Becoming aware: arts management, classical music, and arts audience development

Oh dear!  The headlines today were not very encouraging.  More orchestras are locked out, one opera company has to shut down until their bills are paid, and the woe is classical music stories keep popping up too.  Yes, we are in the midst of dealing with changes that have already happened, and the classical music world in general is scrambling to get back on track.

In my area, there have been cuts too.  Many of the organizations have downsized their concert schedules to deal with their funding cuts.  I know musicians across the country are not happy with all that is happening.  The musicians blame the management.  The management blames the musicians for not understanding.  It’s a vicious cycle of finger pointing.

I myself am wracking my brain to figure out how orchestras and classical music can start thriving again.  I have already chimed in with my suggested action points.

In the article about the Minnesota Orchestra, the management wants to cut musician salaries and at the same time they are raising money and spending money on a $52 million renovation.  The management views this as accessing support from big donors.  Wouldn’t the big donors rather donate to secure the best musicians for their orchestra instead?  I can see why the musicians are protesting this factor.  Unless the hall was in such a severe state that renovation was imperative, perhaps money that pays the musicians that create the “product” for the organization would have been better raised and spent.

I have been on both sides of this fence.  I have been a musician grumbling that I haven’t been paid enough, and I have been on the management team attempting to secure funding to keep the organization functioning.  An orchestra or opera is an expensive endeavor.  The economy and lowered demand due to the change in times are a downfall to these organizations, but these challenges can only account for part of the deficiency.

If it were up to me, I’d blame everyone!  Not that I want to blame anyone.  The real problem here, as I mentioned before, is the lack of team mentality and lack of functioning as a real nonprofit business.  In times of trouble, all line items need to be evaluated.  All salaries including the management, all fundraising, all audience development, outreach and marketing efforts, have to be looked at with honest eyes.  Priorities for the business need to be established.  For example, the $52 million dollars that was raised for renovations,  I do not see this as a bigger priority than making sure the musicians are paid fairly.  It’s a similar mentality that our country is going through. Our veteran soldiers are not being provided for fully after their duties have ended.  The musicians and soldiers are doing the work.  Are we taking care of them or are our priorities out of balance?  Are we are raising and spending money on the wrong types of initiatives?

I have witnessed some classical music organizations that have decided that one of the top priorities be keeping their musicians happy.  Without the musicians, they reason, there would be no music.  These organizations are still doing well.  The audience wants happy musicians.  Happy musicians provide the concert experience they desire and pay for.  Happy musicians perform better too.  The audience knows this.

I plea for organizations to start surveying their audiences if they don’t believe me.  I once structured a question on my survey to ask, “If you were king of the orchestra, what changes in management would you make?”  We had several come back commenting on how they would like the musicians to be paid fairly.   The audience knew what is going on as much as the supposed behind the scenes management.  In our world of further transparency, paying for $52 million worth of renovations is not going to delight your audiences as much as having top quality musicians to perform the music they love.

I will say this though, coming from the side of management, I feel the musicians now have to be part of the team for reaching new audiences.  Everyone needs to be a part of this initiative. We now need some support for outreach efforts, word of mouth marketing, and other audience development programs to increase audience and demand.  The management is not able to perform these outreach concerts for the musicians.  A management team can only spread the word so far.  It now requires more and more circles of people to spread the word.  The musicians need to step up too, and even volunteer in troubled times, to make the music for awareness of the music to happen.

It needs to be a team effort, all hands on deck, if you want to become a healthy nonprofit arts organization.

So, evaluation of budgets, prioritizing line items, and becoming a team to bring awareness to and further your mission is what it is going to take to be healthy again.  Good old fashioned hard work by everyone!  I hope more arts organizations become aware.

Cheers to happy and loyal audiences,


Shoshana Fanizza

Audience Development Specialists


“Never treat your audience as customers, always as partners.”
~James Stewart

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Filed under Arts funding, arts management, Audience Development

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