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Michael Kaiser Headshot

What I Want for Christmas

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Every year at this time I write about the things I would like for Christmas.

Usually I write a long list of wishes but this year I am asking for only one thing. But it is a big one: I am asking for a solution to the mess that is the current state of American orchestras.

While there are certainly exceptions -- orchestras doing well by every measure -- it is clear we have a problem. One orchestra after another is struggling to fill its halls and to pay its bills. Board members and major donors are scared and tired of putting band aids on the problem. They are not sure they want to continue to contribute to ventures that seem to be unsustainable. Musicians are scared as well; their art and their livelihoods are at stake. In too many discussions, they are portrayed as the villains and in too many instances they are being asked to sacrifice far more than other participants. We have too many orchestras on strike, too many angry exchanges that do nothing to entice the public, too little discussion of inspiring artistic and educational programming.

I cannot believe there is one simple answer to this situation, otherwise it would have already emerged. There are many smart, creative people on all sides of these discussions but they have failed to produce a true answer. I do not think making every orchestra smaller is the answer; how can one perform the major orchestral works well with only a handful of musicians? I do not think cutting salaries by mammoth proportions can be the answer either. Musicians have to eat and take care of their families and, increasingly, repay their own student loans. Who will want to become a violinist or oboe player or trumpet player if the salaries are miniscule even for the world's best musicians?

I do believe we have a major marketing problem. We are simply not reaching enough potential audience members even with our slashed ticket prices.

I do believe we need artists and managers to work together to find an affordable approach to using new technologies to reach new audiences and donor pools.

I do believe we need to experiment with programming, scheduling, and pricing.

I do believe we need to work together to educate young people in the classic arts.

I do believe we need to collaborate more with other, diverse arts organizations to make our work available to new audiences.

But I am not smart enough to know how to do these things or where to start. I am not sure any one person is.

I don't expect an easy solution wrapped in a bow for Christmas.

I do hope we can bring together managers, musicians and board members from orchestras large and small and begin a coherent, comprehensive, solution-focused discussion on how we are going to maintain and build this vital sector of the arts ecology.

That would make for a perfect Christmas gift.

Happy holidays.