A landmark in New York cultural life, Carnegie Hall has a long history of self-transformation. Opened in 1891 as a classical venue, two decades later it also became a home to jazz musicians, and by the mid-20th century was welcoming folk and pop acts, including the Beatles. In 2005, when Clive Gillinson became its executive and artistic director, it transformed again, focusing as much on social impact outside of the concert hall as excellence within. Gillinson leads a staff of 300, and oversees an annual turnover of some $100m, a proportion of which is received as public funding through the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, although almost all of its funds are raised through private donors, trusts and foundations. However, as owner of Carnegie Hall, the City of New York does contribute in significant ways for necessary capital projects at the Hall.
Mission: looking after the future of music by enabling others to succeed
Although Carnegie Hall faced destruction in the mid-20th century, by the time Clive Gillinson became executive and artistic director in 2005, it was in robust health, pursuing a fundamental mission to present “extraordinary music and musicians to the widest possible audience”. Gillinson’s work, as he saw it, was to develop the organisation from “doing very singular, terrific performances and a bit of education”, to thinking about “our responsibility to society, to the society in which we live. It’s a part of our job to look after the future of music, nationally and internationally: we’re here to inspire, stimulate, engage, nurture curiosity, nurture a spirit of exploration. But it’s not about us, it’s always about what do we do which actually changes other people’s lives. How do we share, how do we train others, how do we enable others to succeed, how do we look after the future of music through doing that? When you’ve got an institution like this, which has the power to change the world, you have a responsibility to use that power to transform lives for the better.”
“It’s a part of our job to look after the future of music, nationally and internationally: we’re here to inspire, stimulate, engage, nurture curiosity, nurture a spirit of exploration. But it’s not about us, it’s always about what do we do which actually changes other people’s lives. How do we share, how do we train others, how do we enable others to succeed, how do we look after the future of music through doing that?”
A focus on social impact
In pursuing that responsibility, Gillinson has made the language of social impact “absolutely upfront. We’re very committed to it, and believe we should be overt in talking about it.” Carnegie Hall pursues this role, through the Weill Music Institute (WMI), its education and community wing, in three key ways:
1: Link Up, and other related programmes for children and families
Although an education programme, Carnegie Hall’s work with children is “never about teaching. They learn a lot about music but all through engagement and involvement: they participate, they play and create.” The most substantial programme is Link Up, designed for children aged five to eight, particularly those “who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to have access to music”. Children learn to play an instrument (usually recorder), and a variety of music – “we don’t separate out what’s classical, what’s pop, what’s jazz: they just know it’s great music” – and at the end of the programme are invited to perform, along with their local orchestra, in a culminating concert at the Hall itself.
Link Up began in New York but quickly expanded: “We now support and help to train 100 orchestras around America to deliver it – training the players as well as the teachers. We’re beginning to share it internationally as well, in Spain, South America, Japan. Everything is about concentric rings: we do more in New York than we do anywhere else, but then how do we leverage that nationally and internationally to create enhanced benefit?”
“We’re beginning to share it internationally as well, in Spain, South America, Japan. Everything is about concentric rings: we do more in New York than we do anywhere else, but then how do we leverage that nationally and internationally to create enhanced benefit?”
2: Nurturing talent
In 2012, WMI established the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, based on the long-established British model, recruiting exceptional musicians aged 16-19 to rehearse and tour together annually. That orchestra, says Gillinson, is “phenomenal, but not yet sufficiently diverse: it didn’t reflect America”. And so in 2016, WMI created NYO2, for 14- to 17-year-olds, particularly “people who’ve got the talent but not necessarily the access to best teaching. We did a huge operation of reaching out to try and find where the talent is, and ended up – without quotas, purely based on talent – with a first orchestra that was approximately 25% African-American, 25% Latino, 25% Caucasian, 25% Asian.” Of that group, 10 musicians successfully auditioned to join the NYO-USA in 2017. The intention is that: “NYO2 will become a feeder, changing the pathway through from youth orchestras, to music colleges, to orchestras. Orchestras around America are excited because there’s minimal diversity in American orchestras, so we feel this is going to have a big impact longer-term.”
Carnegie Hall also runs a two-year fellowship programme for “the best postgraduate musicians in America. We train them not just to be the best musicians they can be, but to work in prisons and hospitals and youth-at-risk centres, so they will contribute something to the future of music and to communities throughout their lives.” Alumni are then supported to travel internationally to train others in similar skill sets, working with organisations in the UK, including the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and the Royal Scottish Conservatory in Glasgow, and with young musicians in townships in South Africa. Although community work happens in many orchestras, says Gillinson, it’s only ever as good as the musicians leading it: “Your resource is people who were appointed on the basis of their quality as a player, not on their abilities as a teacher.” The fellowship programme is designed to ensure that the best musicians can also be the best teachers.
“We train them not just to be the best musicians they can be, but to work in prisons and hospitals and youth-at-risk centres, so they will contribute something to the future of music and to communities throughout their lives.”
3: Social Impact
A series of programmes gathered under the specific title Social Impact focus on widening community access to music – but in particular on reaching people in prison or the justice system. Says Gillinson: “There are huge issues in this country around the number of African-Americans in prison. There’s so much that needs to change, and we feel it’s got to be a central part of what we do.” Through a programme at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, men create and perform music with visiting artists, while the Lullaby Project works with young mothers, in a variety of settings including homeless shelters and Rikers Island Correctional Facility, to create their own lullabies. And the Create Justice project is an annual two-day conference bringing together organisations around the country working with incarcerated youth: “That’s about how we work together with other institutions to change the situation around all these kids who are ending up in the justice system.”
“There are huge issues in this country around the number of African-Americans in prison. There’s so much that needs to change, and we feel it’s got to be a central part of what we do.”
Cooperation not competition
In addition to these shifts in approach to education and outreach, Gillinson changed an element of Carnegie Hall’s approach to programming, inaugurating a series of festivals, designed as “journeys of exploration, right across the field of culture”. To do so required collaboration with “big institutions throughout New York – which had never happened before – so that you’re really stimulating the curiosity of your audiences and encouraging them to grow and live outside their comfort zone”. Initial reactions to this idea were negative: “Everybody said, don’t bother: nobody works together because everybody’s chasing the same money. It’s all about competition and nobody will work with you.” In fact, Gillinson has found the reverse to be true – and that cooperation has resulted in new audiences for all the participating partners: “For the South Africa festival, 60% of the audience had never stepped inside Carnegie Hall before, and for the China and Japan festivals, 40% hadn’t. We’re working with a lot of the greatest institutions – MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum – and again, they’re finding all sorts of people coming to them who’d never been there before. Our festivals involve anything up to 30, 40, 50 other organisations, and the reality is, everybody gains.”
Despite that success, Gillinson resists framing any of the innovations he’s brought to Carnegie Hall in terms of immediate audience gains. He sees Link Up and related programmes as a far more meaningful approach to engaging people with music, with a particular focus on those who would otherwise not have the opportunity – and argues for their value in terms of “long-term strategy. If we’re giving Link Up to 100 orchestras around the country, lots of those kids will never come to Carnegie Hall, but that doesn’t matter to us. This is not about audience development: everything I believe in is about a long-term commitment to the role of an institution like this in society and how this institution serves people.”
“This is not about audience development: everything I believe in is about a long-term commitment to the role of an institution like this in society and how this institution serves people.”
And yet, he knows that these projects are precarious: a change in leadership at Carnegie Hall could end them all within months. “Nothing is safe in perpetuity. If you get a chairman who doesn’t care about education then education is going to go by the wayside. You have to build something where the mission is so deeply ingrained – you’ve got to bring the right trustees on board, you’ve got to make sure that the mission runs throughout the organisation – and then you depend on them making the right decisions about leadership. Otherwise, all that could be gone.”
As such, he finds it hard to look further ahead than three or four years into the future: “I don’t think there’s a lot of meaning in looking beyond that – except in terms of the broad mission. And the role will continue to be: how do we transform people’s approach to life? How do we give them things that will inspire them, that will encourage them to become explorers throughout their lives? How do we make sure that kids everywhere have the opportunity to engage with and be involved with music? How do we make sure that we’re always fresh, that we’re always exploring new ideas, that we’re always challenging people, that we’re never comfortable? What that leads to will continue to change all the time: it’s about being a catalyst for change.”
Photo: Chris Lee, Carnegie Kids: Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower