A poor telemarketer for the local symphony called my house one evening. She caught me on a rough night, one fraught with one too many solicitation calls and the demands of a grumpy three-year-old. Out of obligation I listened to the spiel, and when she was done I politely say "I'm not interested in a subscription," expecting to hang up and get back to my grumpy three-year-old. But then she pressed, "But ma'am, it shows here you usually attend piano concerts, but you haven't attended in a long time. Can I ask why?" It was a valid question, I had a brief reply. "Because I haven't seen one I've wanted to go to in a long time." She presses again with, "But how could that be? We're featuring Emanuel Ax, Andre Watts, and..." and then she continued with a long list of all the usual suspects, arguably the top six or seven most booked pianists in the world. I reply, "Yes, but you feature them interchangeably every other season." Here's where it gets dicey. She responds incredulously, "But who else is there?!"
I think I blacked out right before the barrage of names I listed, which included established and young artists without even a mention of the fabulous Yuja Wang or Lang Lang. I don't remember how I jumped into questions about when they were going to program music by African-American composers other than William Grant Still or feature repertoire by women, Hispanics and other minorities outside of February and March. When was Pops programming actually going to sound like popular music? I just remember that when I took a breath, I could hear the regret on the other side of the line. That was a few years ago.
On Sunday, as I watched the proverbial pink slips being handed out to seven NFL coaches and multiple general managers, it made me recall that symphony telemarketer experience. What if someone were asking the types of unwanted questions I was raining down on her to the arts leaders who actually controlled the situation? Would we see a Black Monday in the arts world?
If we learned nothing else from seeing arguably good coaches get the boot, including three men who'd taken their teams to Super Bowls, let us remember that it's not about what we've done, but about what we're capable of doing moving forward. Despite illustrious previous seasons, only one dismal season and even current seasons ending on a positive note, some great men didn't get another chance to make things right. It wasn't because they were no longer great, but rather their particular brand of greatness was no longer producing results where they were standing.
If leaders of arts organizations, orchestras and even individual artists had to face the same sort of sweeping scrutiny, we'd have to ask questions like: Are we really creatively programming in a provocative way that might bring in new audiences, or are we just charging our marketing teams to come up with cute titles? Are our pre-concert lectures truly dynamic or are they sleep-inducing, catering to the same music know-it-alls who show up early mostly, so they can sit in their favorite seats? Are we taking enough calculated risks on emerging artists or are we only booking who's young and trendy? Do we have a recognizable artistic identity in our community? What does the lay public think about us, do they know we exist? Are we relevant to the people outside of the ones who come to our annual gala? Heck, do we see the gala people outside of the annual gala? Have we thought of profit models outside of donations and ticket sales? Are people giving because they feel obligated or because they can't live without us? Do the people who hold the top seats still play with a contagious passion? Are we boring? Are we truly relevant?
It's scary to think about those answers. I know because I've personally benched myself in the past over my own responses regarding the progress of my own art. We'd probably lose a few good executive and artistic directors over the answering of those types of questions, and it's sad because like those NFL coaches, we know they all meant well. But what Black Monday tells us is that meaning well is not enough and neither is having put on the city's first Mahler cycle six seasons ago. What the arts world needs is fresh vision that can adapt to the new crop of talent being cultivated, continually inspire the guard currently in place and make innovative, rather than obligatory use of new technology and ways of communicating. First and foremost, they must come clean about what's not working and what's barely working. You see, the NFL can afford to mostly focus on the people already in the stands because those numbers are still great even if they are down more than in years past. Plus, they've still got TV to help pay the bills. Classical music does not have the same luxury. We have no choice but to think about attracting the people who have yet to grace our halls.
Nevertheless, I propose no drastic Black Monday. For now, let's just have a big, empowering call to action. Well, at least until the end of next season.