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Dreams for a New Age of Arts in Charlotte

"We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams"

So begins Arthur O'Shaughnessy's ode to the creative class. Like many others my age, I first head this refrain uttered by Gene Wilder in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." (The source of a number of many of my early cultural references...) It wasn't until years later that I took the time to read the whole poem. (It's good.) What reminded me of this poem recently was an article about an American symphony orchestra (not ours) that was in the process of laying the groundwork for some hoped-for long term financial stability (like ours...and so many others). In the article were quotes from civic leaders, corporate recruiters, politicians, and music professionals all hailing the importance of a successful symphony orchestra to their city.

Most comments focused on a successful orchestra being a source of civic pride, an important corporate recruiting tool, or a local cultural benefit. These benefits notwithstanding, many orchestras in America are struggling. Blame the economic downturn, changing demographics, or the proliferation of entertainment options, but orchestras are fighting an ongoing battle to justify their existence. A few have folded. It got me to thinking.

What if a symphony orchestra could actually be an educational, economic, and cultural catalyst to a city and its surroundings? What if that happened here?

Radical thinking, I know. But just for the fun of it, let's continue down this less traveled road. Charlotte perpetually strives to become a world class city. I know that because I read it in the paper every other day. Just what that means, of course, depends on your perspective. To some, it means the crime is low, the schools are good, and the train runs on time. To others, it means a vibrant cultural and sporting life. To others, something completely different. People inside and outside of Charlotte often poke fun at our civic status-seeking. And sure, as a city and as a region we aren't yet comfortable in our own skin. We try too hard to impress. But isn't this drive to become a better version of ourselves exactly the stuff that made Charlotte what it is today? We do not accept that this is all we can be. We desire. We hope. We aspire.

Great strides have been made in Charlotte to lay the financial groundwork for a viable symphony orchestra for years to come. There is much work to be done, of course, but thanks to the generosity and support of so many, the orchestra is in better shape than it has been for some time. What if we took things further, though? What if we adopted a vision to make Charlotte a recognized home for the arts and a leading cultural and musical center in the U.S.? Sure, there are many reasons why it wouldn't, couldn't, or shouldn't happen. But what if it did? What if we put together a plan to integrate the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra into the very fabric of life in Charlotte?

For years, music education has been considered a luxury, and is often one of the first programs to get cut when the budget tightens. But music education shouldn't be a luxury in our school systems; it should be an integral and irreplaceable part of the curriculum. A few years ago, Jonathan Fanton, then president of the MacArthur Foundation, put it this way: "The arts deepen our understanding of the human spirit, extend our capacity to comprehend the lives of others, allow us to imagine a more just and humane world. Through their diversity of feeling, their variety of form, their multiplicity of inspiration, the arts make our culture richer and more reflective."

Beyond that, there is strong evidence that music education that includes instrumental music performance from kindergarten through high school delivers measurable improvements in the math and science performance of students (another blog for another day...) The Charlotte region is moving to diversify its economic base and attempting to become a hub for energy and technology and other areas of economic development. It will increasingly need an employment base equipped with not only specific trade skills, but also with people who have broad ranging abilities in science and math. Music education can help. As a bonus, we develop a population of residents who are interested in and understand the value of the arts.

About three years ago, the nonprofit organization, Americans for the Arts, conducted an economic impact study and concluded that nationally, America's nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year. Closer to home, some folks launched an arts festival back in 1977 in Charleston as a companion to a similar festival in Italy. Today, Spoleto Festival USA is recognized as one of the world's leading festivals. Organizers estimate that the annual economic impact is over $55 million ($44 million from visitors) for the 17-day event. The festival also supports the equivalent of just under 1,000 jobs and over $20 million in local household income. I'm not suggesting that Charlotte attempt its own "Spoleto" necessarily. And yes, a 2-week music festival with out-of-town guest artists is a different animal from a resident orchestra. But rather than looking at the orchestra (and the arts in general) as a debit in the civic checkbook, we should recognize, develop, and promote the arts as an economic asset. I love sports, but they are not the only pursuits that deliver economic impact to a region.

"World class" or not, Charlotte is fast becoming an international city. We can fear that or embrace it. In making the transition from a "small town with a lot of people" to a true city-region, one of the benefits of attracting a broader scope of individuals is the cultural heritage they bring. Charlotte has always done a good job of embracing people with different backgrounds. Not diversity for the sake of being diverse, but embracing diversity as a means of enriching the cultural and economic fabric of the city. Already, we are seeing the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra begin a new venture with its KnightSounds concert series at the Knight Theater. Designed to engage audiences and let them experience the orchestra in a whole new way, KnightSounds is not about dumbing down the musical experience, but rather about opening it up to an expanded audience. It's a good start, and I hope we will continue to do more to reach out to the community that is not part of the traditional concert-going audience.

O'Shaughnessy's poem later reads:

...For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.

We all know that times are difficult. That shouldn't stop us from dreaming or doing. Spoleto USA was launched in 1977. If you have forgotten or weren't around, the 1970s was the worst decade economically since the Great Depression. High inflation (over 13 percent by 1979), double-digit interest rates (the prime rate had hit 21.5 by the end of 1980), and not one, but two oil crises all contributed to  a sluggish cynicism throughout the country and long lines at the gas station. If the Spoleto organizers had tried to "time the market" and waited until times got better to launch their festival, it may not have happened.

The Charlotte Symphony is working hard to get its financial house in order and develop a sound business plan for the future. It has a new Music Director who is talented, experienced, and passionate about his mission here. It is reaching out to new audiences. Now is the time to bring to birth a new age of music and the arts to Charlotte. Let's do it.

Posted in Support. Tagged as Fundraiser, Support the Symphony.

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