Revisiting Research: Autopsy of an Orchestra

An Analysis of Factors Contributing to the Bankruptcy of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association

Response by Ron Ragin

M. Melanie Beene, Fenton Johnson, and Patricia A. Mitchell. 1988. San Francisco, CA.


   Autopsy of an Orchestra (12.7Mb)

This article is part of the Revisiting Research series.

Note: This paper has been republished and is now available in a digital edition at

When I mentioned to more seasoned colleagues that I was writing a response to Autopsy of an Orchestra, I was met with “oohs,” “aahs,” and many a story about the impact and influence Melanie Beene’s research had had on individual arts workers and institutions. As I read the report, my initial excitement morphed into distress when I noticed the familiarity of the Oakland Symphony’s story. Twenty-four years after Autopsy of an Orchestra’s publication, we continue to hear about the unplanned deaths of symphonies and other nonprofit arts organizations. Groups of all sizes and disciplines continue to spend more than they earn, use endowment principal or nonstrategic reserves to backfill structural deficits, and expand programming with no indication that there is an audience for it. We grantmakers certainly bear some responsibility for these trends, and poor funder behaviors were explicitly implicated in the Oakland Symphony’s story as well. 1

The authors of Autopsy took painstaking efforts to detail the many factors that contributed to the symphony’s bankruptcy, including its leadership’s failure to balance artistic vision with realistic resource development plans and too few funders providing multiyear general support, but I was particularly interested in “Section 4: Audiences.” In their demographic analysis of the audience potential of East Bay residents, the authors cite national research showing that audiences for “the traditional performing arts” tend to be “older, wealthier, better educated, and more likely to be Caucasian and employed in a white collar profession.” The Oakland Symphony’s audience in 1987 fit this description perfectly, and these trends for performing arts audiences continue today. The authors describe the situation in this way:

As regrettable as these statistics may be to those in the arts working to broaden the profile of the arts attender, the fact remains that to gauge audience potential, performing arts institutions must look first for their audience base within this upscale demographic . . . The City of Oakland itself is a difficult arts market with respect to upscale demographic factors. Between 1970 and 1980, the population of the city declined 6.1 percent, while its nonwhite population increased from 40.9 percent to 56.0 percent of the city. In addition, median income declined 7.4 percent.

The authors go on to describe the Oakland Symphony’s dreams to become a “major institution” and its attempts to sink deeper roots in communities surrounding Oakland, where there were higher numbers of wealthy potential ticket buyers and donors, both in absolute numbers and proportion of the population. In other words, the Oakland Symphony didn’t double down and ask, “What kind of symphony could serve the City of Oakland well?” or “How might we adapt our model to better serve this changing community?” It looked elsewhere.

I read Autopsy as a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, which has one of the most racially and ethnically diverse populations in the country and of which Oakland is a part. I also read the report as a member of a national community of arts grantmakers who are increasingly and publicly wrestling with questions of cultural equity, social justice, and capitalization. The United States is growing more racially and ethnically diverse, and the wealth gap is widening and becoming even more racialized. Organizations like the Oakland Symphony that are based in communities where the population is diversifying and have historically depended on wealth-based patronage will continue to have fewer places to go to sustain their current business model. 2

If we aspire to have healthy nonprofit cultural institutions that serve the needs and interests of our diverse communities, then these trends raise important questions for us as grantmakers:

  • In response to the demographic and economic changes facing our communities, how might the business models and programmatic practices of organizations that have historically depended on wealth-based patronage need to change? How can we support these transitions?
  • What is the role of grantmakers, both public and private, in supporting communities that have been historically marginalized and have not been able to build sufficient financial wealth to support their own cultural institutions? How can we honor the rich cultural traditions, diverse organizational models, and types of cultural participation that have received less institutional support over the years? 3

A few ideas come to mind, such as providing change capital for organizations to experiment with more grassroots fundraising, increasing monetary and nonmonetary support to organizations and artists serving communities in which people have low incomes and whose wealth is not financial, and reinvigorating advocacy efforts for increased and equitably distributed public and private funding for arts and culture. I know this work has been and is happening, but there is more to do.

I recognize that I’ve raised questions with broad implications and no simple solutions. Most organizations simply want to pay their artists well and create meaningful work for their audiences. This was the goal of the former Oakland Symphony, but unfortunately its business model was out of tune with the realities of its environment. It is also the goal of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, formed in 1988 just as Beene and Associates’ report detailing the decline of the Oakland Symphony was released. In contrast to the former Oakland Symphony, the Oakland East Bay Symphony has a stated commitment to serving the diverse Oakland and East Bay communities and seems to be thriving. This is not a critique of Western European classical forms and those who support them; rather, it raises a larger question about what kinds of communities we want to live in and what institutional structures can support the many cultures within those communities. To engage with these questions, all of us who care about arts, culture, and community need to look deeply at the ways in which race and class intersect in our work.


  1. The recommendations that Autopsy’s authors made to both funders and arts nonprofits have gone largely unheeded. Most grants continue to be short term and project based, and only since the recent recession have funders questioned the “growth = good” assumption. Critical review of organizations’ balance sheets and encouragement of operating surpluses has become a topic of discussion at GIA only in the past two years, as part of conversations about capitalization.
  2. For a good overview of structural factors that have led to the high correlation between wealth and race, see Meizhu Lui et al., The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide (New York: Free Press, 2006). Also see Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, and Paul Taylor, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics.” Pew Research Center, July 26, 2011.
  3. Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy (2011), Holly Sidford writes, “The majority of arts funding supports large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million. Such organizations, which comprise less than 2 percent of the universe of arts and cultural nonprofits, receive more than half of the sector’s total revenue. These institutions focus primarily on Western European art forms, and their programs serve audiences that are predominantly white and upper income.” Both the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and WolfBrown’s Cultural Engagement in California’s Inland Regions (2008) provide detailed descriptions of arts participation trends among people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.