So Terry Teachout wrote a kind-of-controversial article that ran in the Wall Street Journal today, rounding up some of the recent terrible news in the American performing arts world and making a comment about those problems--and he almost, but not quite, says what those problems are really about. After detailing some sobering recent news, including the Philadelphia Orchestra (!) filing for bankruptcy last week, Teachout observes:
What's the problem? In the immortal (if apocryphal) words of Sam Goldwyn, "If nobody wants to see your picture, there's nothing you can do to stop them." Corollary: If nobody can afford a ticket to your show, there's nothing you can do to make them buy one. When money is tight and ticket prices keep climbing, playgoers and opera buffs will respond by staying home. Moreover, the high-culture business models of the past don't work anymore.
In that quote he almost clearly sees the fundamental problem that American performing arts organizations face, but then sort of willfully ignores it and talks about business models. He is right that ticket prices are generally way too high and that most of the business models of large performing arts organizations are no longer working and need to be fundamentally reconsidered, particularly with regard to negotiations between labor and management.
But the real truth is in that Goldwyn quote: more and more, people are simply not interested in the products offered by large performing arts organizations. They aren't buying tickets because they do not value what is on offer, and are choosing to spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere. (If ticket prices are way too expensive, how do successful professional sports franchises continue to sell so many high dollar season tickets? People will find a way to pay for experiences they value.)
This seems to be the real, potential core problem that no one wants to say out loud or discuss openly: the possibility that the kind of musical experience that symphony orchestras and opera companies currently offer appeals to too few Americans to sustain the institutions that present them. The gap between what classical musicians do and what American listeners seek may have simply grown too wide to bridge in any sustainable way with current practices.
If that's at all the case, that's a bitter truth to face--one that is particularly difficult for classical musicians, who are trained to use an extraordinary skill set in extraordinarily narrow ways. But confronting that reality is absolutely necessary if large performing arts organizations are going to survive the next 5-10 years, and will require some uncomfortable reconsidering of basic assumptions about music and musical art.
This is the most fundamental, urgent issue facing performing arts organizations in the United States. I'll write more soon on specific ways to address it, but I am continually surprised at how infrequently this important question is asked: "what if ticket sales are declining simply because people are not interested in what is presented or in how it is presented?" Perhaps the fear is that it is a fatalistic question--if true, what is to be done? How can an orchestra not play orchestral music? How can an opera company not present opera? But difficult questions are no less true or valuable because of their difficulty, and dancing around some pretty obvious questions will not solve the dire, existential problems facing many of America's largest performing arts organizations.