On purpose, change, structure and relevance

An interesting question from the League of American Orchestra, which had its annual conference just last week. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go, but that doesn’t preclude me from chiming in (I did here, here and here). In addition, the opening session was broadcasted and recorded. Find it here.

The question was “what is the most important question to discuss?” and the audience, both on- and offline was to pick from the following options:

Purpose: What makes an orchestra matter in the 21st century?

Change: If we “let go of the past” and “embrace the future,” what should we retain, release, and go for?

Structure: How should an orchestra be structured, organized, and behave to be successful?

Relevance: What does the artistically vibrant orchestra need to look like to be essential for its community?

Relevance won by a mile, followed by purpose, change and lastly structure. Those first three questions, to me, indicate that orchestras, or at least their managers, don’t quite know what they are. Ian David Moss at Createquity writes: “My sense is that the orchestra field is facing something of an existential crisis right now. Why else would it so openly welcome questions of its relevance to audiences and communities in the 21st century?”

Are we really in some kind of existential crisis? I’m not so sure. Each arts organization, each orchestra is of course unique, but they all have a broad purpose in common: art. In whatever shape or form and to be determined by more creative types. And artistic vibrancy creates relevancy. Sure, change is needed to let go of the past and embrace the future, but we’ve been talking about this for years and we’ve seen some answers: engagement. Ben Cameron, in his key note address, talked about a market less defined by consumption, but more and more by participation.

To me, it all boils down to the question: How are you going to change, how are you going to be relevant, how are you going to fulfill your purpose without the necessary structure?

Jesse Rosen, president of the League, in an online conversation with Doug McLennan, seemed to agree: “I couldn’t help but notice the lowest scoring question […] was the question about structure. […] It may be one of the elephants in the room, because it is one of the harder problems to solve.”

Although it’s perhaps something that can’t be discussed in snippets of 140 characters, on Twitter, I received some push back. Ian David Moss wrote in response to my tweet that the purpose is art: “Whenever anyone pushed the ‘what is the purpose of the orchestra’ or ‘what excites you,’ nobody took bait.” Conductor Stephen Brown wrote: “how do we know what structure is necessary?” and “an orchestra with a great structure will still die if it supports an irrelevant ‘experience/product.'”

My problem with discussions about purpose, relevance is that they are too abstract to facilitate real change. And purpose and relevance do not come in a one-size-fits-all package. What the field needs is a real, hands-on discussion about how to facilitate change and how to practically prepare for the future. The field needs a new structure in a new environment.

In this changing environment the structure would need to follow a couple of rules:

* Creativity nowadays means setting up a framework in which creativity can happen
Ben Cameron suggested in his key note that an orchestra’s role is maybe “an orchestration of social interaction.” Jesse Rosen even questioned “are we more about reenactment than creation?” Creativity not just stems from the organization anymore. The structure needs to provide a framework of resources for creativity and allow and set the stage for people, inside or outside, to become creators.

* The structure needs an organizational culture that supports it
As Joseph Jaffe writes in Flip the Funnel: “…without cultural buy-in, organizational resource allocation, system integration, and best practices are like a transplanted organ rejected by its host body.” In an older book, Strategy: Core Concepts, the authors explain how a mismatch in culture and strategy occurs. I wrote about that in an earlier blog post on organizational culture and change. I have also used the very same book to look at a decentralized organization versus a centralized organization. And for the Orchestra R/Evolution blog, I wrote about Google’s 20%-time rule, which is one idea to allow creativity to come back into the organizational culture.

In short, the new structure needs to reflect the new environment. The often heard words transparency, authenticity and sincerity are not just buzz words. Eric Booth mentioned that “anytime you engage workers in conversation about their work, productivity goes up.”

The purpose is art; vibrant art breeds relevancy; the change that’s needed is engagement; now let’s build the structure to support it.

* Update: there has been more discussion on the topic. Find it here:
Drew McManus | Adaptistration | Look Before You Leap
Stephen P Brown’s Blog | An Orchestra’s Relevance Isn’t Relevant?
Andrew Adler | Louisville Courier-Journal | Orchestra Leaders Only Talk of Change

7 thoughts on “On purpose, change, structure and relevance”

  1. Each arts organization, each orchestra is of course unique, but they all have a broad purpose in common: art. In whatever shape or form and to be determined by more creative types. And artistic vibrancy creates relevancy.

    With all due respect, Marc, I don’t feel like you’ve told me anything with this statement; it’s just a series of assertions. You haven’t give me any indication of what you mean by “art,” or “relevance” for that matter, or why they’re important, or why we should care. You’re also offering me nothing that differentiates one form of art (like, oh, I don’t know, orchestral music) from another, nor anything that ties all art forms together. Tell me what these words mean to you, and then we can talk about structure necessary to make those things possible.

    I don’t mean to suggest that structure isn’t an important (and interesting) conversation to have. If you, Marc van Bree, have a purpose in mind and are ready to move ahead and start talking about structure, that’s great — I fully support that. What I was trying to convey on Twitter (and one of the reasons I secretly hate Twitter is because it’s impossible to have conversations like these on it) is that I don’t think the rest of the orchestra field, from my observation on the OR website and at the conference, is ready to have these conversations yet. They’re still figuring the purpose question out – as demonstrated by the vote totals. The kind of conversation that I was hoping to see, and haven’t yet seen, is something along the lines of this: “Orchestras originally formed because of reasons XYZ and AB. While AB are still valid and meaningful today, XYZ have been made obsolete by changes in how we experience art in the 21st century. However, there is a need for PDQ that isn’t being met, and perhaps orchestras could play a role in that. Given that that’s the case, I propose a new vision for orchestras that is more focused on AB / PDQ than XYZ / AB, and here are the kinds of structures that would help with that.”

    That’s why my preferred question was the one that nobody mentioned: CHANGE (if you were starting over, what would you throw out and what would you keep the same about the way we currently do orchestras?). That’s a pretty concrete, accessible question whose answer SUGGESTS purpose, which then suggests structure. (Relevance, to me, is a red herring – relevance is achieved by getting people excited about your work, and if you nail those other three people will be excited.)

  2. Thanks very much for your in-depth comments Ian. Much appreciated. This works better than Twitter, for sure.

    I think there are perhaps different ways of defining purpose, narrowly and broadly. The context in the League’s question is “what makes an orchestra matter.” Relevance is given the context of needs to be “essential in the community.” In a way, I have always thought that just by trying to answer and defend these questions, you prove that you don’t matter and you are not essential. It echoes what I wrote a long while ago on the commercial slogan: “Proving once again, there’s more than corn in Indiana…” You yourself write: “Relevance, to me, is a red herring – relevance is achieved by getting people excited about your work.” Hence my artistic vibrancy creates relevancy.

    Now back to purpose, are we to just throw away an orchestra’s mission statement? Most statements echo something like “bringing classical music to the community.” A very broad perspective, just as I proposed with the purpose being “art.” And who am I to define art, or to define orchestral music? Who am I to dictate how orchestras should bring classical music to communities?

    I’m interested in a structure in which others can define this for themselves. Perhaps a different twist on Cameron’s suggestion: an orchestration of creative interaction. Social media is not defined by the structure, the tools, it’s defined by the social interaction. But the structure and tools provide a framework in which others can define this social interaction, in which others can define their purpose.

    A structure that facilitates a purpose defined by those who use it (musicians, music directors, staff, the community, patrons, donors).

    I suppose this is a purpose as well. Something I had in mind, as you indicate. What I was trying to avoid is coming up with a one-size-fits-all purpose for all orchestras. That’s why I believe a good structure will facilitate a purpose specific for each unique organization.

    Now I think you hit the nail on its head when you propose “a new vision for orchestras that is more focused on AB / PDQ than XYZ / AB.” I guess what I’m trying to say is that PDQ is unique to each organization, and should be defined uniquely. But we can provide structures in which this can be done.

    And I could have agreed to picking the broadest question: change. As, like you say, it probably encompasses all other questions.

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