at Lincoln Center.

The Wallace Foundation isn't the only funder working to democratize the classical listening experience. The George London Foundation for Singers holds open competitions in front of a live audience in an effort to engage classical neophytes. And the League of American Orchestras, in tandem with the Ford Motor Company, recently launched the Ford Musician Awards for Excellence in Community Service, a program supporting orchestra musicians and "the work they do in their communities."

Meanwhile, the Philharmonic's Wallace-supported "Off the Grid," series is like a classical music version of public art—the kind of performance in which audience members have no choice but to engage. Sitting in an enormous performance hall is one thing; being feet from a classically trained musician while nibbling at a Caesar salad is another form of engagement entirely. It's also, I would argue, a deeper and more meaningful kind of engagement, proving yet again that that much-hyped word, so near and dear to the hearts of funders, is, in fact, a relative phenomenon. 

The intuitive benefits of this kind of engagement notwithstanding, Wallace hasn't abandoned its analytical and scientific approach towards audience building. Its Building Audiences for Sustainability effort continues to move forward. And its takeaways from its Building Audiences for Sustainability effort are as timely as ever, as is this 45-page case study from 2011 entitled "Attracting an Elusive Audience: How the San Francisco Girls Chorus is Breaking Down Stereotypes and Generating Interest Among Classical Music Patrons."