Helping Hand

George Soros Donates $11 Million to NYC Arts

Volume CX, No. 9September, 2010

Karen Fisher

About 80 small and midsized performing arts organizations in New York City received some good news this summer.

Billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros announced he will donate $11 million through his Open Society Institute.

“George Soros is to be applauded for having the understanding that the very fabric of our culturally rich and diverse city risks being permanently diminished if a new base of support is not created,” said Erica Kiesewetter, the concertmaster for the ASO, New York Pops, Stamford Symphony, Opera Orchestra of New York and the Long Island Philharmonic.

Kiesewetter added, “Let’s hope that other daring individuals will follow suit and help stabilize the situation so that New York can continue to be the cultural mecca it has been for over a century.”

The money will be distributed over the next two years to help alleviate the devastating impact the financial crisis has had on performing arts groups in New York City.

The news broke in an article in the Wall Street Journal on July 21.

“George Soros’ donation to the arts in New York City is providing the performing arts the ability to keep an active role in the life of New Yorkers,” Bill Scribner, the executive and artistic director of the Bronx Arts Ensemble, told Allegro.

Scribner added, “For the Bronx Arts Ensemble it helps us provide free summer concerts in Bronx parks as well as Fordham University. During the year it allows us to continue arts-in-education programs in public schools as well as providing performances throughout the Bronx in these times of economic insecurity.”

Among the groups receiving funds are several signatories to Local 802 collective bargaining agreements:

l The American Symphony Orchestra, St. Luke’s and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra will each receive $200,000

l The American Composers Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Bronx Arts Ensemble, Collegiate Chorale, DiCapo Opera Theatre will each receive $150,000

l The Queens Symphony Orchestra will receive $100,000.

The criteria used to determine the amount received was based on each group’s operating budget, which had to fall between $75,000 and $7 million.

To be considered for the award, each group also had to participate in educational programs.

“I think the gift is a great boon to all of the organizations involved, and I thank George Soros,” Melanie Baker, a violinist in the Queens Symphony Orchestra, told Allegro.

Besides orchestras and opera companies, several dance and theatre groups will receive funds, including the Cunningham Dance Foundation, Martha Graham Company, Paul Taylor Dance, Amas Musical Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, and the Vineyard Theatre and Workshop Center.

While Soros has previously contributed more than $211 million to the arts all around the world, this is the first time New York City arts organizations will be recipients from the foundation.

“George Soros’ munificent contribution to the orchestras of New York City is in the tradition of the great patrons of the past,” Styra Avins, a cellist in the Queens Symphony, told Allegro.

Avins added, “How thrilling that it is still a thing of the present. Given how rare it seems to be that someone with Soros’ fortune values the arts and especially classical music, we have to consider ourselves tremendously fortunate. I hope now that the musical institutions so blessed will play music that people actually like.”

Dale Turk, the librarian for the Queens Symphony Orchestra, told Allegro, “I think it is great of Mr. Soros to be so generous. The QSO has no endowment to speak of and depends mainly on grant money, which has been declining these past few years.”

Turk added, “As to who should support classical music in general, the easy answer is that those who come to hear the music should pay for the concert. But at this point the QSO is giving discounts to senior citizens – a large portion of the audience for regular-season concerts – and offering educational concerts in the schools for free. So the answer is that the Queens community as a whole that benefits from having a local symphony should pay for the orchestra, and that is where the grants and corporate donations come in.”

Financial Vice President Jay Blumenthal, who supervises the Concert Department, was pleased about the grants. “George Soros’ contribution is extremely welcome and comes at a crucial time,” said Blumenthal. “Many orchestras are struggling, and Mr. Soros’ donation will make an important difference.”

Blumenthal added, “Although we cannot tell the orchestras how to spend this money, our expectation is that they will use it in part to fund more concerts and increase work for musicians.”

Soros grant is great, but government needs to support the arts
Gregor Kitzis

I truly thank George Soros for doing what needs to be done to save a crucial ingredient in what makes New York City great. And I’m thrilled and grateful that the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (where I am a violinist) made his list.

I just wished that he had also included more of the smaller but equally important groups that are struggling to just stay afloat.

There is a sad trend in arts donations to only support “winners” without also recognizing that a grant a fraction of that size to smaller ensembles would help them grow and employ more musicians.

As to the question of arts funding in general, I actually knew of a San Diego Symphony subscriber in the Reagan years who supported folding the NEA. We told her over and over that “no NEA equals no symphony.” She responded predictably that this was just more liberal “the sky is falling” nonsense.

Then Reagan cut the NEA and the symphony folded.

Our conservative friend expressed typical dimwitted surprise – but no change in her political beliefs.

Here’s a fact for you. Popular music is supported popularly. That’s why it’s called popular music. Classical music is not. That’s why it was always supported by either the church or the king. In modern day terms that means the government.

While patronage always played a supportive role and is still necessary – thank you Mr. Soros – it will never replace government, because historically it just never has.

A grant writer told me that the proportion of public to private funds received by a typical small ensemble is upside down from what is was before Reagan.

Has the arts scene gotten better or worse by cutting funding to the arts? Is there more or less work for you now? Remember the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting different results?

No government support means no arts. Period. End of story, and end of work for us all.