Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Can you hear me now?

Today we welcome Mark Pemberton to the Conference Blog! Mr. Pemberton is the Director of the Association of British Orchestras and will be one of our guest speakers for the Toolbox session called Protecting Musicians Hearing on June 10.

Posted by Mark Pemberton:

Just a few weeks to go, and I’m hugely looking forward to joining you all at the League conference. My first conference was last year, and what intrigued me then were the similarities and differences between the concerns of American and British orchestras, particularly in these difficult times.

We’ve not been immune to the economic shocks either. But to read of the collapse in endowments and pay cuts to players and managers in the USA puts in perspective how lucky we are to have public investment in orchestras and the arts in general. What makes the position in the UK so complicated is that we actually four different governments – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – each with their own arts strategies and funding models. In England, for example, the Arts Council has been able to maintain inflationary increases for its funded orchestras through to 2010/11. In Northern Ireland, in contrast, the Ulster Orchestra is facing a standstill in its funding allied to a drop in sponsorship (its major sponsors being banks).

Private income has inevitably been squeezed, with corporate sponsorship suffering particularly badly. Ironically, corporations have in some cases been withdrawing their sponsorship not because they don’t have the money, but because they are concerned it would look frivolous to be supporting the arts when they are laying off staff. We are working hard to reinforce the fact that support for the arts should be seen as part of their corporate social responsibility, not as just an optional line in their marketing budget.

The good news is that our orchestras are reporting an increase in ticket sales. It’s as if people are choosing to keep going to concerts while sacrificing the luxuries. And individual giving is also holding up. This is good news for those of our members who do not benefit from public funding. The key, we feel, is to hold our nerve, continue to take risks, while making what savings we can and drawing on what reserves we have to weather the storm.

But while the economy dominates our thoughts (as well as the distraction of a parliament in crisis through the exposure of dodgy expense claims by those that represent us) other concerns have to be dealt with. We have a new visa system in place, similar to the US model, which requires biometric testing of ‘migrant workers’ (which happens to include conductors and soloists). We have already had two high-profile artists cancel engagements in the UK because of their perception that the system is an affront to their dignity. We would like to work in conjunction with our colleagues in the League to enforce to our respective governments the need for the free movement of international artists, on the principal that cultural exchange is intrinsic to a civilized society.

And another consideration is the implementation of pan-European regulations that impose limits on the exposure of ‘workers’ to excessive noise. This is causing quite a headache for orchestras, as the sheer act of creating great music flirts uncomfortably close to the thresholds now enshrined in law. Plus orchestras are technically obliged to take noise measurements, which is a costly undertaking. I’ve been asked to speak on this at the League conference, and I am sure you will find it an interesting and alarming story of how well-meaning regulations can suffer from the law of unintended consequences.

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