The Dilemma with America's Cultural Programs


As the younger generations X and Y are becoming more socially aware, one starts to wonder what cultural institutions can, in light of this shift, expect from their donors.  One thing does seem to be clear: the change is moving away from dissociated patrons and management over to companies and individuals willing to support a cause.  However, the task here is more than merely ‘representing’ a cause but instead the individual donor’s ability to do something.  Today’s donors want to tackle issues hands-on and actively partake in problem solving.  They also expect more ‘inclusiveness’ from cultural institutions in order to have more freedom and say about specific issues.  At any rate, this connection also provides cultural institutions the possibility to strengthen their ties with local communities.{C}[1]{C}

-Editorial, Arts Management Newsletter, June 2010

While working on the translation of this editorial, which appeared simultaneously in the June 2010 newsletter of Arts Management Network and its German counterpart the Arts Management Newsletter Kulturmanagement Network, I had to wince.  Although these words are true, they seem to underline a fundamental dilemma that arts organizations need to confront head-on today if they are going to have any chance of survival in the future. 

As an American violinist based in Berlin, I have been working for the past eighteen years with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin,  an ensemble that is recognized as one of Europe’s leading chamber orchestras specializing in music of the 18th century.  Although the Akademie is technically a freelance ensemble and receives no direct state or federal funds, it regularly partakes in festivals throughout Europe that are funded by local and state governments. Furthermore, grants by the Goethe Institute, a federal organization which supports German culture abroad, has allowed the Akademie to perform concerts in Asia, South America, the Middle East, and Russia.

Our ability to do such projects is the result of the European Union's active efforts to actively support culture.  In the European Unions Agenda for Culture, the following statement is made in the introduction: The European Union is not just an economic process or a trading power, it is already widely - and accurately - perceived as an unprecedented and successful social and cultural project.[2]  Moreover, the agenda explains that “culture is an indispensable feature to achieve the EU's strategic objectives of prosperity, solidarity and security, while ensuring a stronger presence on the international scene.{C}[3]{C}  

For many of my American colleagues, such statements, if they were part of America’s cultural agenda, would be a dream come true. If the Obama administration were to suddenly increase the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, bringing it to a level matching what Europe spends on culture, then I believe there would be an audible sigh of relief.  Not that I expect anything like this to happen soon; in fact, I’ve seen far too many signs that our nation’s “sink or swim” attitude towards just won’t let up. And it is because of this attitude that I decide to try my luck out in Europe after graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory back in 1990.

I made this decision because of two separate incidents I experienced my senior year at music conservatory.  The first one dealt with a Chicago-based orchestra I had won an audition for. The City Muisck, as the ensemble was known, had the promise of being equal in caliber to what I have seen here in Europe, and its music director Scotty Banks had the vision to realize her dream of bringing baroque music to Chicago.  Unfortunately, it was forced to disband at the end of its 1989-1990 season because of a financial collapse caused in part by the E. Nakamichi Foundation, which had decided to drop its funding for the orchestra.

The reason why it went through with this decision has always struck me as odd, especially because Scotty Banks’ work was widely recognized as being at the cutting edge when it came to the performance of baroque music using historical instruments.  IT was also strange to me because the E. Nakamichi Foundation, which in its mission supports “the promotion and encouragement of baroque and other fine forms of classical music generally not available to the public on a commercial basis,”{C}[4]{C} had been funding the group ever since its start in the early 1980’s. It is, like many foundations of its kind, one of the main pillars that hold up America’s arts and gave the ensemble the chance to run a fairly decent concert season for several years.

At the end of the 1989-1990 season, just after I was about to join, Scotty decided to do something different.  The normal fare of Bach, Handel, and Mozart was fine, but she wanted to go beyond that and performed Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 opera The Rake’s Progress.  The project didn’t go over well with the board at Nakamichi, and they threatened to drop the foundation’s funding if Scotty didn’t cancel the production.  Scotty, as steadfast as always, didn’t bat an eye and went through with the opera anyways, receiving rave reviews from the Chicago press:

It seems only appropriate that the City Musick, and ensemble hat takes an enlightened, late 20th-Century attitude towards music of the 18th Century, should be the first to stage the local professional premiere of Stravinskys The Rakes Progress, which similarly straddles the two eras.  In City Musicks new production in Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago, an opera to long regarded as in intellectual exercise provided both devilishly clever and touching, proving beyond doubt that conductor Elaine Scott Banks and friends are as comfortable when working within the spiky neoclassicism of Stravinsky as they in the pure classicism of Mozart.{C}[5]{C}

One might think that such words would be enough to underline the City Musick’s relevance to the Chicago music scene, and that the E.Nakamichi Foundation would reconsider its threat. But it didn’t and pulled its funding from the ensemble anyways.

To be fair, I could imagine that Scotty Banks and the directors at City Musick simply didn’t heed the warning shots Nakamichi must have given This example always makde me ask a basic question that is well replected in the opening quote: who should have the last word in programming decisions? Should ensembles really be at the mercy of foundations if they want to survive?  Although Scotty Banks had stepped out of bounds with her decision to perform music of the 20th century, her vision was simply light years ahead of others in this field. Should that vision be punished? 

The second incident dealt with the Buffalo Philharmonic, my “hometown” orchestra.  The ensemble, long recognized as one of America’s top symphony orchestras, has an outstanding concert hall and since its inception in the 1930s has been fortunate to find itself under the direction of numerous distinguished conductors, including William Steinberg, Joseph Krips, Lukas Foss, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Semyon Bychkov{C}[6]{C} 

My parents regularly took me to concerts by the BPO as a child and in the 1980s my mother worked as one of the assistant secretaries for the Buffalo Philharmonics management team.  It was no secret that the orchestra was struggling financially, but hope never died in the belief that the orchestra would somehow pull its way through with membership drives and donations by foundations and charities. Somehow, the BPO will always be there, my mom used to say. Therefore, you can imagine her shock, and mine, when in 1990 word came out that the BPO had placed the following classified ad in USA Today:

"Major Symphony Orchestra. Illustrious history. Will consider relocation.” {C}[7]{C}“”’

The $360 ad was the musicians’ reaction to severe budget problems the BPO was facing, which the musicians union attributed to mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility by the orchestra and the board.  To cut a deficit of $2.2 million, a wage freeze of the musicians salaries was being considered, as well as the prospect of cutting the season down from 46 to 39 weeks.{C}[8]{C}  In protest, the musicians threatened to pack up and move if necessary.

What disturbs me is that these are not isolated incidents.  During the 2008 financial meltdown for example, ensembles such as the Cleveland Orchestra{C}[9]{C}, the Minnesota Orchestra{C}[10]{C}, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra{C}[11]{C} all reported that they were forced to take budget cuts the next year.  Even the Philadelphia Orchestra, which belongs to America’s ‘Big Five’, was faced with a potential $2.2 million deficit in 2009 after their endowment plummeted 30% in value at the end of January. {C}[12]{C}  Ticket sales were off by 14% and about $3 million in state and city funds was gone as well.  Frank Slattery Jr., the Philadelphia Orchestra's current executive director, painted gloomy future: “If the markets don't turn, I can see a catastrophe for American orchestras.”{C}[13]{C} 

Meanwhile, the Buffalo Philharmonic is cringing once again as New York State deliberates whether the New York State Council on the Arts’ budget should be cut by 40%{C}[14]{C}

“We live in difficult times.”

Words like “gloomy” and “catastrophe” are all too common for many cultural organizations, partially because federal and state support is practically non-existent.  In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget of $155 million represented less than one percent of total philanthropy in the United States{C}[15]{C}, and as James Heilbrun and Charles M. Gray’s explain in their book The Economics of Art and Culture, American spending for the arts was put at a mere $5.85 per person back in 2001.  This figure is well behind Finland and Germany, which invested $111.67 and $89.52 respectively.{C}[16]{C}

However, before one starts to complain about the injustice of it all, we need to consider a significant point. The last time America invested in the arts on a scale equal to what is seen in Europe was back during the Depression.  In fact, the Buffalo Philharmonic was a direct result of Roosevelt’s Federal Music Project, which was set up in 1935 to “employ and rehabilitate unemployed musicians and to enable them to retain their skill until their return to private employment”.{C}[17]{C} By 1936 over 15,000 musicians had been reemployed and during its four year run, $50,463,000 was spent in setting up symphony orchestras, opera companies, and chamber music ensembles, as well as creating teaching positions in school music programs and new commissions for American composers. {C}[18]{C}

The Buffalo Philharmonic (known then as the Buffalo Federal Orchestra) serves as a model example of how the Federal Music Project worked.  Government support of the orchestra was substantial, paying the salaries of 67 of the orchestra's 79 musicians.  The salaries of the remaining 12 musicians were paid by the local Philharmonic Society, which received funds through private donations.  The Society also covered the costs for assisting artists, advertising, music, and a portion of the hall rental.  In general, the average annual budget of each federally supported orchestra was about $84,000, with less than one-tenth of the funds coming from the private sector. [19]

This arrangement had a direct impact on the concert season and programming for each orchestra, and although the Federal Music Project allowed for the premiere of many new compositions, significant emphasis was put on school, family, and childrens concerts.  In fact for the Buffalo Federal Orchestras 1938 season, only 12 of the orchestras 61 concerts were subscription concerts. Of the remaining 49 concerts, there were 22 children's and school concerts, 17 summer family concerts, four out of town concerts, four pops concerts, and two extra' concerts.  The admission prices were set accordingly as well.  For subscription concerts the Buffalo Federal Orchestra charged 40 cents to $1.25 per ticket, whereas for school and children's concerts the prices ranged between 10 and 15 cents per ticket.{C}[20]{C} The idea of charging admission was adopted to keep the idea that music should also be privately supported, and to commit itself to the theory that “unless people themselves want music to be willing to pay for it, the problem of the musicians’ future employment cannot be solved.”{C}[21]{C}

There is a certain ambiguity in this quote that bothers me, and I have to ask myself what lawmakers intended with this theory. Did it mean that orchestras needed to first prove themselves through public support in order to qualify for federal assistance? Or did it mean that the federal assistance was considered to be a temporary measure, a hold over until the public could regain financial stability and support music themselves?

If the latter was the case, then I think the theory is somewhat misguided. Because, regardless whether cultural programs are either seen as a culturally and socially significant or as seen as mere forms of entertainment, the “real” cost of a concert ticket will always remain substantially higher than what the public pays.  In Berlin, for example, tickets for performances at the Deutsche Oper ranged between 13 and 90 Euros (ca. 17 and 120 USD) in 2002. The state government picked up the rest of the tab, which was around 183 Euros (240 USD) per ticket.{C}[22]{C}

In 1938, congressional opponents to Roosevelt’s New Deal found a way to attack the entire Federal One program, of which the Federal Music Program was part.  By July of that year the Dies Committee was formed to investigate "startling evidence" that the theater and writers projects were actually "a hotbed of Communists" and "one more link in the vast and unparalleled New Deal propaganda network."{C}{C}[23]{C}{C} The investigations brought Federal One to an abrupt end by June 1939.  Authority for existing projects was handed over to individual states, and each project was given two months to come up with local sponsors who would pick up 25% of project costs.{C}[24]{C}

Had the Federal One Music Project not been suddenly cut off in 1939, it could have established a cultural landscape that could have potentially overtaken Europe.  At the programs height orchestras and musicians across the country were active again, performing not just masterpieces of the classical repertoire but also newer 'American' works, such as Virgil Thompson's music to Pare Lorentz's film, The Plow that Broke the Plains, commissioned in 1936 by the WPA to document the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl. {C}[25]{C} It also came at the right time for many European artists and musicians who, forced to flee the wave of fascism that had gripped Europe, were able to find refuge.

But the government missed that opportunity, and the cuts that resulted immediately sent many orchestras in a financial tailspin.  Oddly enough, most of the orchestras under the Federal Music Project had proved themselves in terms of concert attendance.  In the 1940’s average concert attendance figures were averaging 80% of full capacity (the New York Philharmonic reported attendance figures of 93%). However, by 1948, the total deficit for 37 orchestras and opera houses across the country had reached a total $3,225,348.{C}[26]{C} By 1962, the New York Times reported that ten of the nations orchestras, including Buffalo Philharmonic, were in danger of facing financial ruin.{C}[27]{C}  

Despite such gloomy figures, many musicians were vehemently opposed to Federal subsidies, afraid that such funding would dampen the 'zeal' of grass roots support, replacing it with bureaucracy, political influence, and artistic control.  “There is open-mindedness, however, for well conceived legislation for aid to orchestras, preferably on a state or municipal level, when related to appropriations for services rendered or for grants made on a matching funds or similar basis,” explained George Morgulis, then the manager of the Kansas City Philharmonic.{C}[28]{C} 

This reluctance by musicians to let the Federal government step in could explain in part why the National Endowment for the Arts has not been able to play a greater role in supporting arts in America since the NEA's beginnings in 1961.  

The Road Ahead

This leaves many orchestras with one fundamental question: What is one to do?  Although I fully believe that people should be willing to pay for culture, it cannot be expected that ticket sales and fundraising alone will be enough to support an orchestra or an opera company. Ideally, I would like to see the government increase spending for culture, but as long as the NEA’s budget remains so low, and as long as state arts councils continue to slash spending, then we will have to accept that orchestras will need to rely on the support of foundations and individual donors. And that, in light of the opening quote, is disturbing.

However, I do believe that there are different positions that orchestra, patrons, and the public can take in order to help ensure that orchestras have a chance of maintaining stability in the future.  Above all, orchestras need to understand and respect that their programming needs to reflect the interest of the public.  With social networking applications readily available, more and more orchestras are setting up pages on sites like Facebook in order to find, and create, a dialogue with the public.  It is still uncharted territory for many ensembles, but there are already many example of how orchestras are using social networking applications creatively to create a dialogue with the public.

The public too needs to help out by voicing their opinion and support of orchestras, Again, with the advent of social networking, this has become a real possibility. They also need to voice their support of arts councils and make it clear that government subsidies for the arts do make a difference.  For example, to protest the proposed 40% cut New York State Council on the Arts budget back in 2010, the New York States Arts Advocacy Headquarters set up an online resource center that allows people to voice their opposition.

And finally, patrons need to understand that supporting art doesn’t mean dictating it. Although I can understand that foundations and patrons are interested in being able to actively participate in problem solving, tolerance needs to be practiced as well so that creativity can be explored. 

Fortunately, when I first wrote this article I saw a silver lining of hope. In 2010, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have created “The Giving Pledge”, which 39 of America’s wealthiest individuals and families have been invited to donate the majority of their wealth to charity and other philanthropic causes.[29]  This is especially welcome after the depressing examples of corporate greed in 2008, where government bailouts financed two $60 million corporate jets for JP Morgan Chase[30] and helped pay $165 million in bonuses for A.I.G.’s CEOs.[31]  Perhaps this initiative will succeed in generating a new climate of sponsorship from which arts and other cultural organizations can once again flourish.

I do believe that great art is possible in America. But I think that we need to view it in a different light, which ironically, I feel is best expressed in Christopher Knight’s Culture Monster Blog of the Los Angeles Times.  In it, he makes a humble request to change the current motto of the National Endowment for the Arts from “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art” to “Great Art Makes a Great Nation.”[32] “After all, that is how it works,” comments Knight.  I believe that he is right.  Because, only if we take the risk of allowing great art to become part of our culture will our nation’s culture not only become great, but continue to grow.


{C}[1]{C} Heinze, D., & Ostendorf-Rupp, S. (2010). Editorial- arts management newsletter. Arts Management Newsletter, (97)

[2] Communication from the commission to the european parliament, the council, the european economic and social committee and the committee of the regions on a european agenda for culture in a globalizing world. (2007). Retrieved from

[3] ibid


{C}[5]{C} von Rhein, J. (1990). `rake`s progress` moves in a clever, touching way. Chicago Tribune, Retrieved from

{C}[6]{C} Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Wikipedia. Retrieved (2010, July 26) from

{C}[7]{C} Reiss, A.H. (1991). Board/artist relationship: a growing concern.. All Business, Retrieved from

{C}[8]{C} McFadden, R. (1990). A Symphony in search of a home (or cash). New York Times, Retrieved from

{C}[9]{C} Norman, M. (2009). Cleveland orchestra plans 'deep' cuts; Welser-Most takes pay cut

. Cleveland Plain Dealer, doi:

{C}[10]{C} Royce, G. (2009). Minnesota orchestra to cut budget, staff and salaries., Retrieved from

{C}[11]{C} Atlanta symphony orchestra to cut pay, freeze hiring. (2009). Atlanta Business Chronicle, Retrieved from

{C}[12]{C} Wakin, D. (2009). Notes of distress and discord from the esteemed philadelphia orchestra. New York Times, Retrieved from

{C}[13]{C} Wakin, D.J. (2009). Notes of distress and discord from the esteemed philadelphia orchestra. New York Times, Retrieved from


{C}[15]{C} NEA at a glance (2009). Retrieved from

{C}[16]{C} Heilbrun, J., & Gray, C.M. (2001). The Economics of art and culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

{C}[17]{C} Grant, M., & Hettinger, H.S. (1940). America's symphony orchestras and how they are supported. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. p.205

{C}[18]{C} Ibid, p.207.

{C}[19]{C} Ibid, p.210

{C}[20]{C} Ibid, p.216

{C}[21]{C} Ibid, p. 206


{C}[23]{C} Adams, D., & Golbard, A. (1995). New deal cultural programs: experiments in cultural democracy. Retrieved from

{C}[24]{C} Ibid.

{C}[25]{C} The Plow That Broke the Plains. Wikipedia. Retrieved (2010, July 26) from

{C}[26]{C} Taubman, H,. (1948, September 1). Major music units cannot pay way. New York Times

{C}[27]{C} Parmenter, R. (1962, October 1). Most Orchestras operate at loss. New York Times

{C}[28]{C} ibid.

[29] The giving Pledge. (2010). Retrieved from

[30] Sharkey, J. (2009, April 1). Capitalizing on public rage, an airline seeks to replace the corporate jet. Inernational Herald Tribune,

[31] Andrews, E.L., & Baker, P. (2009). Bonus money at troubled a.i.g. draws heavy criticsm. New York Times, Retrieved from