It's not often that American institutions devoted to "classical" or "art" music make national headlines. Unfortunately these days, when they do, it's usually because the news is bad.
Such is the case with two internationally acclaimed musical organizations, the Minnesota Orchestra and the New York City Opera. The Minnesota Orchestra's future is uncertain—management and musicians are barely talking, and their beloved music director recently resigned. For financial reasons that are still not clear, the NYCO will, in the words of its director, "wind down the company" later this month.
There are some commentators who have chalked up these developments to simple market analysis—if there was a greater demand for live orchestral music or opera, the money would appear. It's instructive to consider that the immediate shortfall for the Minnesota Orchestra was around $6 million, a mere fraction of the $975 million that a new Vikings stadium will reportedly cost.
Last week in the music history class I'm teaching this semester, we examined music and art made during Roosevelt's New Deal. For a brief period in the mid 1930s, the U.S. government actually funded artists, musicians and writers through various projects associated with the Works Progress Administration. (Taking a page from history, consider that Obama's stimulus package might have included grants for artists!) Many of the products of these programs were made and forgotten soon after, but some, such as the murals that still appear in many public buildings across the US, remind us that artists and their works can leave an indelible mark on our shared culture, and that our lives are the richer for it.
Those of us who attend such “decadent” events as orchestra concerts and operas have seen, firsthand, the transformative power of great art. This week in the music history course mentioned above, we are studying Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony no. 11: The Year of 1905, composed in 1957. Although the piece supposedly commemorates an important event in the Russian revolution, it also spoke to contemporary audiences about Soviet aggression in Hungary and the massive purges that took place under Stalin. This music isn't diversion, it's life. Before we decide to continue building sports stadiums while we simultaneously allow arts institutions to fade, let's consider what we're giving up, and what we're willing to do to keep art an essential part of our culture.