We are nearing the end of the concert season and the end of the school year. For many of us, this is the time of year to review our expense budget for the past year and make plans for next year. In looking back over our accomplishments here at the Nashville Symphony over the past year — and the considerable investment of time and resources required to accomplish them — one recent incident has me concerned about how effectively we can continue to serve the community with free programming offered at no cost to students, teachers and schools.
Here’s what happened: earlier this year, a local school that registered over 500 students to attend one of our free education programs canceled their registration three days before the scheduled event. By this point, we had turned away many other schools who had attempted to register their own students — but because this school did not cancel its registration until the last minute, there was no way for the Nashville Symphony to accommodate other schools who might have been able to use these open seats. Metro Nashville Public Schools requires teachers to submit all field trip paperwork at least 30 days before the date of the field trip.
This situation is not an isolated incident and in fact occurs with disappointing regularity. Due to the fact that all Nashville Symphony Education & Community Engagement programming is free, it is not unusual for schools and homeschool families to cancel their registration at the last minute, or not to show up at all, without any prior notice. During the 2013-14 season, over 2,425 students did not attend Young People’s Concerts they registered for, and during 2014-15 the number was at least 2,383 students.
Since our programs are presented free of charge, there is no consequence to the party that cancels — these consequences are borne by those who could have attended, but were prohibited from making a reservation because all available seats had been reserved.
This has gotten me thinking: Should the Nashville Symphony begin charging for its education & community engagement programming? These programs require a tremendous amount of time and money to produce. Ticket prices and other fees, while not covering all of these costs, would help to defray some of those expenditures.
For instance, the Nashville Symphony’s Young People’s Concerts, which are projected to reach over 20,000 students annually, each cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce. They are scheduled a year ahead of time, and many months before their scheduled performances I meet with the conductor and artistic staff to determine the program, which is especially tailored to meet the grade levels of the students attending. For some programs, the symphony collaborates with community partners to develop special opportunities — for instance, for the last three seasons, we collaborated with the classical dance program at Nashville School of the Arts to create special ballet programs for third- and fourth-graders.
Once each program is determined, Education staffers begin to work on a script for each show, and each summer we work with interns to develop extensive curriculum packets, which include lesson plans for participating teachers to use in their classrooms. All of these curriculum packets are published and distributed for free.
Each of these Young People’s Concerts involves many expenses, including :
- coordination and administration of registration for up to 3,000 students per event
- closing off streets for school bus parking
- production staff
- education staff
- transportation for Title I schools, which is underwritten by the Nashville Symphony
Our Young People’s Concerts are only one of more than two dozen education and community engagement programs at the Nashville Symphony, all of which are free. (Click here for an overview.)
To Charge or Not to Charge?
All Nashville Symphony education programs cost money to produce. These expenditures are ultimately paid for by generous donors, foundations and government funders such as the Metro Nashville Arts Commission and Tennessee Arts Commission. We feel accountable to these funders, because they have invested in our institution based on the fundamental principal that we are committed to serving our community.
But how can we serve our community effectively if the students we strive to reach aren’t given the opportunity to participate in our programming? This has led some observers to argue that schools and community organizations ought to pay something for services like education programming so that they understand there is actual cost and value involved — in other words, they need to have some skin in the game.
The dilemma the Nashville Symphony faces is that if we charge for our programming, the students who would stand to benefit the most — because there is no other way they could access this programming — will be the ones who are least likely to be able to participate.
Already, however, trends are indicating that free access to arts education is an endangered species — and all but extinct in Nashville. Currently, the Nashville Symphony is the only major performing arts nonprofit in town that offers all of its educational programming to children for free. Although some of the other institutions in town do provide the opportunity to apply for financial assistance (especially for Title I schools), all of them charge for educational programming. That leaves the Nashville Symphony as the last bastion of free performing arts education programming in our community, but if this programming is not valued and cared for by our community, it is just a matter of time before this too goes away.