An Essay on the Seattle Symphony on Representation

I got a call Thursday from the Seattle Symphony. It's their annual fund drive and I've been donating every year for several years now. I like the symphony, unapologetically and lavishly, even though it's a little fusty and I get that classical music is a niche interest, closer to polo than anything else in the zeitgeist. People assume I must've been forced to play the violin when I was younger but no my parents weren't those kind of immigrants. I started listening to public classical radio as a kid and have been hooked ever since. Even when I went through a late 90s punk phase and shaved my hair, I still spun Varese in the evenings. So I'm a lifelong fan. And back when I was fresh out of college and struggling to pay off my student loans and trying make it in a new city, I could get a third tier seat for $14.00 and experience world class art for an evening and forget about my problems. The symphony has had my loyalty ever since.


I wasn't feeling well when the fundraiser called. I was sick and in a bad mood. She gave me the usual spiel about how donations keep the lights on and they do lots of community outreach and I was ready to give my usual amount when I decided to be a bit combative and ask, "So does this outreach affect communities of color at all? Who gets access to this work?" And I said this expecting a boiler plate #AllCommunitiesMatter-style answer which really means "rich kids in Ballard get the symphony brought to them." and I would have sighed and that would've been that.

But she paused and said "You know I've been told I can say this, because this is very important to me," and then I proceeded to get schooled. Thoroughly. Arts funding in Seattle is uneven and, as you might guess, tends to be highest in the neighborhoods that already have money. The Seattle Symphony provides classes, instruments, and teachers to schools in Rainier Valley, Othello, Columbia City, White Center, and other historically black and brown neighborhoods that wouldn't otherwise have music education of this caliber. At the end of the course, students are invited to play a concert at Benaroya Hall. And the Symphony travels to these neighborhoods to provide free community concerts. Where local government has stepped out, the Symphony has stepped in. She is black and her husband is Latino and their daughter is part of this program now and she could personally attest to the direct impact the symphony has in the community. We talked about how very very few people in the audience look like us, and how we want to see more people who look like us. By the end of the call I was crying a little because I've never met another person who understands both how much the symphony can mean to us personally, and how much we want to see it be accessible to people of color. In 30 years, when I'm still attending, I hope to see an audience that looks like the full spectrum of Seattle because arts are for everyone, not just for art's sake, but because a well-rounded education is critical to lifting communities and breaking down socio-economic barriers.

So, Seattle Symphony, I didn't get the name of the woman who called me. I regret that, because she was such an eloquent advocate for the work that you're doing and she reversed my perspective on the symphony's outreach. Please talk more about the work you do for communities of color in Seattle. Or better yet, make her your spokesperson for it.