What Makes a Public Good a Public Good?
Hello, again. It's been a couple months since we've talked and, no, the endowment drive for the San Antonio Symphony still hasn't started. Still pushing. But thanks for asking. You'll be the first to know when it does start - I promise. So, I was all set to write a heartwarming article about an epiphany I had in my 40s. It was going to be about how the orchestra is a "public good" complete with an existential crisis and a deep conversation with my mom when suddenly I started to think that my argument, though I believe in it with all my heart, would get quickly shot down as being just overly idealistic fluff and then I'd just get frustrated. There had to be another way to make this point. I needed to build some armor around it. Maybe you've been down this road, too? Here's where mine took me. I was sitting at the computer one night answering some emails and wrestling with this dilemma, Ella Fitzgerald was crooning Kern and Hammerstein's All The Things You Are in my headphones, when an idea occurred to me. It's a really nerdy one, I'll admit. But, hey, Ella made me do it. Perhaps you'll be similarly inspired if you go ahead and cue up the song while you read the rest of this. Maybe you'll be moved to sing along to my informational love song (yes, I just created a new genre!) to the Symphony Orchestra as a "public good" and then maybe you'll sing it to someone who needs to hear it...
You are...an economic generator. When you were residing in the Majestic Theater you spurred on the businesses up and down Houston street and the surrounding area. Bars, restaurants, clubs, coffee shops. On concert nights and rehearsal days, the place was alive. Each year you generate about $9M in spending locally. And give it time - before you know it, the same thing will happen on concert nights and rehearsal days around the Tobin once things get built up. It's guaranteed.
You are...an educational institution, not just a performing arts institution. For the past 60 years, you have been performing co-curricular educational concerts for children of all economic backgrounds, hundreds of thousands of them, who have grown up, or will grow up, to be our civic leaders, our local captains of industry and commerce, our teachers, doctors and lawyers. Not only do you educate young and old alike at your concerts- your musicians also teach students individually and in groups in our grade schools and universities. You even teach in your homes and share your expertise by volunteering in the community.
You are...a non-profit organization. You aren't in business to make money and therefore you rely on charitable income and public support to provide the many services you have to offer to your community. There's no shame or crime in that - the system (or business model) is intentionally set up to work that way. From Symphony orchestras to ballet companies to art museums, this is the business model for all major arts organizations.
You are...more than just an employer. You don't just magically appear from nowhere on concert nights to entertain us and then return to wherever you came from. Your employees are members of this community - they are PTA parents, churchgoers, taxpayers, the people you sit next to at the Spurs game or bump into at the grocery store or the neighborhood pool. Our children play together. You are the people next door.
You are...an inspiration to the children of this city. Our children can't have enough positive role models in the community. Music is an integral part of our everyday lives whether we realize it or not and it isn't going anywhere - it's here to stay. The performers and composers of the future will have to come from somewhere. They will need to be inspired by someone. They will need professional guidance. Someone will have to pass on the generations of knowledge and tradition. You fill that role.
You are...the flagship arts organization of this entire region, not just your city. You are a catalyst, a center of creativity. You can stand alone on the concert stage, or lend your talents in the orchestra pit to the Ballet and Opera, and adapt to any genre from Broadway to jazz to Tejano and beyond. You are endlessly versatile, an artistic chameleon.
And all the things you are...are so much more than just your music. In this city, you are the 72 musicians, two librarians, 3 conductors, 20 staff members and 30 Board members that make up the San Antonio Symphony. All the things you are, to paraphrase Mr. Hammerstein, are ours as a community and it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure this public good (I think that ironic quotation marks are no longer needed, thank you) is nurtured, supported, and preserved for future generations of San Antonians.
I'm looking now at my word count as I type but I think my editor will let me have just enough words to tell that existential story if you're still interested. I'll be brief. I was in my 40s and having a career crisis. Why, after all the ups and downs we'd had, was I still doing this job? Did it really matter to anyone out there? Did it make any difference at all? I asked my mom, wise person from the Depression era that she was, these very questions. And this is what she, who could not carry a tune in a bucket, said to me: You and your friends perform a service so valuable that no dollar figure can be put upon it. For the few hours that you are performing you are transporting your audience in a shared experience to a better place. For a little while people can forget about their problems at work, their health issues, their family troubles. You refresh them and they leave feeling better than when they came in. In a word- it's catharsis.
I'd call it a public good.
Chair, Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony