How much does Detroit value the arts?

by Ken Schoon

There comes a time in the span of life when individuals, no longer supported by their parents, must find their own way in the world.  We call this crisis a coming of age, when educational and career choices determine the path that people will follow for the rest of their lives.

Cities and communities also experience a coming of age.  When the social and economic forces that gave them birth fall away, cities and communities must collectively forge a new path.

Detroit is in this stage now.  No longer able to depend on a thriving auto industry, the city must find a new identity.  Faced with difficult decisions, the city must determine the core values that will shape its relationships and development in the decades to come.

Right now, one enduring situation perfectly embodies Detroit’s identity crisis.  The ongoing musicians’ strike at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is a conflict between two very different ideas about the future of the city.  All residents, businesses, and institutions of the region have a stake in what prevails.  The outcome of the crisis at the DSO will signal for the rest of the world, loud and clear, the collective values of the Detroit region.

At the heart of the musicians’ strike is a proposal by management which, if implemented, would change the orchestra beyond recognition.  Up until now, the DSO has been a destination ensemble, one of the top ten orchestras in the United States in compensation and benefits, where graduates of the best music schools in the world remain to finish out their careers.  Few orchestras outside the top ten achieve destination status.  Management’s 33% pay cut takes the DSO not only out of the top ten orchestras but also out of the top 20.  The work rule changes proposed by DSO management downgrade the orchestra further by diverting more resources away from the orchestra’s music-making capacity.  At best, this proposal could attract inexperienced musicians seeking to fulfill their career elsewhere.

Though it might be tempting to believe, management’s suggestion that Detroit cannot afford a better proposal is blatantly untrue.  Detroit’s much smaller, Rust-Belt neighbors, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, have been hit just as hard by the decline in manufacturing, and yet both cities have renewed their commitments to having top-ten orchestras in the economic recession.  Metro Detroit is the size of Greater Cleveland and Metro Pittsburgh combined. The midsized, Midwestern cities of Minneapolis and Cincinnati are no boomtowns, but they maintain orchestras that round out the top 12.  The Detroit region is also the size of the Twin Cities and Greater Cincinnati combined.  Detroit remains home to some of the wealthiest suburbs in the country, including Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham, the Grosse Pointes, and much more of Oakland County, where the orchestra’s donor base is surviving the recession with few sacrifices.

In spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that Detroit’s metropolitan neighbors are past their economic prime, they have realized the importance of the performing arts to their civic life.  Now, Detroit’s moment has come.  The question is not whether Detroit can afford to maintain a destination symphony orchestra but how much Detroit values its orchestra.  If the city has been taking its world-class orchestra for granted, it would be wise to begin seeing the orchestra as an asset.

As an institution, the DSO holds enormous potential as part of Detroit’s revitalization strategy.  The DSO has already pumped millions of dollars into the area surrounding Orchestra Hall, bringing thousands of concert-goers into the city each week.  The value of an orchestra is not simply for its patrons, however, as an orchestra that attracts the best conductors, guest artists, and musicians carries the name of its city around the world.  What better than a destination symphony orchestra to change outsiders’ perceptions of Detroit as a hard-scrabble, desolate town?  A world-class, competitive DSO should be part of the pitch to promote business to invest in the city and to attract outside talent to the region.

For their value as leaders and individuals who invest in the city, Detroit should do everything it can to keep the DSO musicians in Detroit for the duration of their careers.  Urban planners have written much in the last decade on the role of the “creative class,” a term coined by author Richard Florida to describe artists, entrepreneurs, and associated company who lead a city’s economic growth.  The DSO is a major anchor of Detroit’s arts scene, making the DSO musicians key members of the city’s creative class.  The reach of DSO musicians extends far beyond Orchestra Hall as they provide instruction and support to hundreds of high school students, college students, and other professionals.  They perform in dozens of ensembles across town playing not just classical but also jazz, pop, and new music.  The way Detroit regards the DSO musicians sends a message to artists of all disciplines about how much the community values art.

The national economic crisis has hit Detroit hard, but the city cannot simply cut its way out of decline, lest it cut out its heart and soul.  Detroit’s peers and competitors in Cleveland and Pittsburgh are managing cuts at the same time that they are building a future independent of heavy industry, in which continuing support for art and music plays a central role.  Detroit can do it, too.

It is time for Detroit to come of age.  What does this city value?  Why should people and businesses want to invest in our city?  What kind of future are we building for ourselves?  Detroit has lost many of its best and brightest, its most talented and creative.  Let us not let the 85 musicians of the DSO be the next to go.


Ken Schoon is a 2010 graduate of the Urban Studies program at the University of Cincinnati.  He is also a performing cellist and son of DSO bassoonist Marcus Schoon.

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  • Phil Clampitt

    This is a marvelous commentary on the importance of the arts in general, and of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in particular, to the Detroit Metro area. It deserves wide circulation. I urge all members of the the Board of Directors and Management of the DSO to read this commentary thoughtfully, take it to heart, and start acting on it.

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