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In the long term, increasing the relevancy of orchestras will help save them

The pathway to relevancy is through audience development, a term that means far more than increasing attendance at concerts.

Sthefany Serrano, 6, a member of the Alma Llanera Hospital Care Program's orchestra for sick children, performs during its first anniversary concert in Caracas, Venezuela. The orchestra is part of El Sistema's program.
REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

We are at an important juncture in the Minnesota Orchestra management-musician impasse. With the beginning of a new season looming, the impasse threatens the future of the Minnesota Orchestra. Lost in the immediate crises is consideration of a larger and long-term issue: the relevancy of the orchestra — here and across the country.

Nathan Davis

Increasing the long-term relevancy of the orchestra, here and elsewhere, is key for saving it. With audiences and interest declining, the industry knows that new approaches are needed for an institution — born out of age-old European traditions and coming of age during the rise of the 19th-century middle class – to be a relevant 21st-century cultural force. With forward vision, the Minnesota Orchestra could be a national leader pointing to a sustainable future for both itself and the industry as-a-whole.

The pathway to relevancy is through audience development, a term that means far more than increasing attendance at concerts. It’s about developing mutually beneficial relationships with the public and customer-patron stakeholders (including business, education, civic, and nonprofit partners). Here are approaches to consider:

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Education outreach: (Why not use sports as a model?)

Take a lead from sports by connecting youth/amateur and professional-level activity. The progression involved in attaining high-level skills (evident in sports) would similarly capture public interest for the orchestra world — from 5th-grade public-school programs through world-class professional symphonies. For starters, orchestras could present school, community, college and semi-professional groups in pre-concert cameo performances — a way of connecting with their supporters and cultivating new fans and patrons. They could also organize youth festivals/division-level competitions, and develop communications representing the full gamut of skill and age-level involvement. The London Symphony Orchestra’s “LSO Discovery” is a good model for just these kinds of programs.

Partnerships: Connect with other sectors

Build on the growing relationship of the arts to human service, health care, education and entrepreneurial economic development initiatives. Create policy-level partnerships with government, community centers, senior living homes, hospitals, schools and businesses. Besides leadership coalition building, orchestras could 1) present smaller ensembles in a variety of partner organization sites; 2) work with community centers to develop arts education-based and human-service focused programs, (such as El Sistema from Venezuela); and 3) provide expertise to memory-care facilities for using music to improve care-giving and quality-of-life. Participation in civic economic development initiatives is also key.

Engagement: Create interactive experiences for audiences

Foster the magic of live performance (at home and outreach venues) to enhance connections with performers. In selected repertoire, experiments could be made to bring back 19th century audience traditions of in-performance applause to express spontaneous excitement and appreciation. Using technology tools such as clicker devices would garner immediate feedback directly after a concert, and permit audience voting to choose repertoire selections for upcoming concerts.

Recognizing musicians’ value

The essence of what an orchestra means to American society can be distilled through how its musicians model training and preparation, deferred gratification to achieve long-term goals, and high-quality team-generated results. Musicians’ contributions are essential for creating new audiences, new revenues and new relationships.

Focusing on lowering salaries diverts attention from developing plans to increase support through becoming more relevant.

Finally, institutionalizing new ideas takes time and requires change. However, orchestras, such as ours in Minnesota, must reach more people from more walks of life, and their support will increase through ticket sales, donor contributions, grants, corporate sponsorships and sharing costs with partners.

Banish the ‘shrinking pie’ idea

Why can’t the orchestra be a model for entrepreneurialism and exponential growth, banishing the belief that there is a shrinking pie to be sliced into increasingly smaller pieces? I believe that in Minnesota, we can have a world-class orchestra that represents the best of past musical traditions, along with forging new ways to serve the public for centuries to come.

Nathan Davis works with arts, education and audience development on a state and national level. He has served as a professor of music (cello) in the MnSCU system, provost of Tri-College University, executive director of the Perpich Center for Arts Education, and worked for the Brubeck Institute in Northern California. Davis holds a Ph.D. from New York University.

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