Monday, July 08, 2013

Orchestral Sponsorships In The Dark

"El Economista" is, as the name implies, a Spanish finance and economics newspaper. It is a financial publication for a contemporary Spain of greater dynamism and innovation and one which espouses principles of privatisation and the free market. And in line with its agenda, it takes issue with certain shibboleths that might once have been taken as true but which, since 2008, have been shown to be manifestly untrue.

One of these has been spending by regional governments. This is hardly an unknown theme nowadays either in the Spanish or the international press. What may be less known is the degree to which this spending affected so many areas of life and became profligate. The old truth was that this spending was good, including spending on culture, until one day everyone woke up to the fact that this old truth wasn't necessarily wholly truthful.

In December last year, "El Economista" asked whether Spain was a nation of music lovers or whether its music was a further example of regional profligacy. It was referring in particular to orchestras. Were 27 professional symphony orchestras across Spain too many? It identified Andalusia as the region with the most orchestras. (Actually, when you throw in youth orchestras as well, Madrid and Catalonia have more.) It spoke about rivalries in Galicia that had led to millions being lavished on the orchestras of La Coruña and Santiago de Compostela. Orchestras across the country were seen as fulfilling roles as cultural ambassadors but they were coming at a high price; the cost of rivalries and of vanities in many regions.

In Extremadura, a region considered to be Spain's poorest, the orchestra there had acquired a debt of a million euros by the middle of last year, and this debt was set to rise to almost three million. Around the same time as "El Economista" was highlighting orchestral profligacy, the "Arts Journal" website ran a poll to identify the best and worst orchestras of 2012. The moderators of the poll decided to exclude all votes it had received from Extremadura (voting had been conducted mainly through social media). The reason for excluding them was because a campaign had been launched to try and ensure that the orchestra, which by then was looking as though it might be axed, would get a healthy vote.

What happened was of course what you can expect from votes through social media. A result that was totally skewed and totally unrepresentative. The Extremadura orchestra still managed to scrape into the top six (they couldn't just exclude all the votes), but it was slightly out of place alongside the likes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The support given to Extremadura's orchestra can be interpreted in different ways. It was either a statement of regional pride or it was a statement of self-interest. Whatever it was, at least people felt strongly enough to galvanise themselves into conducting a campaign to help head off the possible closure of the orchestra.

And people do, quite naturally, feel strongly. The same can be said for the Balearics Symphony Orchestra (BSO), one which, interestingly, "El Economista" excluded from its profligacy roll of dishonour. It didn't even mention it, and nor did it mention Tenerife's orchestra which, and so not necessarily like Extremadura's, is considered to be a particularly fine orchestra.

If 27 orchestras are thought to be too many and were there to be a rationalisation of them, then two which should escape elimination under rationalisation would be those in the Balearics and Tenerife (there is also an orchestra in Gran Canaria). Location alone would make them far less dispensable than others. But rationalisation would be nigh on impossible because of the regional nature of the orchestras. In the Balearics, the three-headed foundation with which the BSO is associated - the regional government, the Council of Mallorca and Palma town hall - pulls the strings and might just decide to scrap the orchestra anyway.

Salvation may, however, be at hand. The national Sponsorship Law would, so it is hoped, pave the way for private funding of orchestras and give patrons very significant tax incentives (70% deductible). But the current regional nature of orchestra funding and organisation has given rise to massive discrepancies. The secretary of state for culture has admitted that getting the bill drafted properly is proving to be difficult.

But even were the Sponsorship Law to be passed and were there to therefore be an almost exclusive reliance on the private sector, orchestras' survival could not be guaranteed; orchestras don't come cheap. By the time the law is passed - if it is passed - it might be too late for one particular orchestra.

Any comments to please.

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