David Ramael

European Forum on Music 2014

European Forum on Music 2014

On July 3, 2014, Posted by , In Conference Presentations, With No Comments

IMG_0988I recently was in Berne for the European Forum on Music, which for their fourth edition chose Music and Politics: a shared responsibility as topic (http://www.emc-imc.org/efm). I was asked to serve on a panel discussing The Power of the Amateurs: The Swiss Federal Popular Initiative on Music Education moderated by Daniel Kellerhals. It was a great pleasure discussing this marvelous Swiss initiative, which resulted in Switzerland being the first country in the world to have music education as a constitutionally guaranteed right for all school children. It will take a while to work out all the logistical details, but what hope this initiative gives to all musicians and music lovers all over the world.

The next day I gave my personal presentation, entitled Political Engagement from a Performer’s Perspective: Burdens, Challenges and Responsibilities. Below you will find my entire text – please do share your comments and additional insights!

When I originally started thinking about a presentation topic for the European Forum on Music, I immediately ventured into the field of arts funding. You see, I had recently moved back to Europe from living in the US for more than 15 years, where I had become intimately familiar with the endowment and donations-based model for arts funding. I had front row seats to witness the devastation to arts operations, and in my field more specifically orchestras, caused by the 2008 financial collapse. Many orchestras saw their endowment shrink by as much as 50%, and donations income, whether from corporate sponsorship or private individuals, severely reduced or in some cases even completely vanished. Many orchestras did not survive this tumultuous period, and either are no longer in existence or have had to fundamentally change the size and scope of their artistic mission, among them San Jose, Tampa Bay, Louisville, Syracuse, Albuquerque and Honolulu. Even major players such as the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Nashville Symphony have either had to file for bankruptcy protection or have had to navigate complete financial reorganization.
In 2005, the average American orchestra received 45 percent of its income from donations, 13 percent from investments and 5 percent from governments, with the final 37 percent of revenue coming from ticket sales. This 37 percent was already a major decline from 1987, when American orchestras on average covered 48 percent of their budget through performance income. In 2012, Robert Flanagan, professor emeritus of International Labor Economics and Policy Analysis at Stanford University, wrote in his book “The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras,” that a 1 percent increase in local unemployment is accompanied, on average, by a 0.7 point fall in the share of performance costs covered by ticket sales. In 2006 and 2007, unemployment in the US hovered around 4.6%, with a slight jump in 2008 to 5.8%, and the full effects of the crisis became visible in 2009 with a massive jump to 9.3%, and 2010 to 9.6%. Needless to say, this confluence of negative economic factors have pushed many orchestras, and arts organizations in general, to the brink.
When I moved back to Belgium this past winter, I knew I’d be moving back to a fundamentally different arts funding model, where – ranging from a significant part to the majority of the operating budget is covered by public subsidies. The global crisis, however, did not leave arts funding unaffected. We are all intimately familiar with the 25% slash in the Dutch government’s 800m € arts budget of 2012, the 2013 folding of the ensembles of Greek Radio and Television, etc. Below is a compilation of articles published in an 5 day-span in The Guardian:
30 Jul 2012: European arts cuts: France threatens to pull plug on creatives’ special benefits
Unique unemployment relief for workers from clowns to cameramen ‘not sustainable’, says state auditor
1 Aug 2012: European arts cuts: no more Mozart with gravy and potatoes as Danish orchestra is silenced
With films, food and children’s sessions, the Jyske Ensemble’s informal approach found new audience for classical music
1 Aug 2012: European arts cuts: Polish drama turns to tragedy as cuts bite
As pro-EU ruling party cuts theatre funding, venues are having a hard time with actors kept going largely ‘on their dreams’
2 Aug 2012: European arts cuts: Dutch dance loses out as Netherlands slashes funding
Internationaal Danstheater says the government has made cuts too quickly, leaving organisations without alternative support
3 Aug 2012: European arts cuts: Rome’s Maxxi maxes out the ministerial funding
Management of Zaha Hadid-designed hub for modern artists replaced by culture ministry commissioner
3 Aug 2012: European arts cuts: Italian theatre’s grassroots bear the brunt
Festivals and theatres close as shortages and delays in funding follow loss of national institute
3 Aug 2012: European arts cuts: Italy’s cultural memory under threat
Budget squeeze at state archives puts future of thousands of valuable documents all over the country in doubt 
3 Aug 2012: European arts cuts: Barcelona group helping disadvantaged is thrown lifeline
Art Solidari is bailed out by anonymous donor after public money runs out 
3 Aug 2012: European arts cuts: the death of a Greek gallery
‘Art becomes the least priority,’ says Elizabeth Louizou, who has been forced to close her formerly popular gallery in a prime Athens location 
3 Aug 2012: European arts cuts: ‘Simple maths’ forces German orchestras to merge
Accident of postwar occupation gave broadcaster Südwestrundfunk two orchestras
3 Aug 2012: European arts cuts: Germany’s English-language theatre gets dose of realism
English Theatre Berlin says it will have to close as puppet Faust and Neil LaBute fail to satisfy German taste for the avant-garde
It is clear that public arts funding has suffered in Europe, but we must also carefully analyze the reasons behind it. While at its source all arts funding cuts are due to economic factors, we still see two different strategies emerging across the European Union: 1. economic factors as sole driving force, and 2. a shift in political culture.
In countries such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland, where the economic crisis is threatening those countries’ continued membership in the Euro-zone, cuts in arts funding are relatively proportionate with cuts in social programs, healthcare, education and other government subsidized entities. Arts funding in these countries will remain tight for years to come, and arts organizations will have to continually compete for funding. However, in countries where a drastic political shift in arts funding has occurred, such as in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, the longterm implications for arts organizations can be much more enduring, regardless of the state of economic recovery. Both countries are leaning more towards a US model for arts funding, with significant contributions having to come from corporations and private donations. This change in funding paradigm raises a number of questions, which deserve careful consideration.
Historical role of government
The role of government in society has been fundamentally different between the US and Europe. Historically government intervention in people’s daily lives has had negative connotations for most Americans, who prefer a small federal government, with most power relegated to the States and local municipalities. Especially over the last 30 years, once Milton Friedman’s neo-liberal proposals became U.S. policy, there has been strong political pressure on reducing the footprint of the federal government in all areas except the military. The National Endowment for the Arts reached a funding peak in 1992 of $175,954,680, and has been severely underfunded since, with current spending at $146,021,000. In comparison the German federal government contributes around €400,000,000 to Berlin’s arts institutions alone. According to the tenets of American neo-liberalism, governmental spending for public healthcare, education, social and cultural services must be minimized while allowing the deregulated free market to dictate the degree in which arts and culture are wanted and ultimately consumed by the individual. The emphasis here no longer falls on the idea that arts and culture contribute to a “greater good” for all of society, but rather that the individual decides what is culturally relevant through “purchasing” those offerings.
Corporate sponsorship and private donations
Taken to its ultimate consequence, neo-liberalism would push the arts completely into the realm of the free marketplace, where it must compete with the entire popular arts industry. To mitigate the circumstances of this marginalized existence, corporate sponsors, foundations and wealthy (and not so wealthy) individuals have recognized the need to support the arts above and beyond the marketplace. This tradition of giving also fits into the Anglo-saxon tradition of civil society, where individuals and foundations, and more recently by extension corporations, have filled in the gaps left by small government. This system is further supported by a legal and fiscal infrastructure, which facilitates and encourages donations to charitable organizations, which includes the arts. In the U.S. there are no limits on charitable contributions for most taxpayers, who will be able to deduct cash contributions in full up to 50% of adjusted gross income.
It is easy to understand how for a fiscally conservative, populist minded politician the idea of a free market defined, sponsorship aided arts world sounds enticing on many levels, and how it can be easily sold in a few empty slogans. Remember the one about art being “a leftist hobby?” However, switching from a primarily government-based funding model to a private/corporations based funding model has multiple complexity layers that cannot be captured in a one-line political slogan. Without going into too much detail I’d like to offer the following points for debate:
  • The Anglo-saxon civil tradition has deep historical roots unknown or at least unfamiliar to continental Europe. Expecting to change in short time the entire continental European relationship vis a vis arts funding in order to save a few easy bucks, is insincere at best. Without considering the longterm implications, this change may cause irreparable damage to the social and cultural fabric of our society, if it leads to the demise of some of our most cherished and important institutions.
  • The U.S. funding model demands a legal and fiscal infrastructure, which in most European countries is still lacking. While the Netherlands implemented some tax laws that make it easier for individuals and corporations to claim tax benefits for charitable contributions to arts organizations, most other European countries that are considering a move toward a U.S. based model do not offer similar tax advantages. For example in Belgium charitable contributions may not exceed 5% of the total net income of the taxable period, with a maximum of EUR 500,000 to be tax deductible, which is very different from the 50% of adjusted gross income in the U.S.
  • U.S. arts organizations have a huge headstart with organizing fundraising departments. Even in small arts organizations one can usually find a fulltime employee dedicated to fundraising through corporate sponsorship and private donations. Of the seven large professional orchestras and chamber orchestras in Belgium, excluding the opera houses, only one ensemble employs a fulltime person dedicated to fundraising. European arts organizations have a long way to go in order to become as efficient as their American counterparts in this regard. This is also a change that will not happen overnight.
  • American arts organizations are led by boards, whose constituents are the most generous donors and who have access to the rich and powerful. Executive and artistic directors are directly accountable to the board, with the final measuring stick the financial success of the organization. This has direct and severe impacts on artistic programming. To give you a personal example: A colleague of mine has been music director of a regional orchestra for well over a decade. Through her diligent work she has significantly raised the regional profile of the orchestra, and as a direct result the budget has steadily climbed over time. However, during all this time the board has steadfastly refused for her to program a Bruckner symphony. In their minds it is inconceivable that audience members would sit through an 85-minute symphony and enjoy it. Needless to say this orchestra has never played anything by Boulez, Stockhausen, Varese, Ligeti, Henze, etc. Is it coincidence that what some in Europe consider a “progressive” funding model, produces the most “conservative” artistic results?
  • Let’s add some numbers for additional perspective: Germany has one full-time, year-round orchestra for every 590,000 people, while the United States has one for every 14 million (or 23 times less per capita). If America averaged the same ratios per capita as Germany, it would have 485 full-time, year-round orchestras instead of about 20. If New York City had the same number of orchestras per capita as Munich it would have about 45. If New York City had the same number of full-time operas as Berlin per capita it would have six. While Germany leads or is at the very top in pretty much every single category when it comes to arts funding, the reality of the American orchestral landscape is at the very other end of the spectrum, and is a direct result of its funding model.
 It is clear to me, both from personal experience having lived and worked in the U.S. and from some of the data I presented above, that a move to a U.S. system of arts funding would have disastrous consequences for the diversity, richness and sense of exploration that currently surges through the European arts scene (and which, in my opinion, always has been one of its defining characteristics). Nonetheless, the economic reality is such that European arts organizations will have to increase their efforts supplementing operating budgets from sources other than government subsidies. However, the entire arts community has a huge obligation to continually inform policy makers about the enormous societal value of a thriving arts scene.
In recent years much research has been done into the extrinsic value of music, and especially music education. Studies have shown how musical training has a beneficial impact on math and language skills, spatial intelligence, problem solving skills as well as social skills. These studies are used by music administrators, music advocates and educators to stem the ongoing cuts in arts and music education, both in the U.S and Europe. These studies fit into the larger scheme of performance based evaluation across the board. In a recent article in De Standaard, Pieter Timmermans, the president of the Association of Belgian Corporations was urging for a significant increase in the number of courses taught in English at Belgian universities, in order to remain globally competitive. While the extrinsic value of knowing a foreign language is clear to most of us here, I highly doubt that Mr. Timmermans meant taking a course tracing the influence of Shakespeare on the moral world of the Victorian novel. Here again, study of a language has become commoditized in order to gain a competitive advantage, which may result in greater financial profit (which then may or may not be used as charitable donation for an arts organization, but I digress). 
As a conductor myself, my personal conviction is that art music, classical music, has a value to society, the sum of which exceeds its measurable parts. It is the intrinsic value – what does music contribute in and by itself – that needs to be referenced more as a fundamental condition for continued governmental support for the arts. The main issue with arguing the benefits of the intrinsic value of art and music, is that those are hard to prove by crunching data and presenting assessment based outcomes. Music’s intrinsic value is argued through passionate advocacy, and it is here that musicians (and artists in general) have dropped the ball. Language is misleading in that it groups classical musicians together as a homogenous group, but the reality is quite different. By nature of what we do we are a large group of individuals who make up our own minds, place our own priorities, and have our own solutions to the myriad problems our industry faces. Because artistic expression is tied to the unique self, subjugating these self-central tendencies for the “greater good” goes counter to the entire outlook of our role in society. And this is also why it is so hard to present a “unified front” as musicians (and let’s not even try to group all of the arts under a single umbrella), hence our retreat into our own little worlds – practicing our concerti, studying our scores, teaching our students. Nonetheless it is exactly this emphasis on uniqueness – a composer’s voice, a performer’s interpretation, an orchestra’s sound – which sets classical music apart from the commercial homogenization of popular music, and which in turn attracts our audiences.
I am fully aware that a 15-minute long presentation does nothing but skim the surface of the myriad problems facing lasting and legitimate financial support for the arts, but if there is one message I’d like to send out as a professional musician myself, is for all artists to start advocating passionately, intelligently, and well informed, on the intrinsic value of art in society. We need to mobilize our audiences to stand behind us as voters and tax payers, and include them in our advocacy for continued governmental support for the arts. We can no longer let our art do the speaking alone, but we have to become at the same time the practitioners, guardians, historians, visionaries and lobbyists of what we hold so dear.
David Ramael, D.M.A.
Antwerp, June 17, 2014 
 Emily Grannis, Orchestras Fight Hard Times Through Bankruptcy Seeking New Model, in www.bloomberg.com, 8/21/2012.
Robert J. Flanagan, The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras: Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges, Yale University Press, 2012.
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Web: stats.bls.gov

William Osborne, Marketplace of Ideas: But First, The Bill. A Personal Commentary On American and European Cultural Funding, in www.artsjournal.com, 3/11/2004.


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