Jobs and artists, Part 1: A hard look at the future

The web has been abuzz with woe in recent days, fretting over the state of the arts’ job market.  The Paris merger has caused a huge stir.  The Green Bay Symphony has sung its swan song, with hundreds of tickets unsold for their final concert.  Chicago Classical Review reported on Monday that another Midwestern orchestra, Ars Viva, will close after their season ends next month.

We’ve grown weirdly accustomed to this sort of sad news, accompanied as it is by the constant stream of announcements of new, smaller organizations at the regional level.  There does seem to be some sort of evolutionary balancing out occurring.  But the national (and even international) attention is driven partially by reactions to some new(ish) books: particularly one by former Kennedy Center chief Michael Kaiser, and another by former head of the Eastman School of Music, Robert Freeman.

Kaiser, one of the arts’ most effective oracles in recent decades, saw the release of Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America in February, and it has garnered a diverse array of good reviews.  This relatively short book (172 pages) paints a fairly bleak picture: fewer presenting orgs, even scarcer jobs, and less demand for traditional arts among mainstream audiences.  With the decline of arts education, ticket prices that have risen faster than inflation and the rise of Internet-driven (and far cheaper) entertainment, his predictions may simply be inevitable: these are the truths that many have felt, but few have openly discussed.  Kaiser does proffer potential solutions from his own grab bag, but his profoundly corporate mind may gloss over the vibrant grassroots elements in today’s classical landscape.  (This suspicion is based on the reviews available — we’ll dig deeper once I’ve finished the book.)

Freeman’s book from last summer, The Crisis of Classical Music in America, also looks to start more widespread discussion of what’s been happening, and looks unflinchingly at the educational programs that produce more than 30,000 new music graduates each year.  That’s a mind-boggling figure, but those of us with boots on the ground see it every day:  talented musicians and their not-so-talented classmates, all believing that their degree will lead to a career in music.  For most, it simply won’t.  For the lucky few, and those of us already working, the only way to survive is to pay attention and ride the wave.

Across the pond, there is actually a third book (in German) in the mix, as conductor Kent Nagano predicts this as the last generation to embrace classical.  But while his book, which hasn’t been as well received, does little to offer hope or solutions, it does spark some intriguing comments on Slipped Disc.

With debate triggers such as these, more argument is clearly forthcoming.  On this blog, we’ll dive into the jobs issue a bit at a time over the next few weeks, addressing the industry’s day-to-day realities from the perspective of the individual artist and small org leader, rather than that of Big Arts.  This is the first of four planned posts, intended to get all of us thinking, talking, and open to new solutions.  Those of you who know me have probably already guessed that yes, there will be homework — starting with the articles below.  (Know thy market!)

Cheerier thoughts

Not everyone is down in the dumps.  Alex Ross reports in the New Yorker on the incredible level of creativity in today’s compositional work, citing last month’s “Symphomania” marathon on WQXR and rightly stomping on the naysayers who have no tolerance for all that newness.  Fight on, Alex.  (His book, The Rest is Noise, is still one of my favorite explanations of why new ideas matter in music, charted through a rather gripping history.)

NEA Chair Jane Chu outlines some reasons why the arts are still an essential part of a cohesive society, starting with the title itself:  “The Arts Connect People and Perspectives By Building Welcoming Communities“. Definitely happier food for thought.

And Kelly Corrigan of the Glendale News-Press reported on the local educational scene, with districts partnering with more than 100 outside arts organizations to provide instruction in schools.  It won’t solve the enormous gap in public schools’ arts-related content, but it’s a big step in the right direction.


Read more:

Miami Herald, 4/4/15: “Former Kennedy Center director Michael Kaiser tackles the future of arts in the U.S.” — by Jordan Levin

Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY) via USA TodayAs interest wanes, classical music hits a sour note” — by Matt Daneman  [Article with video — audio starts up automatically]

logoWQXR, 3/2/15: “Symphomania:  24 Hours with the 21st-Century Orchestra” — by William Robin


This is the first installment in a four-part series.

  • Next week: Market realities

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