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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Where is classical music in the new arts economy?

Updated: May 15, 2018

A recent article in Blue Review by scholars Amanda Ashley and Leslie Durham (“How Universities Train Artists as Makers, Creators, and Doers” Blue Review, Jan. 8, 2018) opens with a compelling argument for why universities need to think more about how they are training artists and how that training is (or is not) preparing graduates for careers in today’s creative economy: institutions of higher education are very likely the most important patrons of the arts in the U.S. But that’s not the main thing I want to write about, for as I was reading through the article a familiar refrain kept ringing in my head: Where’s classical music in all this?

Before I get to that central question, let me share with you some of the other excellent tidbits contained in this article (as well as pick a bone or two).

Tidbit one: The university as arts anchor

Let’s start with that opening statement, one that I think is spot-on but rarely considered: that colleges and universities are very likely the leading arts patrons in the U.S., “with an estimated investment of over $5 billion.” The implications for this are many and varied, but the one focused on in the article is particularly important: despite this enormous impact, there is little research on the relationship between higher education’s “patronage” of the arts and the broader local and regional economy. I would go one step further: not only is there little research on the subject, the institutions themselves are not doing a good job of articulating this impact to both university administrators (who often look on arts units as costly luxuries) and civic leaders (who often perceive the campus as aloof and disconnected from the surrounding community [a view that is sometimes justified]). As universities face increasing pressure to justify the costs of arts programs (with their expensive facilities and high teacher/student ratios), they would do well to include their role in the local/regional economy as part of their value proposition.

Tidbit two: Transferrable skills “While there are academic and policy studies that highlight the role of the university in supporting and training STEM workers, there’s less attention on how universities anchor arts economic and workforce development. In part, this is unsurprising given that many universities are prioritizing STEM education and reacting to sharp criticism in the popular media and from politicians of traditional liberal arts education. Yet, tech entrepreneurs, including Google, call liberal arts degrees the hottest ticket and highlight the ways that liberal arts graduates are the best employees because of their critical thinking, communication, and analytical skill sets. These debates raise questions about whether and how universities should train and support their arts students and arts faculty.”

In addition to recalling the frequent refrain of adding an “A” to make STEAM (I like to say that STEAM releases the energy of the STEM), I also noted a very interesting addition right there at the end of that passage: “…and arts faculty.” One of the biggest challenges facing arts higher education today is that the educators themselves are often ill-equipped to teach their students anything beyond the art itself. This is through no fault of their own: their own training likewise focused solely on developing their artistic skills, and if they have spent time “out in the real world” it is likely in the arts economy of 20 or 30 years ago (or at least as artists who established their careers during that time). So while we need to look carefully and critically at the substance of our curricular and co-curricular offerings, we also need to look at how best to equip our educators to deliver the skills that today’s students need. Until very recently, there have not been any sort of academic credentials available in things like arts entrepreneurship. And if we’re talking about full degrees (especially terminal degrees), there’s a very real debate about whether or not such a degree is even desirable: if training in something like arts entrepreneurship becomes an end in itself, then what are the costs of having our career development faculty not be accomplished arts practitioners in their own right? To what degree would such a scenario weaken the very thing we need to be teaching?

Tidbit 2A: “A continuing aversion to ‘instrumentalizing’ the arts in some fine arts training programs also creates a barrier for artists who wish to use their skills in non-arts contexts.”

To put a finer (and perhaps more stinging) point on this, the poor job that universities are doing in developing a “transferrable skills mindset,” and the challenge in equipping faculty to teach it, is exacerbated by an institutional resistance springing from the notion that the purpose of arts training in higher education is solely to train artists. This is most true in music: as one colleague of mine wryly observed recently, “There’s a reason they call it a conservatory.” And while younger faculty coming up through the ranks tend to be much more open to broadening the nature of conservatory training, we’re still talking about a generational shift that will take years to be fully felt. And in the meantime, the top music schools continue to recruit and train students with a similar traditional mindset, meaning that even institutions with robust programs in entrepreneurship and the like still have trouble attracting a plurality of students to participate in them. And so the cycle continues: institutions seek out students who are most focused purely on mastering their craft (to the exclusion of all else), which means that only a small minority of students are availing themselves of broader training; these graduates enter a marketplace that is changing while lacking the skills to engage in that change, while those who do enter the ranks of teaching bring up the next generation of students in the same paradigm with which they were taught. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Tidbit 3: Confusion continues regarding what constitutes “entrepreneurship” (Okay this one is more than a tidbit)

Anyone whose been reading my blogs for a while has heard me talk about this before, but the authors of the Blue Review article once again conflate “entrepreneurship” with fields like arts administration and marketing, when in fact these pursuits are distinct in some very important ways.

“[An increasing number of universities offer] nonprofit training, fiscal budgeting, grant writing, and more where the goal is to train artists to work as leaders and advocates in for-profit and non-profit arts organizations. [JN: Yay!] While these entrepreneurial and management programs are the darlings of many universities and draw healthy flows of students [JN: Well, not always], there is also some concern that they don’t prepare students to articulate their skill sets outside of the arts industries, that the instruction is disconnected from their artistic practice, and that the broader contemporary arts context is marginalized. [JN: Aaaaaa-men!] When classes focus entirely on skills, whether those are arts-related (e.g. how to write a play) or entrepreneurial (e.g. how to write a grant to support the production of a play), students are left on their own to discern the role of the artist in the 21st century and how creative industries and occupations have changed over time.” [JN: Okay wait. Hold on a minute…]

There is much in this paragraph that is spot-on. The statement expressing the concern that most career training doesn’t “prepare students to articulate their skills sets outside of the arts industries,” for instance, and that “the instruction is disconnected from their artistic practice” is much more the norm than the exception. The authors also make an especially important observation that most programs out there claiming to prepare artists for careers in the 21st-century economy focus on teaching skills rather than strategies. The problem with this approach is that skills – the latest ways to use social media to build a brand, for example – are likely to go stale with startling speed. Placing those skills within a broader strategic framework is therefore essential to truly prepare students for the rapidly changing world they are about to enter.

Where the authors go astray is by characterizing entrepreneurship as simply another skill: “whether those are arts-related [skills]…or entrepreneurial (e.g., how to write a grant)…” No! Teaching grant-writing skills is not entrepreneurship; it is simply another skill, just like how to design a good website or tips for negotiating gigs are skills. The last bit, “[discerning] the role of the artist in the 21st century and how creative industries and occupations have changed over time” is much more in the entrepreneurial sphere – and it’s this bit that’s lacking from most programs. So yes, we need to be teaching both skills and strategies; let’s just be sure we understand which is which. In other words, entrepreneurial training needs to be viewed as the strategic piece, not the skills piece. I see entrepreneurship as the empowerment of career skills. It’s the strategic approach for utilizing professional skills effectively, and towards productive and sustainable ends. Skills are necessary for effective entrepreneurial action; but without an entrepreneurial mindset, skills alone are blunt instruments.

Why is this distinction so important? Is this more than just a question of semantics? Yes. Mis-defining entrepreneurship is in fact central to the problem that even well-meaning institutions face when developing career development programs for the arts, because by lumping together “entrepreneurship,” “arts administration,” and other career skills, many institutions are unwittingly claiming to offer something they’re not. They’re offering skills without strategies or context. And perhaps more to the point, they are therefore kidding themselves about how well they’re preparing their students for careers in the modern marketplace. Effective, comprehensive career training requires three things: professional skills (the “artist’s toolkit”), an entrepreneurial mindset (opportunity recognition, customer focus, flexibility/adaptability, risk assessment, resourcefulness, and storytelling), and what I’ll call “transferrable strategies” (that is, an understanding of how their skills and entrepreneurial thinking can be used outside of the arts). These are three interrelated but distinct entities. They should not be conflated, nor can they be shortchanged. Alas, I know of no institution (at least in music) that is addressing all three elements in an intentional and comprehensive way (i.e., widely embraced and embedded into the very philosophy of what the institution teaches and how it teaches it). Instead, “entrepreneurship” is misappropriated (usually without ill intent) so as to “check the career box” without fundamentally changing any of the institution’s priorities or approaches to training their students, and often by only teaching the “artist’s toolbox” with no context or broader understanding of how that toolbox is deployed.

Enough of these tidbits. What about the central question: Where is classical music?

As director of an entrepreneurship program primarily oriented towards classical (and jazz) musicians, the most glaring thing missing from the article is an in-depth discussion of where classical music fits into the picture. This is not because the authors have purposefully neglected classical music, it’s that there’s so little going on for them to discuss. For instance, none of the creative place-making examples cited in the article have classical music as a key component; this is typical of most urban place-making endeavors, which tend to focus on visual art, crafts, “artisanal” food and drink, design, and popular entertainment. Programs that are cited, such as Colorado’s Creative Industries (the former state arts council) or academic programs like Arizona State’s PAVE initiative, may not even focus primarily on the performing arts at all, much less classical music. (The article incorrectly states that PAVE is for the performing arts; it encompasses all arts genres, and of the many and diverse ventures that come out of it many are not in the performing arts – and almost none from classical music.) In other words, the article is correct in identifying that there are potent trends emerging in today’s creative economy, trends that bring together professional training, entrepreneurial ventures, and creative place-making; it’s also true that classical music is almost entirely unengaged in these trends.

So what’s going on? Why has the “creative economy” train left the station without classical music on board? I would argue that it’s not so much that the train has left classical music behind, but rather that classical music has not chosen to get on the train. It’s true that integrating classical music into the sorts of arts incubator/creative place-making initiatives cropping up all over the country is harder than it is for, say, popular music: the market for classical music is simply smaller. But beneath this reality is the fact that classical music institutions – especially symphony orchestras and opera companies – have resisted anything that calls for them to emerge from the dark and dusty confines of their concert halls and opera houses. And while these staid institutions will pay great lip-service to “community outreach” and “audience engagement,” they are not generally recruiting either their musicians or their artistic directors with the requisite skills for doing those things well: artistic facility remains the sole determining factor. This in turn means that the educational institutions that are supplying the top artists are likewise not incentivized to provide anything other than outstanding performers. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

And meanwhile, the new creative economy continues to pull further and further away from the station…

= = = = = = =

For more on these topics, check out my forthcoming book, The Entrepreneurial Muse: Inspiring Your Career in Classical Music, coming from Oxford University Press March 1.

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