The New York Times reports: “In the warren of Met administrative offices, the people who run one of the world’s busiest opera houses had something else to applaud: a record amount of contributions for the fiscal year that ended in July. According to preliminary figures released for the first time, the Met hauled in $182 million, an astonishing amount in a tough economic climate and 50 percent more than it raised just the year before.”
In arts offices around the world, questions are being asked about this outcome. Is this an endorsement for the Metropolitan Opera’s revolutionary electronic distribution in theatres; a vote of confidence for their current artistic direction; or simply the effect of donor behaviour–backing core arts groups in hard times?One major donor David Knott agrees with the electronic distribution policy saying it was a decision that “if we can’t bring people to the opera, let’s bring opera to the people”. He put his money where his mouth was in making a $500,000 one-time gift and pledging a bequest to the company through it’s planned giving program. Electronic distribution certainly seems to be a way to follow the market. In its 2003 study “The Magic of Music”, the Knight Foundation found that while 60% of Americans listened to classical music, only 5% had ever entered a concert hall. Listening to classical music is not declining, going to concert halls is declining. Smart, business-minded donors like David Knott will be more inclined to invest in arts organizations that make decisions soundly based on audience trends, it would seem.
In a time when 2 out of 3 arts organizations have sustained a decline in income, the phenomenal success of the Metropolitan Opera in increasing its donations has to be seen as tied to the most significant new part of its program, the electronic distribution of opera in theatres. This fact should be an encouragement to those trying to pioneer new methods of distribution and electronic outreach initiatives. From my own work in virtual music, I know that resistance to new forms of distribution seems like a brick wall at times, but smart donors are rewarding those arts organizations bold enough to break through to reach their audiences outside the concert hall.