Merit Can Be More Easily Inherited Than Earned

There was an article on San Francisco Classical Voice website on September 1 about racism in classical music titled “The Last Water Fountain: The Struggle Against Systemic Racism in Classical Music.” The last water fountain phrase was coined by Lee Pringle, founder and artistic director of the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, SC.

The narrative of the article orbits around Pringle and includes numerous anecdotes about the direct racist experiences different Black artists and professionals have experienced throughout their careers as well as ways in which the general framework of the classical music industry inhibits their careers. (e.g. don’t get offered many opportunities, but union membership prevents participation in non-union events organized to amplify the talents of musicians of color.)

There were many aspects of the article that grabbed my attention, but a statement made by the articles author, Robert Macnamara, early on really illustrated how the concept of meritocracy resulting in the best ensemble is undermined by the lack of access many Black musicians in particular have to “farm system” that begins to channel musicians on a career path at a young age.

In the system, support is assumed, and when the question arises, the answer is predetermined: “Oh honey, $1,800 seems like an awful lot of money for an oboe, but I guess, if you really want this, we can always find the money somewhere.”

And so begins the march; the route is fixed. White people and some ethnic groups follow a progression of youth orchestras and schools of the arts and then are often paired with principal musicians in local professional orchestras. Meanwhile, young Black musicians inevitably draw attention to their raw talent but can’t afford the coaching and mentoring to help develop technical expertise and to help direct the way through the audition maze. Having little or no experience in a youth orchestra, they arrive in college music departments with, as one musician put it, “a lot of heart and personality but may not catch every note.”

The effect of this closed system is that it’s pervasive, ingrained, and needlessly exclusive, a monoculture that white audiences often don’t know much about or, frankly, seem to care much about.

I have posted about this before in regard to internships. Studies have shown that internships tend to be valuable when it comes to getting a first job and establishing a career. However, those who benefit most from internships are those whose families support them financially and reinforce their choices through their expectations.

This idea that meritocracy isn’t the value neutral measure we think it is has been around for a few years, but in the last few months, and apparently few days as I searched for links to articles I recalled reading, it has come to the fore again and is something to consider as we examine the composition of our organizations their relationships to those being served.

Always Wear Clean Underwear Theory of Management

Collen Dilenschneider most a recent post about the factors that influence a cultural organization’s reputation. In order they are: Favorability, Mission Execution, Onsite Experience, Stability, Social Impact, Leadership, Testimonials, Business Results and Contributions to Education.

Dilenschneider starts out saying it isn’t about the Yelp/Trip Advisory reviews so I knew testimonials wouldn’t be listed near the top. I was really surprised to see that Mission Execution came in second and before Onsite Experience. My first thought was that we would need to rethinks the types of questions we were using on surveys because so few are oriented toward mission execution.

Now to be clear, Dilenschneider says this isn’t about your ability to recite your mission statement on command, but how well you have internalized and manifest your mission.

“But this measurement and its rank suggest that knowing what you stand for matters – and knowing that you take action surrounding what you stand for matters, too.”

As you might anticipate, she says many of these categories are inter-related. The perception of organizational stability is shaped by leadership and business results, the latter of which is basically financial stability.

Two of the significant observations Dilenschneider made speak to the need to always be working on cultivating a good reputation as a hedge against times of crisis. Or to metaphorically employ my grandmother’s advice – “Always wear clean underwear because you never know if you will be in an accident.”

The entities with better reputational equities prior to the pandemic seem to be faring better during it. … it seems those that had better reputation-related metrics prior to the pandemic are doing a better job keeping them for now. This may be because those institutions had already made investments in social media, for instance, and had established a reputation for engaging audiences digitally before they had to… Entities with better reputations may have similarly already been promulgating educational resources, also resulting in their coming to mind compared to entities that may be only really starting this effort now.

The web may now play an even bigger role in maintaining a positive reputation that inspires attendance. …The web – and social media, in particular – played a critical role in motivating attendance and shaping reputation prior to that pandemic. With more time spent online and fewer folks out and about, digital engagement and seeing stories from others may influence the perceptions of all of these factors influencing reputation to an even greater extent.

Love-Hate Relationship With Curtain Speeches

Troublemaker that Drew McManus is, he suggested that as people return to live performances post-Covid, arts organizations should re-think the hallowed curtain speech. He argues that patrons won’t have the patience to endure the lengthy speeches after months of ad free Netflix and Disney Plus watching bliss.

He mirrored his post on Facebook where a lot of people had something to say about curtain speeches.  (So if you have a lot to say on the subject, head over.)

I definitely agree that a lot of people do very long, poorly considered curtain speeches at their events. I try to keep my short and entertaining, but occasionally the stars misalign and it stinks and I resolve to get better.

Let me tell you, I have been to a number of organizations in my time where I wonder if they are investing any effort into trying to get better.  If our expectations are that the performers should be working to be at the top of their game, the staff delivering the curtain speeches should be aiming for the same goal.

I know that some places want to have artists, donors and board members speak so that there is better representation and variety in the appeals and some people will be better than others. In those cases, if you can’t guarantee that the speech is well-rehearsed, the time limit should be strictly enforced.

All this being said, what I feel is going to be most important post-Covid is a sense of reassurance and trust. While many in the Facebook discussion advocated for getting rid of curtain speeches, I wrote about the value of getting up and standing in front of people to assure them that the staff of your venue is taking steps to ensure their health and safety, even if you don’t explicitly say that.  (I quoted someone in a post a few weeks ago that cautioned about leaning in too heavily on safety messaging.)

Depending on the dynamics of your community and audience, delivering the curtain speech while wearing a facemask might be necessary to reinforce and model the expectations you have of audience members.

And as much as anyone is reluctant to have patrons getting in their face, literally or figuratively, with complaints, it may prove cathartic for audience members to vocalize their fears. If you have done a credible job keeping things safe and are able to identify what you can do better, then you just need to have a thick skin.

I am sure it won’t be necessary for some time to remind you that whomever showed up for the performance made a number of conscious decisions to do so, (or at least impulse factored into it much less than before). So perhaps the most valuable part of doing curtain speeches will be thanking people for coming out. I suspect it will take very little effort to make the sentiment sound much more heartfelt than it had in the past.

Even if you are convinced by my argument, if you want to vent about bad curtain speech experiences, head over to Drew McManus’ Facebook post and join the conversation.

Not So Strange, But Does Require Effort

Non-Profit Quarterly made a post in May that just came across my social media feed today about a weekly Zoom call 200+ arts organizations in NYC are having in order to share information during Covid-19. Ruth McCambridge links to the New York Times piece that reports on this effort.

I have to admit I initially bristled at McCambridge characterizing the NYT article reporting on a story that is “pretty strange” because:

It appears the pandemic has created a sudden realization among the city’s arts organizations that they need one another for advice, counsel, and support even while they take one coronavirus-related hit after another. That has led to a daily Zoom call with around 200 leaders in attendance, coming from groups large and small and spanning organizational types.


Pogrebin finds it “notable how much they are actually acting these days like the ‘arts community’ to which they often aspire.” We call it something of a small miracle, which we think we may be seeing a lot more of as advocacy and mutual aid look increasingly central to not just our survival, but our evolution in a new landscape.

I have been regularly participating in on a number of those calls myself so I will admit that there is more coordination and information sharing across disciplines than before. It is definitely beneficial to everyone involved.

However, over the course of the last 15+ years, I have been part of organizations comprised of arts and culture entities whom regularly shared information and even engaged in cooperative grant writing. I am sure many readers have similar relationships. You know, the ones where you receive important information, but also multiple people feel their one word reply “Thanks” should go to the entire group rather than to an individual.

While I do agree with the proposition that it would be a shame these cross-disciplinary conversations faded away when the crisis passes because we are seeing greater cooperation and community than in the past, I also feel like the idea this coordination is novel news doesn’t given non-profit arts & cultural organizations credit for progress made over the last couple decades.

Also, were there a lot of commercial entities who were having conversations like these that non-profit arts organizations have been eschewing?  It seemed perhaps there was an implication of some norm that existed that cultural organizations are finally participating in. Non-profit folks are networking and sharing information at conferences, chamber of commerce meetings and rotary meetings, etc just like everyone else.

I will say though, it can be really difficult to make sure you are invited to the right meetings. If you look in the comment section of the NYT article, people were asking how they could join the call because the information wasn’t public. You had to know someone in order to receive the meeting link.

That dawned on me about a month ago as I bounced from one Zoom meeting hosted by charitable foundations to another Zoom meeting of local live event organizations (concert venues, sports teams, bars, etc.). I realized a number of people in the meeting I just left weren’t invited to the second meeting where topics like the governor’s orders on public assembly are discussed. I asked for about 20 additional groups to be invited to that second meeting and did see about eight show up to the last meeting.

Bottom line- regardless of my perceptions of how these meetings are characterized, an effort should be made to ensure they continue past the current crisis. Which means people who are invited need to commit to participating rather than blowing the meetings off. Just as important, we should continually be thinking about who might benefit from these conversations and take steps to see they are invited.


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