Will classical music ever enjoy a diverse audience?

Orchestras nationwide know that if they want to survive in the long run, they need to draw in more diverse audiences to their performances.

But how best to do that?

Music critic Greg Sandow recently attended a League of American Orchestras conference session on that very topic, and came away impressed by what diversity consultant Bo Young Lee had to say on the matter, which he summarized on a recent post on ArtsJournal.com.

If we want people who aren’t white to go in any large numbers to classical concerts, we have to diversify the culture those concerts display. Which doesn’t just mean playing Latin American (or African-American) composers. It means presenting a not wholly white — not wholly low affect and respectful — face. With, maybe, applause or shouts during the music, which Mozart and Handel wouldn’t have found at all uncomfortable. This is a hard lesson for classical music people to learn, especially those of us who may have imagined that our art — and, by extension, the way we present it — transcends culture, class, and ethnicity.

Conductor Bill Eddins disagrees passionately with this approach. You can read his full response here, complete with punctuating clips from Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” but here’s the crux:

The only way you are going to get black folk, or latino folk, or ANY folk interested in classical music is to not look at these people as black folk, or latino folk, or anything else. Look at them as people. Stop worrying about what race/culture they are and just push music education, whether that’s classical, jazz, pop, rock, funk, world, disco, whatever. Push the instruments and the music, and the positive effects that those things have on the culture at large.

What do you think? These days the only truly diverse audiences orchestras perform to are in schools. Will those kids one day fill music halls performing Bach and Beethoven? And when they do, how should they be welcomed?


  • I think it depends on how the world of “classical music” chooses to define itself. If orchestras continue to primarily showcase the work of dead composers working in the European classical tradition, their audiences will inevitably shrink. I don’t think any amount of education is going to change the fact that art—as art does—is moving on, changing and diversifying. If, on the other hand, orchestras are comfortable (or get comfortable) with exploring music as a living conversation, they’ll stay relevant and will see their audiences grow.

    Look at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which is expanding its contemporary-art holdings despite the fact that many of the institution’s key supporters seem uneasy with that move. The MIA knows that if they let their collection stop with work created a century ago, they’ll find themselves sidelined from vital conversations about art today—and will see their audience steadily diminish. They’re undertaking the hard work of growing and evolving, challenging themselves and many of their most ardent supporters. Classical music organizations need to do the same if they want to remain sustainable at their current operating levels.

    • Rick

      Uh, speaking of this MIA…I hear that the current slate of nominees for the board contains the name of Richard K. Davis…CEO of US Bank and one of the people responsible for the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.
      With that on his resume, he should go not one day further on any arts board, anywhere.