The situation of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra becomes more perilous every day. The Orchestra’s bankers are now calling in major loans and management may well cancel the remainder of the season this week if a settlement hasn’t been reached. All this, added to the DSO’s other problems, could lead to a very desperate outcome. Reading the various press commentary, the blogs, the responses to the blogs, the recriminations between the warring factions, I see Detroit as a 10 on the Richter scale of crises. Quite simply, without major systemic change, the orchestra will go out of business.
Resolving such a crisis at a performing arts organization is next to impossible. The environment becomes so toxic, the accusations so personal, the vituperation so malignant. A friend of mine, who chaired an arts organization during such a time, swore that he would never have anything to do with the arts again because, as he put it, “the arts have the ability and desire to eat their own.”
How this crisis will unfold and what its eventual outcome might be is of concern to everyone in the field, and we can only sympathize with all the parties involved. The musicians’ position is very understandable. The players comprise a fine orchestra. They recognize the financial problems of both the organization and the community as a whole and have made major salary concessions. The proposed wider definition of working practices, particularly as it relates to community engagements, is outside their experience, an unknown landscape at once threatening and alienating. Management, on the other hand, is endeavoring to be creative in problem solving and in outlining a new role for the orchestra—a role that more successfully meets the changing needs and demands of the community. The Board and the entire volunteer network must feel caught in a terrible crossfire, not unlike journalists in today’s troubled Egypt. And the City of Detroit and the community…they must be exhausted by the tumultuous debate and eager for some type of resolution.
Unfortunately, all of this was probably predictable. The patient—that is, the symphony orchestra in general—has been doing badly financially, its cultural relevance diminishing by the year. So the prognosis was never a happy one. Now, whatever the conclusion for the DSO, whatever the compromises negotiated, the future is going to be grim. Such internecine warfare does not go away. It remains to poison the well of organizational change for years to come. There is a case study waiting to be produced here which may be of assistance to the field as a whole because the DSO and all its problems will not be the last crisis we see over the next couple of years.
I have been talking recently with some major donors and leaders prominent in the orchestral world not just about Detroit but the field as a whole. I have learnt a great deal from these discussions. Donors are feeling fatigued by orchestras– the constant demands, the needs, the on-going and unresolved problems. They are questioning the role of “orchestra monoliths” whose consumption of a community’s philanthropic wealth is disproportionate to the value they produce. They are questioning musicians’ passivity within the symphonic organization and the community when, in fact, it is musician leadership and initiative that will be needed to make real change happen. They are asking these questions with a degree of serious concern that should make everyone think creatively about relationships, structure, and community for the future. Why? Because these are the investors rethinking their priorities.
Maybe we can look at the Detroit model differently and find another way to confront the problems that are facing the DSO and everyone in the performing world. So to begin with, let’s state the obvious: society has changed. I realize this is a glib statement and something of a cliché but it is a truth worth reiterating and re-examining. Societal changes present huge challenges to our conservatively held views of what constitutes an orchestra. We can blame society and national leaders and the media but that’s not going to get us very far. We are where we are and everything is moving forward with or without us. The relationship between a performing arts organization and its community needs to reflect these changes. People are now leading different lives, their homes have more technology than the Starship Enterprise, and they can enjoy a wealth of entertainment options unthinkable 25 years ago. The solution for the problems of performing arts organizations is not more ingenious marketing. Something far more fundamental and important is required.
We are forever talking about the issue of relevance. Clearly, the performing arts’ relevance has declined as measured by the sheer drop in attendance figures as well as the arts’ ever more superficial penetration in the community. But I want to change the term from relevance to legitimacy which presents a much bigger issue. I use “legitimacy” here almost in the political sense of an organization deriving the moral right to exist from the approbation of the people. So when we consider “legitimacy for the performing arts,” we must ask ourselves the question: Is playing excellently enough? For too long, we have believed the maxim: “Play well… they will come.” Doesn’t happen–anymore. I have been to so many great concerts performed to empty halls. Legitimacy must be authentic. It is bestowed, not taken. It must be re-examined every single year and not taken for granted. It must address key issues such as why do the majority of people feel increasingly excluded from the arts, and also why do the arts matter? A great tradition, longevity, great performances do not confer legitimacy. For that, we must look past “core audiences”, traditional subscription series, Music Directors and their “visions”, orthodox education work. We need to reexamine our core behaviors, beliefs, and activities to identify those that no longer serve us. We need to consider the world of re-invention and what this might mean. We need as a guiding principle to give musicians ownership over the great and potent possibilities that are obscured by union negotiations and ossified agreements.
We need to reassert the power of music and the power of musicians to be extraordinary in their music making and in their ability to re-invent themselves for all our futures.
So I’ll end with a story. Somewhere in the West a test pilot takes a cargo plane up for some routine testing. He has to fly around for hours and hours with his co-pilot and crew and he gets very very bored. (I should mention that the relationship between the pilot and co-pilot is not exactly warm and cordial.) Anyway the pilot starts to fool around…doing acrobatic turns…other funny stuff…and then he starts turning the engines off and on. Off and on. But then they don’t come on again and the plane starts to plunge in a fatal descent. The pilot is suddenly terrified. The co-pilot leans over and laughs in his face, “Hah, now you’re in trouble.”
This is purportedly a true story and it did end happily. The engine came back to life. I have heard nothing more about the co-pilot.