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Recession Watch: Making the Cut

Today, the Atlanta Symphony announced that its musicians have agreed to a 5% pay cut as part of a second round of organization-wide cost-cutting measures that started with reductions to administrative staff salaries in March. Yesterday, it was the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra whose players agreed to a 12% pay reduction for the 2009-10 season; cost-cutting efforts there include reducing senior management’s salaries by 15.5% and eliminating 7 administrative positions. In the wake of this news, I started idly tallying up a list of orchestras that have announced significant cuts in the last month, and the results are sobering: Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Minnesota, and that's just off the top of my head. Let's not even start with the opera companies.

Some companies, of course, can't blame their woes entirely on the recession. After the beleaguered New York City Opera announced its reduced 2009-10 season, as I mentioned last week, it emerged that they may have neglected to make nice with the musicians' union (AGMA), which now is threatening to strike. The inexperience of George Steel, the company's newly-appointed general manager, may be showing.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 7, 2009; 10:58 AM ET
Categories:  national  
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The entire financial model for serious arts organizations is out of whack, and everyone involved is going to have to deal with it -- now or later. And the longer they wait, the worse the consequences.

The days of the $100K/week music director are numbered. Add to that the $500K+ president, the $20K/performance soloist & conductor, the $150K stagehand (check out the Met's 990 on GuideStar), and on down the list, and there are big problems. Plus, the essentially adversarial relationship between management and the unions--performers and technicians--is both unsustainable and silly. Both sides will have to give, just like almost every industry is doing.

If they are smart, both sides will take this as an opportunity to develop a real partnership rather than a competition. Don't hold your breath.

Posted by: groundhogdayguy | April 7, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Groundhogdayguy is absolutely right. I would add to the discussion Peter Dobrin's enlightening piece from last week:

Though some of the executive salaries do seem high, for every executive or musician that makes $100K+, there are thousands of managers and musicians that make far, far less. The starting salaries for entry level administrators at major institutions here in Washington is high $20s/low $30s, and even for mid-to-senior level managers, salaries are not much higher. Let's not let a select few with big salaries detract from the fact that the vast majority of artists and arts administrators aren't getting rich off of working in the arts.

This is not to say that the NSO musicians, Michael Kaisers and Emmanuel Ax's of the arts world aren't worth every penny--THEY ARE. They're profoundly talented artists, leaders and innovators that are vital to the field. Most of the executives and musicians work very hard, have years and years of experience, and really do earn their pay. And let's not forget that it's the stagehands that keep the artists safe--no one wants a stagehand at $10 per hour that wouldn't care if that fly fell on the sopranos head. But until we find a sustainable model for arts orgs as a whole, it feels very difficult to justify some of salaries/fees that they demand.

These organizations are nonprofits with charitable missions. I (and, I imagine, the funders) would rather see more dollars going towards producing the art on stage and affecting change through arts outreach programs than going into salaries.

As my wishy-washy response demonstrates, the issue of salary cuts is not a simple one and I applaud the organizations and artists that are thinking seriously about this and coming up with workable solutions.

Posted by: anony2 | April 7, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

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