Do you want to know why the arts face an uphill battle in the country? Check out the comments over at the Mercury that arose after it was discovered in the proposed city budget that $200,000 had been appropriated to help send the Oregon Symphony to Carnegie Hall in 2011.
Somehow, in the course of less than ten comments, it had degenerated to the point where the original post’s author suggested that sending the orchestra to Carnegie would come at the expense of fire protection, and that the orchestra perhaps might just stay home and play Barber’s Adagio for Strings for people when their houses burned down. Somehow even the $20 million set aside for bike lanes was inserted into the mix.
The fact is, $200K is a big portion of the OSO’s annual budget to come up with out of thin air, while it’s a tiny fraction of the city’s budget. These are tough times for everyone, I do recognize this, but the Oregon Symphony has hardly been a fiscal drain on city, metro, and state government for the past decades. We’ve received little in the way of funding from the city – and that has dwindled to nearly nothing since Vera Katz’s term came to a close. We used to do four free parks concerts that were paid for by the city, and now we play just one – the annual waterfront concert at Tom McCall Waterfront Park at the close of summer. Almost all of the other money that is contributed to the orchestra comes through private donations and foundation grants, as well as ticket sales.
Going to Carnegie Hall is the crowing achievement of one’s career as an individual musician, and for orchestras it is much the same. Once you go to Carnegie, you declare yourself to the world that you have arrived. For the Oregon Symphony to play Carnegie for the first time is to place it in the company of the greatest orchestras in the world, and the chance to face the most powerful critical establishment (who have heard all of those other orchestras) is a challenge that will help to further the remarkable artistic growth that the ensemble has already experienced in the seven years of Carlos Kalmar’s tenure with the orchestra. Returning triumphantly from the debut will also bring a higher profile to the orchestra and to the arts scene of Portland to which it belongs. As the city’s (and state’s) flagship arts organization, it’s a chance to share our talent on the world stage. If doing so does not matter, then why does Thomas Lauderdale proudly proclaim Pink Martini as being from Portland, Oregon at every concert? He does so because people learn more about the city by seeing what comes out of the city. If a community is full of fabulous, vibrant, and creative organizations, it’s a powerful incentive for people to move to the region, for businesses to locate here, for people to retire here. That growth leads to a more cosmopolitan, vibrant, and creative community – which is always a good thing.
But we constantly face the obstacle that music is an ephemeral art: it happens and then it’s gone. There is no fire station, mall, bike lane, or homeless shelter left behind to admire. But the orchestra itself (made up of people who love this city and make it our home) does remain, and so do our audiences, who spend money in the downtown core, lobby their schools for more arts education, pay taxes, and yearn for a more artistically viable community. Our going to Carnegie is for them, really, and for all of those musicians who have come before us, working entire lifetimes to make the Oregon Symphony a great orchestra – we love Portland, we love playing for our fantastic audiences here, and we want to take that love and joy and Oregonian spirit to Carnegie hall and knock their socks off in NY.
Isn’t that worth a measly $200,000?