Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Universities, concerts, the public, money, and the greater good

In response to Erik's New Years wish list, here I am (kind of) writing about music. I've also been writing a lot about the University, and there is one pressure point between the two that I find very troubling-- the many university music schools and departments that charge admission to their concerts.

There are a great many institutions that do this; in fact, it seems that the better a school of music does in the rankings, the more likely it is to charge admission for concerts. This is particularly troubling for music schools that are part of state universities. In no uncertain terms, I find this reprehensible and irresponsible-- to shut out low and middle income people and families from performances is contrary to any university's mission and place in the community. I understand that revenue is always a problem, but charging money for admission is not only socially irresponsible, but it is counterproductive as well. There are several reasons for this claim:

[1] Charging even a nominal amount for tickets reduces the size of the audience. Fewer people hearing the music is not good for the future employment of said institutions' students. The idea is to bring more people to hear live music, to discover the particular joy of hearing music in an acoustic space performed "in the raw". For young people especially, this is important. Fostering understanding and appreciation of this singular experience is vital to the continuation of the medium; if there is no next generation of concert-goers and donors, there won't be orchestras, ballet companies, opera companies, or string quartets.

[2] Money for cultural and artistic experiences, like money for all other things, is limited for the vast majority of people. Universities that charge money for their concerts are competing with local professional arts organizations for the same money. Diluting that pool of money is very unwise. If orchestras and other groups start failing because of budget shortfalls, the jobs for which these schools are training students will no longer exist.

[3] Universities, in their positions as vital parts of the community, are not serving that mission well by excluding lower-income people and families. In fact, it reinforces the stereotype that concert music is for a wealthy, elite audience. Should this stereotype persist and grow, popular support for arts institutions could erode even more than it has, especially in this economy. Many, if not most, organizations depend on grants from not just private donors, but from city, state, and federal programs as well. This rare and scarce funding cannot be replaced easily.

[4] Ultimately, it makes little financial sense. No large classical music organization is solvent based on ticket sales. There just isn't that much money in ticket sales when one considers how expensive it is to present a concert. Universities make such a small percentage of their operating budget from ticket sales that discontinuing the practice would be fairly negligible. In contrast, there must be donors to university music programs who agree with me; I would certainly withhold any donation to any university that charged admission for its concerts.

[5] This practice is also fairly dishonest. To charge admission, sometimes approaching what it costs to attend a professional orchestra, implies that the product is as good. Remember that these are student performers who are unpaid for performing the concerts. In fact, ensembles are required courses for music majors. In essence, these schools are asking the public to pay to attend the coursework for which students pay the university to do.

It is my hope that a dialogue begins in earnest about this. Of the three institutions I attended (one private, two public), all charged admission for at least some of their concerts (opera and orchestra are the most common; all three charged for opera performances). I am very happy to report that the school at which I teach does not charge for any concerts. Until this practice stops, I could have all the money in the world and would not give them a red cent. Only by withholding donations will this practice change. I challenge any prospective donors to hold benefiting schools' feet to the fire on this (or start talking to a school which has a more socially responsible concert policy-- one that might be in need of, I don't know, a few endowed scholarships in composition?)