The unfortunate news this week that the Delaware Symphony Orchestra is pulling the plug on the remainder of their 2012/2013 season is another signal of an irrevocable shift in American cultural life.
Like many other pillars of Delaware’s cultural scene, the DSO has struggled financially in recent years, saved more than once from near-death experiences thanks to million dollar gifts from Tatiana and Gerret Copeland. As with the Delaware Art Museum, the DSO is led by a gifted, respected leader in maestro David Amado. And as with the DAM, the DSO has worked every angle possible to get more people through their doors: creative collaborations and partnerships, educational and children’s programs, taking their show on the road.
While it may turn out that unique circumstances regarding management of the DSO contributed to this current crisis, the broader financial facts are clear: as the News Journal extensively documented, with a loss of a quarter of all subscribers over the last four seasons, the sustainability of the traditional business model for a symphony orchestra in this market is in doubt.
And it is hard not to see that the generational, demographic and cultural headwinds the DSO and others face are only going to accelerate, and continue to bedevil arts institutions in a community like Wilmington.
A few factors to consider:
- An explosion of entertainment options – The digital pipeline into the typical American home today brings an array of content that is mind-boggling to those of us who remember the days when channels 3, 6, 10, 17, 29 and 48 were all the rabbit ears could capture, on a good day. Once upon a time, with fewer opportunities to see music, drama and God knows what else over a screen in the home, the dramatic and music arts were well positioned. My parents and their Brandywine Hundred friends, for example, were regular Playhouse and DSO patrons for 30 years through the 1990s. Today, take a drive down Concord Pike on a Saturday night and you will see packed parking lots at the Macaroni Grill, Concord Mall or Naaman’s Little League. To wit:
- Changing family priorities – Until some 20 years ago, there was no such thing as travel ____ (fill in the blank: soccer, baseball, volleyball, cheerleading (!), hockey etc. etc…) leagues that seem to have taken over the family lives of households with athletic children. Not only do these leagues perpetuate year-round, but they regularly involve wiping out at least one parent’s weekend for tournament competition. And these leagues don’t just take up precious time: they also ain’t cheap. In a different era, that time and money might have gone to see a play.
- Money and power – Long a bastion of prestige, the lofty social status once associated with a board membership on symphony orchestras and art museums has diminished. So too, have the old money and corporate largesse that often came with those patrons. Increasingly, philanthropically-minded younger people are more interested in putting their charitable time and dollars into charitable causes – be it through board or committee involvement, or simply attending a fun event. And big companies either don’t have the funds or they are likewise prioritizing their investment in community-based organizations that align with their corporate mission.
- Geography – Wilmington isn’t Kansas City or Omaha or Des Moines or Buffalo, cities at little risk for losing precious arts patrons to nearby rivals. In Delaware, big-time arts lovers with the passion and the money need only drive thirty miles north to enjoy world-class institutions in Philadelphia, or hop the train and be in the cultural capital of the world, New York City, in less than two hours.
The DSO leadership appears to recognize that these and other factors call for a wholesale reconsideration of the mission and operational infrastructure of their organization.
Whether we like it or not, just as with those who subscribe to home delivery of the daily newspaper, the pool of regular attendees for a classical symphony concert is shrinking every year.
That is unwelcome news for all of us who root for the arts in our community and worry about the individuals and families personally impacted by the tough times, as well as the knock-on effects for businesses and organizations that rely on the DSO as an economic partner. It will require an objective reappraisal of what the market wants and funders can reasonably support and hopefully lead to a new approach that provides a strong foundation for the second century of a world-class institution in our hometown.