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Classical Reflections – what do trends mean for the future?

Instrumental Work of the Year, 2015 Art Music Awards: The Secret Noise composed by Damien Ricketson, performed by Ensemble Offspring
Chris Bowen
| January 18, 2016

Recent data showing a sharp drop in Australia classical attendances gave us cause to stop and think. Is there a problem, and if so would we benefit from a national conversation – and plan?

Australia does classical and art music well. We produce and export remarkable artists, have great ensembles, our major companies can deliver superbly and are increasingly versatile, we’re brilliant in schools, our passion and commitment is second to none, and we are holding on to our audiences. So is there a problem?

When we investigated the 13 percent drop in classical attendances in 2014, we found our major companies, who achieve most of our audiences, are steady. Albeit, experiencing a constant decline relative to population growth at around 1 percent a year. It can be argued this is a good result, given the huge technological and cultural shifts that engulf us.

However there are two concerns. One is that this audience is ageing. And the other is the international audience trends, which are increasingly widespread. We looked at both in the above article. Could these be indicators of a major cultural shift underway which we’d be wise to heed?

why are national broadcasters walking away, performers awards ceasing, and Italian opera houses closing?

If this is a problem, and it’s hard to conclude it isn’t, where is the conversation, data and debate? It’s hard to find. We don’t seem to publicly talk about it, with rare exceptions such as Anna Goldsworthy’s thoughtful recent essay.  The data is patchy and sporadic, and hard to dig up. We have shared some in the article mentioned above. And a debate seems largely non-existent.

Why is this so? Quite probably because the sector is busy, very busy. Working hard to stage programs, make work, get audiences, and to play better and better.

Would we benefit from a strategic conversation about where this is all headed, and a plan for the future? This first struck me when noted US commentator Greg Sandow came out to talk at the Classical Music Summit in 2005 organised by Dick Letts. Here was someone having the conversation about these realities and challenges, which he continues in his blogs which I highly recommend. Ten years on, with a few exceptions such as Anna Goldsworthy’s essay, it is all strangely quiet here.

Maybe there isn’t a problem. After all, it is impressive that not one of our major subsidised companies has had to close its doors. New company leadership appointments of Australians and women are exciting, as are our chamber ensembles, boutique festivals, and our work underway in higher education. And commentators – including Greg Sandow – note how inspiring they find the Australian scene.

If so, then why are national broadcasters walking away, performers awards ceasing, and Italian opera houses closing? Why are US orchestras disappearing, even hallowed European festivals affected, and conservatoires under pressure? And why are young people largely absent, except for those talented and hopeful future professionals?

And if audiences are ageing, not being replaced and this process is accelerating, what will our situation be in another ten years time?

My feeling is we would benefit from a broad and strategic conversation, driven by the whole sector. One that is frank and future focussed. And addresses some key questions:

  • Are our artists being trained to be sufficiently nimble in a fast paced world?
  • How can we strengthen relevance to contemporary culture, and balance the ‘great repertoire’ with ‘music of our time’?
  • How can we create, as well as sustain, audiences, and stay true to the artform’s strengths?
  • Are we too beholden to what artistic and business models demand?
  • Has the Australia Council’s Major Performing Arts Model, which in many ways has served us well, reached its use-by date?
  • Do we need a more integrated, and united sector?
  • Are we sufficiently responsive to international trends, are these relevant early warning signs?
  • Could we encourage more of the new approaches beginning to flourish overseas? You can read our article on some of them here

Would we benefit from a strategic conversation about where this is all headed, and a plan for the future?

Here at Music Australia, we stand ready to contribute. To bring people to the table, and support this conversation. We’re already doing this with popular music. At our invitation last year the entire contemporary sector sat down and agreed to work together on a national Plan. It is well underway and we’ll release it this year.

We invite all who are interested to engage in a national conversation on the future of classical and art music, to generate advocacy, development, and a future plan.

Here’s what we are we doing at Music Australia:

  • Inviting a national conversation. Please get in touch with me here to become involved.
  • Proposing a national 2016 meeting (day after the Art Music Awards would be a good time) to discuss plans for a future National Art Music Forum open to the entire sector
  • At the Classical: Next conference in Rotterdam in May, working with partners to open international doors for our artists and music (contact us for access to discount registration)
  • Implementing recommendations for the s2m sector from our 2015 Classical Futures forum
  • Bringing on more classical and art music Councillors to build our national brains trust
  • Presenting an Indie Classics Forum at Vivid Ideas in June with a top notch panel
  • Regularly publishing blogs and stories on our enews and journal, and welcome contributions

And please share your perspectives and comments and we will publish your articles and blogs.

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