Last week’s announcement that the Philadelphia Academy of Music’s Anniversary Concert and Ball will go on hiatus for at least next year makes clear that Philadelphia faces a crisis of history and tradition. While history and tradition may seem unimportant to some, to many “Old Philadelphians” — like myself — it is of the utmost importance.
My fifth-great uncle, Napoleon LeBrun, was one of the visionary architects responsible for the construction of the Philadelphia Academy of Music from 1855 to 1857. The Philadelphia Academy of Music is the oldest opera house in the United States and has hosted a number of talented groups, including the Pennsylvania Ballet, Opera Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The Academy celebrated its 163rd (and possibly last) annual concert and ball on Jan. 25. Its website advertises “A Timeless Event,” with the opportunity to step back in time with “the same wonder and delight as the first guests of the building’s opening night gala in 1857.”
I understand any lack of empathy over the cancellation of a glamorous event for wealthy individuals that costs anywhere from $350 (for Young Friends) to $1,950 (for Parquet Box and Balcony Box) per ticket for the concert, dinner, and ball. However, I would not be quick to dismiss the importance of such a cultural event designed to celebrate and cultivate funds for the arts. The inability to attract and retain new patrons will have long-lasting adverse effects on the future sustainability fund-raising efforts for the Academy and other organizations in the city.
At first glance, the recent hiatus announcement seems like simple number-crunching. According to Academy chair Caroline B. “Cackie” Rogers, the amount of money spent on the event outweighs the amount it raises for restoration and preservation of the Academy. But in my opinion, this change is a microcosm of the larger societal problems plaguing Philadelphia as a whole.
First, “old money” does not last forever, and there is a lack of influx from “new money.” Despite the rise of gentrification, economic growth in Philadelphia has remained relatively steady and may actually start to retract. Second, many younger people would rather live somewhere with more employment opportunities, better school districts, and less crime than Philadelphia. Third, in a 2018 study, Philadelphia ranked third in the country for income inequality — a wealth gap that only benefits the spending habits of wealthy individuals with little to no benefit for the middle or upper-middle classes. Altogether, the lack of new innovative businesses with high-paying jobs and worsening inequality will continue to hasten disinterest in the city among the younger generations Philadelphia needs to thrive.
And that disengagement stands to impact social, cultural, and genealogical organizations. When explaining the concert and ball cancellation, Rogers noted that “the younger generation tends to be sticking a little bit more close to home in the suburbs,” and so can’t be reliably counted on to contribute to a place like the Academy. Hence, the organization is rethinking the event.
Given that declining interest, I believe the hiatus is a pivotal moment for the city of Philadelphia that can serve as a learning opportunity for other organizations to become more inclusive and accommodating to younger generations in the hopes of remaining relevant. The Academy is a prime example of a historical organization in Philadelphia that can foster the connection between past and present. As such, the concert and ball should strive to reach younger patrons in order to keep the traditions of Philadelphia alive.
I do not believe the city of Philadelphia is truly in decline — rather, the celebration of its rich history and tradition is waning. Indeed, “Old Philadelphians,” corporate philanthropists, and socialites alike will adapt to changing times and continue to support their social organizations in new ways. But for the love of art and the city of Philadelphia, I hope the Philadelphia Academy of Music reconsiders the hiatus. Rather than cancel the annual concert and ball, it’s time to protect it.