My family continually teases me about my intense aversion to change. Growing up, everything from my long-time piano teacher’s move to Texas to my graduation from elementary, middle, and high school made me uneasy and anxious. To this day, I still have a hard time leaving one place and going to another – it is easy for me to get too comfortable in one setting, even if I know that what is in front of me will be an exciting next step of adventure.
Big changes are everywhere these days, and not just in my own life. True, I am writing this amidst a mess of an apartment (packing up the space where I’ve lived for three years is no easy task), a mess that reminds me of my recent college graduation and the exciting (albeit slightly uncertain) phase I am about to enter. But, outside the walls of my home, the world at large is shifting. It is no secret that we live in troubled times, but it is precisely these times that allow progress to ensue. President Barack Obama said it best with his words, “…it is moments like these that force us to try harder, to dig deeper, and to discover gifts we never knew we had…”
On a recent and particularly turbulent flight to Baltimore, I distracted my nervous-flier self from the up and down motion of the plane with a feature in the May 2010 issue of Vanity Fair. In her piece, “The Met’s Grand Gamble”, Nina Munk writes about Peter Gelb and his position as General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera in New York. Gelb has created a ripple through the arts world over the past year (he assumed his current position in August 2006) due to his attempts to launch the Met into the 21st century through everything from newly staged productions of classic operas to broadcasting Met performances to movie theaters all around the world.
Like me, not everyone reacts well to change, particularly long-time Met patrons who like to see productions staged and executed the same way that they always have been. Because, as Munk points out, less than 1 percent of the Met’s budget is paid by the government, a large portion of the company’s funds are expected to come from donors. But what happens when those donors aren’t pleased with what they are supporting? Should the Met continue in the innovative direction that Gelb has established, or should it take a backwards leap into the hands of those who can keep it alive? Munk quotes a longtime opera critic as saying, “In trying to make the Met cool and downtown-y and glitzy, Gelb is pushing away the old audience.”
In January, the University of Michigan hosted the American Orchestras Summit, a landmark event that brought together leaders from orchestras across the country to examine the current state of the American orchestra. Three days of the panel discussions, breakout sections, and lectures examined what could be done about the difficulties that orchestras, and arts organizations in general, are facing in these troubled economic times. The overarching conclusion was that the arts are in dire need of change; change is necessary if the arts are to survive and become relevant to future generations.
It goes without saying that the world is a much different place than it was thirty, forty, and fifty years ago, when many of today’s lead arts donors were beginning their experiences in the field. While their contributions are invaluable, institutions need to follow the Met’s lead and should be considering how to make their work sustainable. How can we make an art that is hundreds of years old relevant to the generation of Facebook and iPods – the generation that will, one day in the not-so-distant future, be society’s leaders? Munk quotes Gelb in her article as pointing out, “We’ve had thousands of new donors through our high-definition transmissions…That’s where the future million-dollar donors are going to come from.” It is precisely these “risky” steps that will develop new (and hopefully younger) audiences who will carry the arts into a new state of existence.
I don’t have an answer to the question I posed earlier about how arts organizations are to reconcile to their donors the revolutionary changes the organizations are undergoing. It is a question that will be at the center of my thoughts during my summer experiences; the organization where I will be working recently underwent a sudden and drastic change of leadership, and I am curious to examine this particular change from a development perspective.
To quote one of my favorite episodes of the TV show Scrubs, “Change is scary, but it’s also inevitable.” A part of me is completely sympathetic to the Met donors who are angry at the differences that have emerged in performances over the past year. It’s more than likely that, were I in their shoes, I would have the same complaints. However, my young, University of Michigan-trained mind that has come to applaud change – in my field of choice, anyway. Coping with personal change is still a work in progress.