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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Knight Foundation Administers Tough Love to American Symphony Orchestras to Encourage Building of New Audiences

 by Frank Manheim

In 2003 prominent articles by music critics of the New York Times projected a gloomy future for symphonic music. The articles seemed to be disputed by the American Symphony Orchestra League’s upbeat annual statistical summary relating to total concert attendance and funding. However, the Times articles reflected other recent music writers’ observations and forebodings. These include freewheeling music writer Norman Lebrecht’s book, Who Killed Classical Music. The distinguished music writer, Charles Rosen, acknowledged that contemporary composers have not been able to attract audiences (Critical Entertainments).  

Although some symphonies are doing well, the Florida Philharmonic as well as the San Jose, San Antonio, Tulsa, and Miami symphonies have been forced to shut down for lack of funds in recent years. The St. Louis Symphony faced bankruptcy (thought recently bailed out by a major donor), and other distinguished symphonies are experiencing deficits for the first time. Few American symphonies now have recording contracts, and the greying of audiences hasn’t been changed by an influx of younger music lovers. The trends are not limited to the United States, considering a recent report on the Naxos website of troubles among Japanese symphonies.

Funding from large foundations that fuelled a boom in American symphonies in the 1960s has dwindled in recent decades. However, two big American foundations have stepped in with programs to stimulate perceived needs for structural and attitudinal change in American symphony orchestras. The Mellon and Knight foundations have provided competitive grants focused on reformist objectives to some 25 American symphony orchestras.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation approaches each orchestra’s organization individually to support improvements in professional orchestra management, organization, programs, outreach, and the conditions for and communications with musicians.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's ten-year $10 million investment in American symphony orchestras and classical music research took a more radical, audience-oriented approach. The unusual Knight initiative included polls of 25,000 persons and extensive statistical analyses on the communities of 10 symphony orchestras. The results showed that up to 60% of the surveyed adult public had at least occasional interest in classical music, but less than 5% bought concert tickets.

Penelope McPhee, Chief Program Officer for the Knight Foundation, delivered tough love to symphony managers in an article in the October 2002 issue of Harmony, the online journal of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI). Noting that she qualified as a committed music lover rather than a professional, Ms McPhee stated:

"I’d argue that for the most part, orchestras have nothing but disdain for their audiences. The whole notion that doing it differently is "dumbing it down" is disdainful. The attitude you communicate to us audience members is that you’re doing us a favour by letting us pay you to play what you want to play. You want us to pay our money and eat our spinach because it’s good for us." 

The Knight Foundation challenge brought mixed reactions. Some authors in the October 2003 Harmony issue supported outreach and audience empowerment.  However, Duluth Symphony director Mark Thakar reported that, so far, initiatives among the participating orchestras have been limited. Among other things, managers were said to be leery of seeking broader audience input at the cost of the "quality" and the reputation of their orchestral offerings.

As the first major American foundation effort to analyse the relationship between symphony orchestras and their potential audiences, the Knight Foundation report was a milestone. Though little reported in the media, its recommendations have made waves among symphony organizations in the U.S. Some organizations are overhauling web sites, initiating more outreach activities to connect with audiences, scheduling combining musical events with other cultural activities, featuring interviews and more direct communications from or with the symphony conductor. Preliminary information suggests that outreach experiments are least likely among struggling orchestras that guard their limited resources.  They are more likely among stronger organisations more able to take risks.

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