From Mahler to the Masses: Can Funders Help Orchestras Navigate an Uncertain Future?

the LA Philharmonic has been a leader in connecting with new audiences

the LA Philharmonic has been a leader in connecting with new audiences

At first glance, the recent departure of the New York Philharmonic's president, Matthew VanBesien may seem like nothing more than a personnel change. But a closer look reveals a broader set of challenges facing nonprofit arts organizations as a whole, and orchestras and symphonies in particular. Where can these organizations turn for a lifeline?

But before we take a deeper dive into these challenges and the active philanthropic players, a quick recap of VanBesien's departure is in order.

VanBesien joined the New York Philharmonic as executive director designate in March 2012 and became executive director in September of that year. He left the philharmonic to become the president of the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan. 

Even this seemingly innocuous paragraph speaks to two powerful trends shaping the arts philanthropy space.

First, consider the fact that VanBesien left one of the world's most esteemed institutions to nest in Ann Arbor. Given the noticeable uptick in regional philanthropy across various parts of the country, coupled with the fact that VanBesien's new gig sounds like a stroll in the park compared to haggling with donors, unions, and contractors in the Big Apple, "legacy" institutions don't have the same cache as, say, 10 years ago.

Second, consider VanBesien's former employer. I've repeatedly noted here on Inside Philanthropy that many of the more established national foundations—Ford, Rockefeller, Pew, Gates, etc.—are "edging politely but firmly away" from "legacy" institutions that "cannot demonstrate a significant contribution to solving or soothing specific social or economic traumas."

Funders are increasingly drawn to a less passive, more immersive and socially conscious art experience—which is sobering news for large and traditional arts organizations. (Further complicating matters was the fact that the philharmonic is in the middle of a $500 million gut renovation of David Geffen Hall.) 

Earlier this month, I spoke with Laura Callanan, the founder of Upstart Co-Lab, a nonprofit, nationwide collaboration that seeks to create "opportunities for artist innovators to deliver social impact at scale." She concurred with the premise that legacy organizations face an uphill battle given funders' strategic realignment:

A lot of legacy companies—not arts organizations, but for-profit companies in all kinds of industries—have figured out that they cannot innovate so easily within. So they start or invest in venture capital funds and keep a watchful eye on where the really fresh ideas are being hatched—from entrepreneurs, inside start-up companies. This might be an idea for the large cultural institutions.

In short, this conceptual shift in how donors think about the value of art compounds the already daunting challenges facing legacy institutions. So what are some of the challenges specific to orchestras and symphonies?

One reflection on this question came a while back from Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras (LAO), commenting on a 2013 study that showed, for the first time, that ensembles no longer earned a majority of their ticket revenue from the subscription packages. Rosen said:

It’s shifting. It has been a transactional thing: We put on concerts, you buy a ticket, and we take your money, and that keeps us going, and everything is fine. Now, it is: What is the value we make in this community? Because it’s now primarily philanthropic support driving the engine.

Perhaps the most important word in his quote is "community." Foundations are increasingly drawn to organizations that remove orchestras from their highfalutin cultural perch and place them squarely within the community. If they can "demonstrate a significant contribution to solving or soothing specific social or economic traumas," all the better.

Take the LAO's partnership with Ford, the automaker. The duo launched the Ford Musician Awards for Excellence in Community Service, a new program supporting orchestra musicians and the work they do in their communities. This program serves "members of the general public who may not otherwise have access to or are not traditionally served by orchestras" by bringing classical musicians into schools, hospitals, retirement homes and "wherever people gather for civic, cultural and social engagement."

The most important word in that paragraph is "engagement." Sure, the existence of some sort of community-oriented program connotes "engagement," but as I've noted before, it's an ambiguous term. Foundations want engagement in the truest sense—tangible, repeatable and measurable.

The Wallace Foundation, of course, has been active in this area, thanks in part to its $52 million Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative, which recently published two informative studies: "Building Millennial Audiences: Barriers" and "Opportunities and Ballet Austin: Expanding Audiences for Unfamiliar Works."

Needless to say, funders have been busy boosting engagement specifically in the classical music space.

Wallace recently awarded funding to—ironically enough—the New York Philharmonic's "Off the Grid," series, a program that meshes classical music with public art, while the George London Foundation for Singers holds open competitions in front of a live audience in an effort to engage classical neophytes. 

The latter's efforts suggest that for certain funders, successful engagement necessitates a re-branding of classical music. Purists may scoff, but hey, we don't make the rules here.

Examples of this rebranding abound. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has provided support to Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative with the goal of "invigorating the operatic art form with an infusion of contemporary works." Phase two of the program included support for the production of Stephen King's The Shining.

Meanwhile, "high-brow" arts organizations in San Francisco are actively pursuing the area's young "nouveau riche" population. The SF Symphony, whose corporate donors include Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Kaiser Permanente, runs a successful program called Symphonix that includes annual opening-night gala geared towards the millennial demographic and "play-along film nights." The symphony’s formatting approach—cheaper tickets, shorter performances, modern architecture—consciously appeals to this demographic.

The Knight Foundation funded "Symphony in D," an audio collaboration between MIT Professor of Music and Media Tod Machover, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and "innumerable people in Detroit," to create a "symphonic portrait" that captures the sounds of the Motor City.

And so on.

One dilemma, here, is that while a more accessible and casual approach to the classical music experience generates more engagement, it runs the risk of alienating "traditional" audience demographics.

Not even the L.A. Philharmonic—the envy of the classical world—is immune from this paradox. In a 2015 piece in the L.A. Times, then-Chief Executive Deborah Borda, the woman most instrumental (pun intended) in making the philharmonic a widespread object of envy during her 17-year tenure, acknowledges the need to reach a younger demographic: “We can't keep doing Mahler if we want to get the 20-year-olds."

Yet this opens a kind of Pandora's Box, especially considering a majority of the philharmonic's subscribers are over 60. "Our audience is segmenting," said Chad Smith, the philharmonic's vice president of artistic planning. "There isn't such a thing as a classical music audience. There are dozens of classical music audiences."

I'd be remiss in mentioning the philharmonic without also calling attention to Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. Aside from Borda, Dudamel is arguably the other person most responsible for the philharmonic's success. The philharmonic wisely extended his contract to 2022.

Dudamel's extension may sound like a needlessly tangential point, but it brings me to what is perhaps the biggest challenge facing orchestras and with it, the major obstacle to vibrant funder commitment: rising labor costs and the influence of musicians' unions.

Last year, we called attention to a piece from Michigan public radio positing that, on the heels of high-profile labor disputes at the Grand Rapids Symphony, Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, symphonies will need to get creative and find new sources of funding to adequately pay their musicians in order to survive.

The drama underscores a principal (and obvious) rule of philanthropy: Donors like stability.

Stability establishes a benchmark from which donors can give based on good faith. Funders feel more secure in making big foundational gifts knowing that the labor situation is simpatico. 

In late March, for example, the Board of the Heinz Endowments made a $5 million grant to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The funding will be used over a five-year period to support the orchestra’s relatively unsexy efforts to "restructure its business plan, increase earned and contributed revenue, and attain financial stability."

The orchestra's musicians went on strike September 30, 2016. It reached a labor agreement with management approximately two months later.

Stability also paves the way for more specialized giving. In August of last year, the Dallas-based David T. Beals III Trust gave a $2.7 million grant to the Kansas City Symphony to endow the assistant conductor position. Two months earlier, the symphony agreed to a new contract.

And the Detroit Symphony Orchestra received $2.9 million from the estate of Dr. Clyde and Helen Wu to support music education programs through the Wu Family Academy for Learning & Engagement. The orchestra went on strike in April of 2011 and struck an agreement with management six months later.

Which brings me back to the gold standard of the orchestra world, the L.A. Philharmonic.

Like everyone else, the organization must adapt to a new paradigm built on more aggressive fundraising, more community outreach, and a receptiveness to greater donor input on the programming front.

But the L.A. Philharmonic also has a set of assets its brethren can't match: the charismatic Dudamel, the Hollywood Bowl, and Disney Hall, one of the most stunning concert halls in the world. Lacking such assets, organizations not named the L.A. Philharmonic may want to consider another reliable and time-tested strategy: If you can't beat 'em, hire 'em.

In mid-March, the New York Philharmonic announced its successor to Matthew VanBesien: Deborah Borda. The name may ring a bell.