The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
This past week, two big stories on music education. In one, Carnegie Hall (which is not, at its core, an educational institution) expands its commitment to education. In another, the New England Conservatory (which is, obviously) parts ways with El Sistema USA, one of the most important music ed organizations in the country. Interestingly, both make arguments based on their missions.
The long-ish NY Times article covering the New England Conservatory announcement was vexing in it vagueness. Why is El Sistema USA, the year-old U.S. version of Venezuela’s phenomenally successful music program for children and youth, “not a good fit” with the mission of the august New England Conservatory? Something wasn’t being said.
So I emailed my friend Nick Rabkin, my go-to guy on all things arts education, especially since I attended a presentation he gave recently on his Teaching Artists Research Project [pdf], a multi-funder effort to understand and document the role of working artists in arts ed. (Nick has also written a monograph for the NEA looking at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts data through an arts education lens.) Here’s what Nick dashed off in response:
It is easy to understand why the original El Sistema has drawn attention and admiration from the world of classical music in the US. The Venezuelan network of training centers and orchestras is developing talented, passionate musicians who play music for a growing and appreciative audience — and this in a nation that prides itself for breaking with European classical ideas about almost everything. Its most famous alumnus, Gustavo Dudamel, is now the musical director of the LA Philharmonic. And, oh yes, El Sistema helps keep 400,000 mostly poor Venezuelan young people off the streets every day.
Sixty years ago, network television in the US regularly broadcast classical concerts, but classical music seems quite marginal to the cultural life of most Americans today. Its audience has slowly drifted away and aged. Music education has become so atrophied that relatively few young Americans are even introduced to classical music. And, as in Venezuela, the streets provide the risks, thrills, and opportunities that young people crave but most can’t find in inner-city schools or social programs.
So the New England Conservatory of Music had reason to take great pride when, in 2005, it announced that it would be the home of El Sistema USA, a modest effort to develop a US version of the Venezuelan program. Now NEC and El Sistema USA are breaking up, at the conservatory’s initiative. Cost was an element in the decision. But NEC president Tony Woodcock expressed more concern about El Sistema’s “fit” with his institution. He told the NY Times, “We felt this was outside our mission altogether.” Joseph Polisi, president of the Julliard School, supported that notion. “The core mission of any institution has to be protected,” said Polisi. ...
Historically, music conservatories were developed to prepare artists and musicians for careers in the service of church and court patrons in the middle ages and renaissance. Formal patronage of that kind went the way of indentured servitude some time ago, but the association of the arts with wealth and privilege remains. Conservatory education has changed as well, but it is still the vehicle of choice for young artists who wish to enter that world of elite music-making and the culture that goes with it, and conservatories have been very careful to protect the idea that they teach ‘the arts for arts’ sake’. They do not teach in order to keep young people off the streets.
Venezuela’s El Sistema teaches the skills, rigor, and discipline of good musicianship, just like the conservatories. But it is fundamentally a social program, embracing the idea that the arts are for everyone, not reserved in any way for a talented elite. Democratic impulses like those beat in the hearts of most Americans, including many who work in the arts. They were beating strongly at NEC in 2005 when it embraced El Sistema USA. But they are in conflict with other deeply felt notions about the arts — what they are and who they are for — and arts education is one of the big arenas for that conflict. The future of classical music, and the future of the arts generally, depend on reconciling those conflicts. NEC’s decision will not kill El Sistema USA; the program will find another institutional home, or get along without one. And it will still contribute to that reconciliation. It’s just too bad that it won’t happen at the New England Conservatory, an institution that should care as much as any other about broadening the foundation on which the future of music stands.
I love Nick’s distinction between the conservatory model (art for arts’ sake) and the social-program model (art for all). Like all good dualities, it helps us make sense of the otherwise-confounding evidence we see around us (such as a leading higher education institution in the arts severing its ties with the most promising national music program for young people). But it also provokes us to think our way past simple slogans and categories. Note the contrast with Carnegie Hall, which you might think would be another member of the traditional, elite, art-for-arts’-sake club, but which, as the other Times piece shows, is as active in musical-education-for-all as any classical presenter or ensemble in the country.
Perhaps the difference is that Carnegie, like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (whose Institute for Learning, Access and Training was launched in 2008) and others, are more concerned than conservatories about the long-term development of audiences in the future for what they do. But I think it’s more than that. Some institutions just believe in their bones that music is for everyone, universal and necessary in ways that go beyond the rhetoric of annual reports and keynote speeches. They don't see a conflict between the ethos of democratic participation and the aesthetic of world-class musical excellence. In order to thrive, the music institution of the future will have to be about both.
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