Monday, November 25, 2013

An Inconvenient Truth about Making Music

I have been reading Leonard Slatkin's book Conducting Business. The other day I came across a great sentence in which Slatkin compared symphony orchestras to Major League Baseball teams:
Of course, the big leagues are about making money, whereas the orchestras are about trying to lose as little as possible.
Reading this was hardly a surprise, but it made me think. I happened to be teaching at the University of Pennsylvania when the Wharton School of Business launched their arts management program. Thanks to a friend, I had the good fortune to sit in on some of the classes being offered under this specialization. I do not think I can recall that sentence coming up in any of the classes I visited. Indeed, I would be inclined to believe than any mention of losing money violates some fundamental article of faith at Wharton, or any other business school for that matter.

I would therefore be bold enough to suggest that the management of a performing arts organization requires a mindset that differs significantly from one required to manage a leading business venture, particularly when that venture "goes public" and has to worry about shareholders more than customers or employees. Every now and then I hear some grumbling about how adding arts management to the business school curriculum has made things worse, rather than better. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the profit motive is really out of place in the performing arts. It is not that the performing arts choose to lose money; but, because they will always appeal to a rather limited body of "consumers," the possibility of profit is, at best, very slim.

There is no doubt that every performing arts organization needs at least one bean counter, even if that person is there for the sake of "just getting by." However, counting the beans is an abstract process that has nothing to do with why people are motivated to go into the performing arts in the first place. From that point of view, I would suggest that the very concept of "arts management" is inconvenient, if not dangerous, to those work practices without which the performing arts would not exist.

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