Systems mapping excellence

How symphony orchestras can fight a crisis of legitimacy

Julia Fischer (violin) & Daniel Müller-Schott (cello), and the Bavarian State Orchestra with their conductor Kirill Petrenko, seconds before giving the downbeat to Brahms’ Double Concerto Op. 102, Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City, 28 March 2018 (Photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck)

An institution in hot water

Indeed, symphony orchestras are expensive structures that almost always need significant external funding, either from the public purse or from donors, in order to function at all. A premier North American orchestra needs an operating budget of anything between $50M and $125M per year. A second-tier body will burn around 10M per annum. Not a single orchestra is able to make money. They all run a deficit, as their expenses are not covered by self-generated income from tickets or recording fees.

Mapping excellence

In 2015 I was invited by Koen Vandyck, an organisational coach with a track record as an orchestra manager, to join him in tackling a study commissioned by the Flemish Ministry of Culture, Youth and Media. The study was broadly framed as an exploration of the future for the three state-funded orchestras in the region. We dived into the literature, interviewed people all over the place, and led a series of focus groups with sector experts and orchestra musicians. Gradually we started to piece together a systems map — more precisely: a causal loop diagram — that provided insight into what drives orchestra excellence.

A systems map of orchestra excellence

The structure of the map

The central variable is ‘artistic quality’. There is a broad consensus that this determines the viability and fundability of any artistic project. It reflects the level at which an individual artist, project or organisation excels in its genre, organisational form or function.

  • a ‘revenue and investment loop’: this revolves around the key factor ‘interest in attending concerts’. If this interest is broadly present in the community in which the orchestra is active, it will, provided the right framework is in place, lead to concert attendance. This in turn leads to various income streams, from ticket sales, but also from subsidies, donations and sponsoring. If the financial resources are judiciously invested in the artistic and business support of the orchestra, this leads to higher artistic quality. This quality is an important condition for effective audience interaction, which in turn can stimulate interest in attending concerts. If all these variables interact without restriction, nothing stands in the way of constant growth in concert attendance, income, investment, quality and audience effect.
  • a ‘job satisfaction’ loop: this simply revolves around two key factors: artistic quality contributes significantly to musicians’ job satisfaction. And conversely, musicians’ job satisfaction is an important element in the realisation of artistic quality.
  • a ‘public support loop’: a large support base leads to continuity in income flows and encourages governments, civil society organisations and parents to invest in musical education. This then leads to greater musical literacy, which in turn will fuel interest in going to concerts. The system map also formulates the hypothesis that a large social basis offers a stimulus for experiment and innovation. This is the basis for a continuous renewal of presentation formats and repertoire, which in turn can ensure that the concert scene remains attractive to a large audience. A greater interest in concert attendance then feeds the dynamics of income and investment mentioned earlier.
  • an ‘efficiency loop’: relates specifically to how the operational efficiency of an orchestra can be managed. This is an intricate challenge that hinges on the interplay of several factors: the impact of a constantly changing repertoire on the composition of the orchestra and workload of the musicians, the available effective number of musicians and their distribution over the orchestra groups, and the constraints associated to labour regulations.

Fighting a crisis of legitimacy

The value of this map, in our opinion, is that it puts a dose of realism into the perennial debate about the future of this venerable institution. Orchestras should quit their hackneyed discourse on their ‘civilisational mission’. They should stop nagging funders by default for more money and more fixed contract musicians. Not every orchestra should aspire to emulate the Berlin Philharmonic. The systems map provides a basis for a broader array of game plans. A clever mix of strategic choices may lead to excellence, even in challenging conditions.

Postscript: the reception of our report

Reactions to our study were mixed. Our government sponsor was very pleased and hailed the report as a landmark study. We also received kudos from insiders who know the sector well. However, the orchestras themselves campaigned vigorously against the insights from our report. They refused to enter into nuanced debate about it. For Koen and myself, both staunch supporters of the institution, this was a disappointment. The reaction seemed to betray a false sense of entitlement and union-led intransigence. As far as we are concerned, the gravest threat to a viable future for the symphony orchestra is not a changing world, but the strategic myopia of what risks to become a cultural dinosaur.



Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?

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Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?