Knight Foundation Experiments in Saving Orchestras

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1994

Creed Black was concerned. President of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which conducts arts philanthropy in the 26 cities in which the Knight brothers owned newspapers, Black had noticed an increase in S.O.S. calls from struggling orchestras in its communities.

Recognizing that last-ditch cash infusions were rarely the way to save an orchestra, Black proposed a longer-term investment. With help from Oberlin College, he gathered a group of arts experts from Knight cities. Some of the experts thought there wasn’t a long-term problem at all. Others suggested the problem was that concert halls were too stuffy. In the end, they created a Magic of Music program that had the goal of reversing the decline in audiences, and strengthening the relationship between audience and orchestra.

This was executed in two five-year phases, beginning in 1994 and concluding in 2004. In phase one, $5.4 million of grants supported fresh multiyear projects from ten orchestras. In phase two, $7 million supported 13 orchestras, some of whom had been involved in phase one, some new. Based on what the program’s leadership learned in the first program, phase two introduced tighter goals, useful audience research, technical assistance, and better evaluation. Along the way, Knight commissioned two independent studies—one researched how Americans relate to classical music and local orchestras, the other analyzed the Magic of Music program itself.

By the end of these programs, orchestras and art philanthropists nationwide had far better knowledge about audience behavior (including the people who weren’t coming to performances). A host of long-held assumptions was debunked. A working consortium of orchestras shared information on grants, programs, publications, and more.

Thanks to the Magic of Music program, orchestras knew that classical music wasn’t dead, and they had long lists of what did and didn’t work to cultivate audiences. Meanwhile, music philanthropists learned that technical assistance and research could be as important as dollars. From 2004 onward, lovers of classical music knew much more about how to keep symphonies alive.