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Another US orchestra shuts down

June 13, 2011 by Norman Lebrecht

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It’s not a famous band, nor a big-city trophy, but the closure announcement of the Bellevue Philharmonic in the state of Washington brings to four the number of American symphony orchestras that have gone out of business this season.

Honolulu, New Mexico and Syracuse have been liquidated altogether. Louisville and Philadelphia have filed for bankruptcy protection. And I keep hearing rumours of more to come. At the current conference of the League of  American Symphony Orchestras, I’m told, everyone was talking about the crisis and refusing to address the historic causes.

Bellevue, like Syracuse and Honolulu, has been around for half a century. The board cited ‘long-term realities’ for giving up. In other words, there isn’t the audience, the funding base or the civic pride to sustain an orchestra in Bellevue, Wa.

The music director, who will bow out on 4 July, is Michael Miropolsky. See also here.

  - Courtesy Eric Linger

photo courtesy Eric Linger, all rights reserved


Comments (0)

  1. Jack says:

    Expect more of this to come. This is all symptomatic of the general decline of western civilization.

  2. Terri Sandys says:

    We’ll be back.

  3. I can well imagine that the League is not talking about the true problems American orchestras face, but among the factors you list, lack of audience, funding base, and civic pride you do not specifically mention the real problem. The American funding system by private donors doesn’t work. This is quickly illustrated with comparisons to the European public funding system. Germany for example, has 133 fifty-two week season orchestras while the USA with four times the population has only 18. The situation with 52 weeks season opera houses is even more extreme: Germany has 80 and the USA 0. The article below discusses in much more detail American denial about public arts funding, and how organizations like the League and other commentators avoid the topic even though it is the central reason American orchestras are suffering so badly:

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/email2/denial.htm

    The way Americans avoid discussion of public arts funding illustrates how deeply brain-washed they are.

    1. Doug says:

      The way the crusty, fossilized, class distinct Brits can ONLY talk about public arts funds illustrates now brain DEAD they are.

      1. Actually, the UK has the lowest per capita rate of public arts funding in Europe. And our system of arts funding by the wealthy finds its heritage in the British class system.

      2. Barry says:

        Glyndebourne?

    2. AtheistConservative says:

      Just to clarify what you’re saying: you believe that because private funding clearly illustrates that there is no demand for a service, the government should step in with appropriated funds to keep that service afloat?

      This illustrates just how self-centered people can be.

      Look, I feel the pain on this. My wife is a concert violinist and it’s rough out there, particularly as symphonies shut down and competition increases for diminishing spots. But in reality, you were lucky to have the chance to play music for money in the first place. I realize a lot of you artsy types are deeply in love with yourselves and truly believe you are the only bulwark keeping Western civilization cultured and civilized, but in reality you just play an instrument. You don’t provide an essential service. You don’t provide a necessary product. You provide entertainment. Entertainment is the most fickle and unstable business in which to stake your claim. Things changed and you can’t strum your banjo to pay the rent? Tough. Lots of people are out of work. You’re no better than the rest of them.

      As your esteemed Europeans say: get on your bike.

  4. And for a reminder about where American money actually goes, we might consider the money spent on Iraq. This is from an article in the LA Times:

    “Pentagon officials determined that one giant C-130 Hercules cargo plane could carry $2.4 billion in shrink-wrapped bricks of $100 bills. They sent an initial full planeload of cash, followed by 20 other flights to Iraq by May 2004 in a $12-billion haul that U.S. officials believe to be the biggest international cash airlift of all time.”

    The full article is here:
    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-missing-billions-20110613,0,4414060.story

    And actually, that initial 12 billion is just a very tiny fraction of the money spent on Iraq. Today’s papers report that 6.6 billion of the money earmarked for Iraq reconstruction is missing, which makes it the largest heist in human history. Is it time for American artists to reach for their rifles? A horrifying thought, but no more absurd than the above.

    1. Doug says:

      Haldol dosage running low today?

      Here’s a link that will force your wife to break out the strait jacket this morning: David Mamet: All Brits, Especially Writers are anti-Semite

      http://www.slate.com/id/2296730/pagenum/all/

    2. AtheistConservative says:

      Ugh. And the Iraq War tautology. In reality, over the course of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars we spent far more on federalized education than on both wars combined. The failed Obama stimulus program cost more than both wars combined.

  5. I’m all for government funding of arts, but we can’t ask for the government to fund full time orchestras in multiple cities, then complain when our taxes double.

    1. Europeans taxes are about 50 percent of their GNP. In the USA it is 40%. Europeans get a lot more for their taxes than Americans, so they might be getting the better deal.

    2. Mark Henriksen says:

      Taxes doubled? The tax dollars needed to underwrite symphony orchestras would not even be a small perturbation to the budget. It would be spitting in the ocean.

  6. Doug says:

    I would caution drawing quick conclusions on this one. Take a look at their website. The organization was being managed by volunteers. Yes, that’s right, no professionals, but volunteers. How long can that be sustained? Answer: not long at all. When you think you can save money by cutting the heart out of a creature, how long does it live? And I know Bellevue and the orchestra. We were mutually interested in partnering, but I soon realized that I should run the other direction, fast.

  7. Thank you, Mr. Osborne, for your insightful and informative comments. Your posts and links are most helpful; they clearly demonstrate the ideology behind America’s shameful cultural decline. The US has become such a greedy each-man-for-himself nation that I barely recognize my homeland from generations past.

  8. Jack says:

    The European government subsidies that Mr. Osborne loves so well are unsustainable. They will not last much longer; indeed, they might not even last during Mr. Osborne’s lifetime.

    Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain are all bankrupt. Other European countries may follow. With no money and with the burden of elder care and state pensions rising to unprecedented levels in the coming decades because of the rapidly aging population throughout the Western world, government subsidies for the performing arts will be a thing of the past. Performing arts organizations better get used to the new reality.

    1. There’s plenty of money to fund the arts. The New York City Opera, for example, recently halved its 22 million per year budget. Just one percent of America’s 750 billion dollar military budget could fund 340 opera houses at 22 million a piece. We see that arts funding much more a question of priorities.

      1. AtheistConservative says:

        Spoken like a truly ignorant Utopian. Of course, federal funding does not work that way – you cannot take state and private funding and transfer it dollar-for-dollar to the federal budget, as the federal government routinely inflates, mismanages, and loses money for everything it attempts to regulate and fund.

        Also, it’s rather hilarious to me that someone apparently seriously believes arts funding is anywhere near as important as military funding. The day we’re assaulted by the London Symphony Orchestra and can repel them with a fugue, I’ll agree with you.

        1. Following the European model, the money would go from the Feds to the states and cities (not the other way around.)

  9. If the economic problems of the four countries Jack mentions were systemic, then all 47 countries of Europe (all social democracies) would be having similar problems, but they aren’t. In fact, countries like Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, and France are doing fairly well considering the general state of the world economy. We should also note that the four countries Jack mentions are having problems due to mismanagement, and not due to their economic systems.

    A recent survey by the Council of Europe shows that arts funding in Europe has remained steady and will continute to.

    We should remember that almost all of the polemic attacking or deriding Europe’s public funding for the arts is part of a culture war being conducted by the United States against Europe’s social democracies. Europeans are deeply devoted to their system of public arts funding and are not going to give it up even under pressure from the United States.

    1. Jack says:

      The problems for the four countries I mentioned are serious and are not isolated. The whole European economy is inter-connected. If Greece goes down, it may take Europe down with it. International investors are presently losing confidence in the EU as a whole because of the member states’ apparent inability to take action to prevent a Greek default:

      http://www.moneycontrol.com/news/fii-view/europe-selling-due-to-doubts-over-greek-debt-robert-parker_557583.html

      Why are these problems happening? Frankly, it’s pretty sanguine to suggest that it’s all just simple mismanagement and that there are no systemic issues at play. The fact is that Europeans [and Americans] have been living beyond their means for a long time and they have racked up a veritable mountain of debt as a result. The problem will only get worse in coming years because of Europe’s aging population. Arts funding is not going to be a priority when governments will find it nearly impossible to pay for pension cheques and elder care.

      What should arts organizations do in response? Should they complain to governments about the importance of the arts and how arts funding is one of the key ingredients to Europeans’ sense of moral superiority over Americans? Such entreaties will soon fall on deaf ears. Should arts organizations simply fold up shop? Unfortunately, many will have to. However, they certainly don’t all have to do so.

      The key is to cultivate wealthy private patrons. The great composers of the past did not have to rely on government handouts for support. They relied on wealthy patrons. These are the people and institutions that arts organizations need to cultivate. They need to persuade these people of the importance of the arts and the legacy benefits of patronage. Arts organizations are going to have to get used to this because they won’t be able to suck at the government teat for much longer.

      1. France has one of the highest per capita public arts funding systems in the world by reserving only one percent of its GDP for the arts (which is the sum recommended for countries by UNESCO.) Cutting public arts funding is a political agenda that has very little to do with balancing budgets. Neo-cons just look for excuses to cut arts funding and grasp at every rationale possible, truthful or not.

      2. Mark Henriksen says:

        No that is not the key. Relying on a few wealthy donors is exactly the model that is having problems now because in an economic downturn, these wealthy donors are, understandably, not as generous.

        In my opinion, Osborne is right about what is needed. The problem is that the demographics in the US has changed a great deal from the time the great orchestras were established.


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