main: December 2007 Archives

Here's a version of a June report I wrote about the specious nature of "economic impact" studies for a daily newspaper in Georgia. I hope you find it edifying. I wrote it when I was beat reporter covering arts and culture -- everything from puff pieces to annual fiscal reports to the intersection between arts and medicine.

The article came after the Americans for the Arts released its survey, finding that Savannah saw an arts impact of nearly $50 million in 2005, a huge, and dubious, number for a metro area of over 300,000.

In this article, I put findings by American for the Arts side-by-side with a study by the RAND Corporation that found "noteworthy weaknesses" in studies like the one applied to Savannah (and for that matter, Charleston).

The RAND study makes a fairly convincing case that arts organizations stop emphasizing art's quantitative aspects -- i.e., that the arts are good for business -- and start stressing art's qualitative aspects -- i.e., that art is inherently good, that it is important to literate, civilized communities, and that it promotes quality of life.

What I found most intriguing about the RAND study was its creation of a dichotomy: supply-side thinking and demand-side thinking on the part of arts organizations.

In other words, instead of spending oodles of money creating free concerts, performances, etc. (what economists would call "supply"), why not spend that same money encouraging people to value the arts vis-a-vis arts education and outreach (that is, "demand")?

Such thinking would go a long way toward achieving long-range, not short-term, goals.

On a more philosophical note, this is the similar dilemma that early scientists faced when they sought evidence of God's divine providence in their studies of the earth, human anatomy and outer space. The more they looked to the material world, the more reason they found to doubt their faith. By Darwin's time, faith has become something you couldn't prove, because the evidence keeping pointing to the contrary.

At the same time, even though faith couldn't be proved, it also couldn't be disproved. For some (though perhaps not many), having faith in a power larger than oneself became something good for its own sake.

Same with art. It's good for us. We don't have to prove. We just have to make a successful case for it.

Or as one source for my article, the president of an arts organization and lawyer at a high-powered law firm, put it: "You can always back up requests for funding with statistics. The experience of the arts is very subjective. Sometimes you just have to say that this is the right thing to do." --J.S. |

A Washington-based advocacy group's survey reports that Savannah realized more than $46.6 million in arts- and culture-related spending in 2005.

Arts groups, according to the study, spent more than $21.8 million. Audiences here spent more than $24.7 million.

Americans for the Arts issued "Arts & Economic Prosperity III" Wednesday, the third in a series of detailed reports tracking the economic impact of nonprofit arts and culture organizations in communities across the nation.

The report includes data from arts groups in Savannah, such as theater companies, dance troupes, arts festivals and musical ensembles. It is the first attempt in over a decade to provide evidence of what city officials, residents, patrons and consumers materially gain from their investment in arts and cultural organizations.

Arts organizations, the study suggests, created more than 1,600 full-time jobs or their equivalent. More than $2.8 million in local tax revenue was generated.

Nationally, more than $166 billion in economic activity was recorded during the same period, including nearly $30 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue.

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology examined data from 156 communities - 116 cities and counties, 35 multi-county regions and five states - to measure industry spending. The report asserts that the arts are a cornerstone of tourism.

"When a community attracts cultural tourists, it harnesses significant economic rewards," the report states.

All this sounds good to Savannah city officials who allocate money every year to various arts organizations, especially those in the "cultural tourism" category of public funding. For 2007, Savannah City Council provided more than $978,000 for arts groups, including $150,000 for the Savannah Music Festival and $50,000 for the Savannah Film Festival.

Reframing the debate
Although such studies are good for advocates and politicians, they don't facilitate good research, according to a 2005 report by the Rand Corporation called "Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts."

Among dozens of surveys reported in recent years that attempt to measure the economic impact of the arts, most of those surveys suffer from "noteworthy weaknesses" and "holes in the evidence" because of the data used, the Rand report states.

Such studies claim benefits that are inherently difficult to measure. They assume money generated by the arts is a net addition to the local economy, when it's more likely to be a replacement for other kinds of spending.

Moreover, by focusing on the economics of the arts, they do little to help the long-term goals of arts groups, namely, to create a public that values the arts.

The Rand report recommends that arts advocates stop emphasizing the quantitative aspects of the arts, such as economic rewards, and instead focus on individual experiences, including enlightenment, emotional reflection and personal well-being.

Rand researchers made the case for less supply-side thinking - putting on shows and exhibits, for example - and more demand-side thinking that would lead to renewed efforts in public school and community arts programs to cultivate new audiences.

What's the real impact?
To see evidence of the arts' economic impact, said Patricia Miller, president of the Tybee Island Fine Arts Commission, people need to simply open their eyes. Many cities have revitalized their downtown neighborhoods because of the arts.

"I'm definitely on the side of the arts being an economic engine," Miller said, citing Douglasville, Statesboro, Brunswick and Savannah as success stories.

Ken Carter, executive director of the Lucas Theatre and a Georgia Council for the Arts panelist, said economic impact studies do have an upside, but they also have a downside: replacing the inherent and traditional value of the arts with a notion that cultural activity is merely good for business.

"These studies reinforce the notion that the value of the arts is economic, when it should be seen as the ability to change lives and raise the level of community engagement," he said. "That is the primary attribute of the arts."

Shonah P. Jefferson, chairwoman of the Friends of African-American Arts, a group affiliated with the Telfair Museum of Art, said that as a lobbyist, she would use economic impact studies to make the case for arts funding. But ultimately, she said, the issue is qualitative, not quantitative.

"You can always back up requests for funding with statistics," Jefferson said. "The experience of the arts is very subjective. Sometimes you just have to say that this is the right thing to do."

The results of the study, as they apply to Savannah, are scheduled to be presented July 19 to the Savannah City Council by a representative of Americans for the Arts.

Cross-posted from Charleston City Paper's Unscripted.

December 31, 2007 8:56 AM | | Comments (2)

It appears that most local media are floundering, according to this Wall Street Journal article:

Local media companies, because they are based in the communities they serve, would seem to have an edge over Internet sellers when it comes to persuading the diner or corner hardware store to take out an ad. But they have largely failed to convert that advantage into sales. Instead of tailoring their sales to local businesses, many newspaper companies initially focused on selling ads to bigger advertisers who were already buying space in their print products.

Meanwhile, Jeff Jarvis, the media guru and founder of Entertainment Weekly, writes in his popular Buzz Machine blog what's been obvious to people like City Paper's advertising Svengalis (where I took a job as the arts editor three months ago), that small is the new big:
Newspapers are losing their own core market because they didn't understand the scale of the internet. They still thought mass when they should have realized that small is the new big. That is, online, newspapers still threw their lot in with the big advertisers who had been the only ones who could afford their mass products. They didn't see the mass of potential spending in a new population of small, local advertisers who never could afford to advertise in newspapers but who now could afford to buy targeted, efficient, inexpensive ads online. There's growth -- yes, growth -- there. But newspapers ignored that -- apart from some half-hearted attempts to come up with crappy online Yellow Pages -- and handed what should be their local market over to Google and other online companies that set up efficient means to sell a lot of little ads, which equals big revenue.

Dave Morgan, writing in the blog Online Spin, takes the "small" concept a step further. Why don't daily newspapers break themselves up structurally? That is, they are already advertising firms, digital media companies and news gathering organizations. Instead of being bundled together, why not separate them and work according to their strengths? Here's how he would define each new spin-off:
Local news and news editing
Newspapers are generally pretty good at local news and news editing. The problem is, they can only leverage that capability in their print newspapers and on their Web sites, and the two together are not likely to be able to pay the bills required to run great newsrooms. OK. Why not spin them out as news companies, continue to have them providing news to the print and Web precuts, but permit them to service any number of other businesses, from newsletters to specialty weeklies to global news services? Let them free to do what they do best and to develop new and diverse customer bases.

Newspaper companies are one of only a few companies that pass virtually every home in their markets once a day and have the capacity to deliver physical products. Many newspapers have had success converting their distributors into alternative distribution networks, delivering everything from magazines to marketer samples to other print news products. Let these folks free to find the best ways to pay for the trunks, cars, drivers and gasoline.

Ad sales and direct marketing
Newspaper companies are generally the leading sellers of advertising in their markets. Why sell just for the newspaper? Why not sell for other local media? Why not sell for national media to local advertisers? Why not become local marketing solutions companies, since most local markets have very few ad agencies that have expertise beyond creative and strategy? Let sales sell, and let them fill up their quiver with lots of other media and marketing solutions.

Printing is very expensive, and getting more so. The commercial printing business is growing fast, and many newspapers run commercial printing as a sidelight, to help defray the capital investments in printing and plant and the expenses to run them. Why not make commercial printing the primary role of the operations and make the newspaper just another client? Let the printers print for everyone.

Most newspaper companies have local Web sites and digital teams. While they help the newspaper "go online," many of the things they do go well beyond the normal role of the local newspaper, whether it be in Web site design, email newsletters, qualified lead generation, search marketing, and much much more. How about letting the digital folks free to build the best digital businesses possible, and just have them license the news feeds and leverage the sales company, if they so desire.

Cross-posted from Charleston City Paper's Unscripted.

December 30, 2007 8:48 AM |

The lock-out continues in Jax. The musicians and management for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra made some progress last week in negotiations. Both sides made concessions, but nothing was set in stone. The administration and board of directors said they could not reconvene until the first half of January.

Meanwhile, because terms for a new labor contract had not been finalized, the administration and board of directors told musicians they would continue with plans to cut off health care coverage by Dec. 31.

Yeah, you're right. Seems petty. That's exactly what it looks like.

Why get so close to an agreement just to put it off till January? And why cut off musician's healthcare when it's in the administration's power to avoid that? This is a huge black eye for Jim Van Vleck's board of directors and Alan Hopper's administration. It's Christmas, for Christ's sake!

As I noted in a post last week, there are big-time failures of leadership in Jacksonville.

It's clear to me that Hopper and Van Vleck are passing the buck. This is evidenced by Van Vleck's letter to the mayor, John Peyton, explaining the board's position. But the mayor isn't too far behind. After Van Vleck sent his letter, it was reported in the Jacksonville Daily Record that Peyton would step aside.

But the mayor does so at his own risk. Hopper and Van Vleck have said numerous times there is a $3 million deficit. In order to keep the enterprise going, according to Van Vleck, the musicians need to take the pay cut. He keeps saying this even though budgets are the concern of boards, not musicians. If an orchestra doesn't have enough money, the board needs to trim expenses and raise money, not just trim expenses.

So they say it's $3 million. Fine. Show me.

If it's really that bad, that figure -- $3 million -- should be reflected in the Federal tax forms submitted to the Internal Revenue Service every year by nonprofit organizations, right? That would be the legal thing to do, right?

Yet, when one looks at the form for 2006, the most recent form available, (they are called Form 990s and they are used by all 501(c)(3) nonprofits, like the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, and they can be found by using websites like Guidestar), one does not see the deficit.

In fact, expenses and revenue for that fiscal year are about equal.

And total assets are worth more than $11.6 million. Where's the problem?

I'm not the only one to notice this.

Bill Eddins, music director for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, in Alberta, Canada, wrote about his experience trying out for a position with the Jacksonville Symphony some years ago. In that post, he points out that the $3 million deficit is a figure that cannot be trusted:

. . . there seems to be a $3 million dollar deviation in the budget between the numbers that the Board is presenting and what everyone else is finding. This smacks of the gerrymandering that goes on in our federal government. The Feds can get away with it. The government can just print money or pass the buck to future generations . . . But because we live in the non-profit world an orchestra can't get away with this. You simply cannot cook the books. An independent audit of the finances of the Jacksonville Symphony would seem to be an absolute necessity at this point. At this moment none of the numbers coming out of this mess can be trusted.

Furthermore, when I called Leonard Leibowitz, the attorney representing the musicians in a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that the lock-out is illegal, he said that he didn't see the deficit in question either.

"They are trying to establish that the orchestra is poor, so when it was time to negotiate with the musicians, they'd be justified in asking the union for money," Leibowitz told me on Dec. 3.

If Hopper and Van Vleck hope to have credibility, they need to show the paperwork. Better yet, as Eddins recommends, an independent audit of the orchestra's bookkeeping. Jacksonville's honorable mayor, John Peyton, has evidently decided to stay quiet on this issue after reading Van Vleck's letter.

But that decision was made on trust and the evident thus far doesn't indicate much reason for that.

Cross-posted from Charleston City Paper's Unscripted.

December 21, 2007 10:22 AM |

Earlier this week, our AJ blogging neighbor book/daddy linked to a short but funny bit on Craigslist. In that spirit, I wanted to share a favorite bit of my own: "To: Guy Who Screamed Obscenities at the Ballet the Other Night." If you've been working as hard as my fellow bloggers have been lately, this should provide a much-needed chuckle (and it's really not that far off-topic if you consider our recent posts about sports vs. arts, audience behavior, etc.) Enjoy!

December 19, 2007 1:30 PM |

The Jacksonville Business Journal reported that talks resumed Friday between the Jacksonville Symphony's management and musicians. The report notes city government officials have finally gotten involved, as least symbolically, since the lock-out began last month.

The Jacksonville City Council on Tuesday passed a resolution urging the orchestra's management and musicians to come to some kind of resolution and get back to work. Unfortunately, there's no teeth in the resolution. And so far there's no news of back office discussions led by anyone in local government.

The city's mayor, John Peyton, is a member ex officio of the orchestra's board. He's not personally involved, but nevertheless he plans to stay out of it. This is the wrong thing to do. Peyton should be leading resolutions of the kind voted nearly unanimously by City Council, not waiting (or hoping) for them to happen on their own.

Failure among Jacksonville's leaders to provide leadership seems contagious. Peyton isn't alone in passing the buck. The orchestra's board and management -- specifically board president Jim Van Vleck and executive director Alan Hopper -- don't get it. It's their responsibility to raise money, balance books, and so on, not the musicians' job to take a big ole pay cut to save the orchestra.

It's clear that Hopper and Van Vleck are trying to pass the buck, as evidenced by Van Vleck's letter to the mayor explaining the board's position. They say there is a $3 million deficit and that the musicians need to take the pay cut in order the balance the budget.

However, I've looked at the Federal tax forms (it's called Form 990 and it's used by 501(c)(3) nonprofits) and do not see the deficit they continue to cite. Furthermore, when I called Leonard Leibowitz, the attorney representing the musicians in a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that the lock-out is illegal, he said that he didn't see the deficit in question either.

"They are trying to establish that the orchestra is poor, so when it was time to negotiate with the musicians, they'd be justified in asking the union for money," Leibowitz told me on Dec. 3.

Hopper and Van Vleck apparently feel their word on the matter is good enough. So does Peyton, evidently. After Van Vleck sent his letter, it was reported that Peyton would step aside.

Does the mayor really think that it looks OK to step aside, as if he has nothing to do with the labor dispute? He's probably hoping it does, but the reality is, he's in this. This is what mayors are for -- to provide leadership. All the time. Not when it's politically convenient.

People outside the city, however, are taking note of the all-around shoddy leadership. Bruce Ridge, chair of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, released a statement after visiting Jacksonville. It read, in part:

In my brief time in Jacksonville I found an orchestra ready for growth in a city of seemingly endless opportunity. For the city, my view has been confirmed. In these 20 years, the downtown has grown to become one of the most beautiful cities of the South, with its riverwalk, shopping districts, and, yes, the beautiful home of the Jacksonville Symphony, the Times-Union Performing Arts Center. I have read reports that speak of a 36% growth in the economy there in just the past five years.

And yet, seemingly in defiance of the growth around them, the Jacksonville Symphony has not found leadership that could harvest the opportunities surrounding the streets of their concert hall.

No, instead, those charged to lead the orchestra have embraced the negative rhetoric that has been promulgated throughout the field, and now at this time of crisis they have uttered the absurd assertions that so many of us have heard across the table. It is impossible to believe that so many boards and so many managers stumble across the exact same words by accident.

Those who fail to lead their orchestras always recite the same lines of structural deficit and greedy musicians, as if they fall back on negativity as a last refuge. They must justify their failures in light of all the positive news that is being reported across the country. They must justify their inability to raise funds for an orchestra even though the nonprofit culture industry in America accounts for $166 billion in economic activity every year. [my emphasis]

Across America, cities are recognizing the positive financial impact the arts and their orchestras can have in their communities. Inspirational leaders are finding new donors and innovative ways for orchestras to serve their communities. [Thanks to Adaptistration for the citation]

On the plus side, City Council's resolution does make it clear that the citizens of Jacksonville have a stake in what happens to the orchestra. The orchestra's management has threatened to cut off healthcare by year's end if the musicians don't buckle. With this resolution, the management and board of directors now know they are being watched and they are being watched carefully.

The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra is not a private club. Everyone has a stake. Hopper and Van Vleck need to act responsibly, keeping in mind they will be held accountable at least in the court of public opinion. Anything less is arrogance, impudence, and condescension.

Cross-posted to Charleston City Paper's Unscripted.

December 16, 2007 11:04 AM |


If you don't like reality shows, don't turn on your TV next year.

The big four broadcast networks are running out of new scripts because of the ongoing strike by the Writers Guild of America. By January, the number of reality-based television shows, which do not require writers represented by the guild, will jump about 50 percent.

After the last strike in 1988, according to the New York Times, a whole new genre of television programming emerged like COPS and America's Most Wanted.

But this time the number of reality shows is much, much higher. Prepare yourself for even more American Idol, Big Brother, Wife Swap, Supernanny, The Bachelor, Survivor, Deal or No Deal, and a reprisal of really bad TV from the 1980s, American Gladiator (the image above is from the old show; click this link to see a new one)

There's another difference between then and now: irony.

Writers are demanding a greater share of revenue generated by programs watched on the internet and other new technologies, like cellphones and iPods. But the strike may actually increase an already growing exodus of viewers from television to the internet.

Just last week, Reuters reported that NBC has begun reimbursing advertisers roughly $500,000 each for not making its ratings goals, the first time that has happened in years. Meanwhile, the other networks have been offering "make-goods," or free advertising slots to advertisers instead of paying them back. The report said that NBC's woes started before the strike. By January, ratings are expected to be far worse, as the network continues to face a writers strike and turns to more reality-based TV.

These are problems stemming from people not watching TV. What about problem from people who do? The Hollywood Reporter recently published a story about a new study that found that people who own DVRs and TiVo systems tend to skip advertisements (four out of five with TiVo, 82 percent with DVRs). At the same time, video-on-demand seems to be the wave of the future for television. The question is how to make money.

For years, a fundamental principle of American capitalism has been giving consumers greater choice. More options means more freedom means more profits. That was true as long as the producers, in this case broadcast networks, were in control of the product. The networks know this; the writers do, too. With the rise of new technologies, the very consequence of American capitalism, that control is no longer guaranteed and, as a consequence, neither are profits.

Isn't that ironic?

Cross-posted to Charleston City Paper's Unscripted.

December 14, 2007 1:14 PM |

It's that time of year again, when every ballet school in America trots its young students on stage for their production of "The Nutcracker." For that reason, it's also the time of year when journalists like myself struggle for anything new to say about this old chestnut.

A couple of years ago, I took a stab, after attending a performance here in Missoula, MT. I figured it'd be a good opportunity to talk about some of the cultural issues surrounding the choice of a ballet over a ballgame. As much as anything, it's a salvo aimed at those who unwisely believe that the things that are meaningful to them are somehow more important than the things that are meaningful to others.

I happened to come across that column today while looking back in our newspaper's archives for something else entirely, and thought I'd share.

The 'savage ballet'
Football and other sports mimic art more than some care to admit
By JOE NICKELL of the Missoulian

Last Friday, I watched a team of young people cap a season of intense practice with a remarkable performance. It was a spectacle of physical artistry: They leapt, they spun, they flipped and flung. Girls in extremely short skirts gleefully vaulted around, while muscular guys in extremely tight pants demonstrated acrobatic skills and deft moves that drew spontaneous cheers from the crowd.

Meantime, someplace else, the University of Montana lost its national championship football game.

For the rest of this article, please click through to the Missoulian archive.

December 11, 2007 2:36 PM | | Comments (5)

Though it's purely coincidental, the last two plays I've seen in Madison have revolved around issues of disability.

I caught the opening of "Tidings from the Seasonally Affected," the new show from Encore Studio for the Performing Arts, which describes itself as "the only professional theater company for people with disabilities in Wisconsin" (and I'll take their word for it).

Written by Encore's artistic and executive director, KelsyAnne Schoenhaar, and Wendy Prosise, "Tidings" looks at the holiday season from the perspective of a young woman who is moving from an institution to a small group home. The play is set in 1977 ("the golden age of group homes," according to the program notes), as deinstitutionalization created significant change in the lives of those with physical and cognitive disabilities. "Tidings" is a serio-comic look at these issues, ranging from pointed observation to goofy musical interludes between scenes (my review of the show will appear soon in Isthmus). It's also a welcome offering for those seeking holiday fare off the Nutcracker/Christmas Carol path.

On Saturday, I caught one of the final performances of "A Nervous Smile," John Belluso's drama about three parents of children with severe cerebral palsy. It was staged by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's University Theatre, with MFA students acting and directing.

While "Tidings" looks at issues of disability largely from the perspective of those living with disabilities, "Smile" considers the psychological strain that able-bodied parents of disabled children can feel--leading to potentially rash actions. A wheelchair user himself, the late Belluso based his play on a real-life incident in which two parents abandoned their disabled child in a hospital emergency room.

Although these two shows are utterly different in tone, they both gave me something to think about as a person who is not faced with disability issues every day. As a theater-goer, I appreciate seeing work that's socially engaged but, for the most part, not heavy-handed.

December 10, 2007 11:00 AM |


From Crosscut, a web-based news publication in Seattle, analyzing how newspapers could make money again given the emergence of a new kind of technology called the Kindle. Made by Amazon, the device would allow newspapers to continue doing what they have always done -- that is, sell advertising in the traditional way, alongside editorial content. With Kindle, newspapers wouldn't need to reinvent the wheel trying to figure how to sell ads online in the form of banners and Google links. Instead, it could just do as it has been doing, because in a digitized form the newspaper, as viewed on a Kindle, would appear exactly like it does in print.

Moreover, if Kindle, and its like, were to catch on, like iPods have, newspapers might be able to do away with print altogether, saving, as this analysis suggests, as much as 38 percent of operating costs -- print, press, maintenance, production, etc. This would allow publications to reinvest in their newsroom and advertising departments. The potential for spectacular daily newspapers is tantalizing, but sadly unlikely. Newspapers, owned as they are by corporate behemoths, aren't known for doing the smart thing, just the profitable thing. --J.S.

How an electronic newspaper could become profitable
Papers like The Seattle Times are in a tough spot: Online advertising revenue is a long way from covering expenses. Meanwhile, print advertising is vanishing. So why not ditch the presses and trucks and go electronic? It just might pencil out.

By Bill Richards

The tech gadget of the moment, this moment anyway, is Amazon's new wireless electronic book-reader, Kindle. The wireless device can deliver any one of more than 88,000 books, including bestsellers, which Amazon sells for under $10 each. The text appears on Kindle with the same crisp clarity as print on paper, and the battery that runs the device will go a week before it needs a two-hour recharge. Amazon hopes Kindle will tear up the book business just like iPod tore up the music business.

But there is another business, newspapers, that ought to be closely following Amazon's bet on Kindle. Newspaper owners these days routinely issue gloom-and-doom financial forecasts, usually accompanied by announcements of layoffs and other cost-cutting measures. Draconian steps are necessary, they declare sadly, because newspaper revenues keep falling.

In these scenarios the Internet is usually portrayed as the villain, siphoning off print readers and ad money, but not adding online revenue fast enough to make up the difference. Last year, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, estimated that if online ad revenue kept growing at 33 percent annually, it would still take a decade to break even with much larger print-ad revenues, which were growing at 4 percent.

In fact, during the most recent quarter, newspapers' online revenue rose only 21 percent, year-over-year, and print ad revenue dropped by nine percent. By such metrics, the continuing gap between online and print revenue appears to make the Internet a poor bet to replace print any time soon.

Or maybe not.

Full story . . .

(photo above: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos holds a Kindle, courtesy of the Associated Press)

Cross-posted on the Charleston City Paper's Unscripted

December 9, 2007 9:31 AM |

Good cheer can be expensive, apparently. My colleague at the Missoulian, Rob Chaney, wrote an excellent behind-the-scenes piece for our paper this week about the surprising costs of putting on Christmas concerts, specifically related to sheet-music rentals. It's an issue that is likely shared by every school orchestra, community band, and small-town orchestra in this country -- and really not just at this time of year.

This story is just the tip of the iceberg. In speaking with John Driscoll, the executive director of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, a couple of months ago, I was surprised to learn that his biggest challenge in trying to program modern music isn't his audience's willingness to listen to it.

The problem is the cost.

"It's really not cheap to program great music, and it's particularly not cheap to program contemporary music, be it contemporary classical, or pops, or movie themes," said Driscoll. "We have to be very cognizant of budget when programming the repertoire for all our concerts. That's often disappointing. For example, we program one or two big pieces on the summer (pops) concert; for the rest, a lot of that is music we either own or borrow from the other members of Montana Association of Symphony Orchestras, just so that we can afford to present the concert."

Driscoll cited numerous examples of works he had tried to secure for the orchestra at his music director's behest, only to find that he couldn't afford the part rentals. Somewhat tangentially, he further pointed out that, for the money he spends, he usually gets disorganized sheaves of instrumental parts that are often marked up willy-nilly by musicians who have used the parts previously.

This seems like a shockingly absurd problem in this modern era of cheap, on-demand printing -- to say nothing of digital distribution. I'm almost afraid to opine on the problem from where I stand, since I fear I'm maybe just missing a basic point of economics in this equation.

But what I do see now, more clearly, is that there are hazards beyond audience acceptance that make it hard for new music to reach listeners; and meantime, there are exorbitant hidden costs that can truly bruise a small or struggling orchestra.

December 5, 2007 10:36 PM | | Comments (4)

The administration for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra has told its musicians that they should take the terms offered in a new labor contract or face cancellation of their healthcare coverage at the end of the year. That's according to Drew McManus over at Adaptistration. Stay tuned for more coverage.

From an email sent to musicians by Alan Hopper, the JSO's exe director:

As we mentioned in this letter, we cannot sustain the costs of the current agreement. Because the Association was hopeful that we could reach a timely agreement, we chose to continue your health care coverage through December 31. Now we are faced with uncertainty regarding a new agreement and must control our expenses. Accordingly, we will not continue health care coverage for Musicians after December 31 if we fail to reach an agreement by December 15.

You will have the opportunity to continue your current health care coverage with Blue Cross/Blue Shield at the COBRA rate which includes both the Association and Musician cost plus 2%.

We truly regret this decision but we must preserve the financial integrity of the JSA.

The threat amounts to a Merry Christmas and big fuck you to the musicians from the JSO's board of directors. Yet more evidence that the board and the administration don't value the musicians or what the musicians do for the organization or the city of Jacksonville.

December 5, 2007 6:59 AM |

This is a big weekend in Jacksonville. The administration for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra has said a previously scheduled production of The Nutcracker with the First Coast Ballet will go on even though the orchestra's management locked out its musicians three weeks ago. JSO musicians have gone without paychecks since then.

Drew McManus, an expert on orchestral management and host of Adaptistration, has been tracking the developments as well as doing original reporting on the situation. Today, he reports that a mediator has been brought in to broker an agreement between management and the musicians' union representatives.

That meeting, McManus writes, is set to take place Friday at noon. (Read more on the background of the lock-out here, here, here and here.)

Traditionally, the Jacksonville Sympphony has produced The Nutcracker using live music by the JSO musicians (and it has been marketed as such every year), but Alan Hopper, the executive director of the orchestra, said publicly that the show will go on even if they have to use recorded music. JSO musicians on have threaten to picket the this weekend's performances if they cannot reach a settlement before the weekend.

Some background
The old labor contract in Jacksonville expired in August. Negotiations for a new one started in September. Until a new contact was ratified, musicians decided to continue playing under the terms of the old agreement with no intention of going on strike. In lieu of guarantees, they would keep performing.

When the proposed contract was offered three weekends ago, musicians felt the terms were not in their favor. The proposed contract asked them in effect to take a pay cut (in the form of reduced pension contributions and less pay for part-time players) even though they had already taken pay cuts in 2002 and 2004 with the understanding that they were giving management the breathing room it needed to make necessary financial changes.

Management, meanwhile, said the orchestra's deficit is too big ($3 million). To meet yearly financial goals (i.e., cleaning up red ink), management said there was no choice for the musicians but to accept terms of this new five-year agreement. And they weren't going to take no for an answer: The proposed contract was "the last, best and final offer," according to McManus, who interviewed Hopper, the orchestra's executive director.

Some analysis
I don't know much about the internal mechanics of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. So should not comment on its organizational attitudes, infrastructure issues, or civic ideology. I do know, however, that similar developments occurred along similar themes and issues with the Savannah Symphony. In 2003, the Savannah Symphony was among five orchestras nationwide to have work stoppages, labor disputes, or financial woes that led to bankruptcy. But it was the only one that did not come back over the next few years.

I was living as a cultural journalist in Savannah during the time of the orchestra's demise. I saw firsthand what happened, but only understood what happened with the passing of time. And what I came to understand in Savannah is what I sense is happening in Jacksonville. That is, an attitude, a dangerous and perhaps ubiquitous attitude, among board members and key positions in the JSO's administration toward the orchestra's musicians.

Remember: The musicians had already committed to playing. On the Tuesday after negotiations stalled, however, they found the doors to the concert hall locked. There would be no rehearsals that day or the immediate future. Later, management announced it had canceled the following weekend's concerts, and the next weekend after that, and that future concerts were to be decided on a weekly basis.

As Matthew Westphal noted in PlayBillArts on Nov. 19, it's unusual for an orchestra's management to cancel concerts if the musicians have not gone on strike. The implication here is that if the management locks out its musicians, it's forcing their hand in contract negotiations. In other words, if you want to work, take the offer. If you don't take the offer, you can go without a pay check and we'll see how long you wait to change your mind.

As I said, even though musicians were willing to play, management locked them out and canceled concerts. Surely for political reasons, both Hopper and Jim Van Vleck, chairman of the board, went to great pains not to appear like they were not pushing to musicians to make a decision. Hopper and Van Vleck told Jacksonville reporters that musicians had not gone on strike and they were not being locked out, even though they were -- literally.

So the lock out seems to be the board and JSO management's strategy for getting the musicians to accept the new deal. But even if they succeed, there's still something rotten in Jacksonville. And that still might threaten the future and future credibility of the organization. Unsavory as the lock out is to impartial observers, the framework of the rationale behind the strategy is even more so.

Some shit talk
Van Vleck said musicians were asking for too much. He told reporters that if JSO musicians wanted to keep the orchestra going, they'd need to concede.

"I really do respect our musicians," he told the Florida Times-Union, "but there's something about a 37-week year and 20 hours a week that doesn't seem too onerous."

This "onerous" comment suggests he doesn't understand the lives of professional musicians and doesn't understand nonprofits. Worse, he doesn't fundamentally value what musicians do. It's an attitude that can, once it becomes rooted, damage an orchestra or undermine the value of having one at all.

If that statement wasn't bad enough, Van Vleck expounded on his point of view in an op-ed piece on Nov. 16 in the Times-Union called "New Realities Require Change." In it, he says that the amount of money it takes to pay musicians is larger than the amount of money generated by the symphony.

As a result, operating deficits have occurred in eight of the last 10 years and maintaining the contract at the current level continues to produce significant deficits in the future.

This is utter nonsense. If an orchestra's board can't raise the money it needs to pay its musicians, it's not doing enough fund-raising. That's the bottom line.

There are no new realities. This is what board do for arts nonprofits -- raise money.

If you don't like it, don't serve on the board. The arts don't pay for themselves. Tickets sales, everyone knows, don't pay for the cost of producing concerts or theater productions or dance ensembles. You fill in the difference with contributed income, do your best with earned incomes, and hope by fiscal year's end that your income-expense balance is zero.

That's the reality, a reality Van Vleck and others, one presumes, don't get. And they don't get it, because they don't see the value of what the orchestra is and what the orchestra's musicians do for the board, for the organization and for the city. If they did, they wouldn't be locking out musicians over pennies. They'd get cracking on paying off that debt.

Re-posted from Charleston City Paper's Unscripted.

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December 2, 2007 12:07 PM |

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