Reports from the Front: League of American Orchestras

Jesse Rosen

The League of American Orchestras represents more than nine hundred member organizations across the nation, from youth and college groups to volunteer community orchestras and internationally renowned professional ensembles. Orchestras enhance the quality of life in their communities by providing musical inspiration and meaning, fostering civic pride, and collaborating with school systems and other local partners to deliver a wide array of education and community programs. Their annual budgets range from next to nothing to over $80 million. Nationwide more than 29 million people attend more than thirty-four thousand orchestra concerts annually, nearly half of which are education or community engagement concerts.

America’s orchestras are responding with increasing resilience both to the economic pressures of the past eighteen months and to fundamental shifts in the national cultural landscape. Increasingly orchestras and their stakeholders recognize that the risk taking of innovation is necessary if orchestras are to continue to offer exciting musical experiences that are vital to American life.

Over the past two years, the field has been deeply challenged. Among ninety-two consistently reporting member orchestras, sixty-five (71 percent) reported an annual operating deficit during the 2008–2009 season, compared with forty-six (50 percent) in 2007–2008. However, orchestras are finding ways to align income and expenses. A new League index of representative orchestras showed that, for the first two quarters of 2010, overall operating expenses decreased by 4 percent from the same period in 2009, while total operating revenue rose by 9 percent.

Orchestras have been managing costs through a combination of strategies that include salary reductions (for administrative staff, music directors, and orchestra members), furloughs, layoffs, and program changes or even concert cancellations. At the beginning of the downturn a spirit of shared ownership and shared sacrifice prevailed among most orchestra stakeholders. Sixty-four orchestras were temporarily assisted by federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 through the National Endowment for the Arts. These awards preserved administrative and artistic positions, enabling orchestras to present summer concerts that would have been eliminated, keep education programs intact, and maintain a full range of repertoire and artistic offerings. There is great concern, however, that continued economic uncertainty could have significant impact on personnel and on program delivery. A recent survey by the Listening Post Project of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies showed that orchestras have been among the hardest hit by job losses within the nonprofit sector.1 While 31 percent of all nonprofits reported job losses, 35 percent of orchestras reported them. (Only 30 percent of surveyed museums, 28 percent of theaters, and 17 percent of community and economic development organizations reported losses.) Of the orchestras surveyed, 18 percent expect more job losses in the future; this finding was echoed in a recent League survey of mid- and smaller-budget orchestras.

At the League of American Orchestras’ 2010 national conference in June, an overwhelming majority of the more than one thousand attendees agreed that orchestras need to change in significant ways to remain a vibrant part of twenty-first-century American life. Across the nation, orchestras are working to grow and deepen their relationships with their audiences despite economic pressures, by developing programming that stretches taste and reflects community heritage, making new connections outside their concert halls, incorporating new entry points into the musical experience through multimedia and other contexts, and inviting new forms of audience participation through texting and social media.

In its 2009 publication Fearless Journeys: Innovation in Five American Orchestras, the League documented some important changes that orchestras are undertaking in their artistic and organizational structures. Initiatives by these pathbreaking orchestras include vesting greater decision-making power in musicians; replacing the music director with a rotating team of artistic partners; deepening cultural connections with their community by contextualizing music in new ways; building community partnerships that use musicians’ artistic talents and leadership to serve community needs; opening the orchestra’s “high art” doors to a wider public by focusing on contemporary music and creative interdisciplinary projects; and building a collaborative, cross-constituent organizational culture.

In sum, America’s orchestras are responding vigorously to adapt to the immediate and longer-term challenges of their environment. They are passionate about finding ways to engage new audiences with a powerful art form that continues to inspire new generations. Many are reaching out for assistance in navigating uncharted waters. It is an optimal moment for orchestras to work together to create and test new approaches to shared challenges. The League of American Orchestras is committed to facilitating and maximizing such collaborative opportunities.

1. Lester M. Salamon, Stephanie L. Geller, and Kasey L. Mengel, Recession Pressures on Nonprofit Jobs (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, Center for Civil Society Studies, the Listening Post Project, July 2010;