The Dark Side II: Not In It For the Money

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about the recent turmoils at a few orchestras in the US which garnered several comments—all well worth reading and more interesting, in my opinion, than my original post—so I thought I’d continue the conversation. As one person wrote, the section of my post that seemed to provoke the most discussion was the statement: “I must be hopelessly naïve because I want to believe that if you go work for a nonprofit you’re not doing it for the money.”

More than a few said that this was a potentially damaging idea for us to continue to perpetuate in the nonprofit arts as it seems to translate into a justification to pay both artists and administrators far less than a living wage, an action that, some suggested, can result in lower quality performance in arts organizations. I couldn’t agree more with the sad state of wages at many nonprofit organizations. But the point about “in it for the money” was meant to be read in context of the three points that followed.

(2) if you go work for a nonprofit that the nonprofit leaders are also not doing it for the money; (3) that nonprofit leaders are going to do the best they can to fairly and equitably compensate everyone involved in the nonprofit and; (4) those same leaders are going to expend resources in line with the values of the institution (e.g., art, artists, community, education).

“Not being in it for the money” is not meant to suggest that people should be exploited. Indeed, the degree to which the vast majority of arts organizations in this country pay non-living wages to both administrators and artists led me to write a post for the McKnight Foundation awhile back asking whether we can rightly call ourselves a “professional” nonprofit sector or whether we are, rather, a sector made up primarily of “pro-am” organizations. The pro-am frame is not intended to be a negative one (though I imagine some may perceive it as such); I would suggest, however, that it has become a more accurate way of describing the majority of arts organizations.

The thing about pro-ams is that they are doing it for the love and not the money. And if they stop loving it (e.g., become demotivated), they aren’t willing to sacrifice the time (on the side of the day job they often have to hold) for the low or nonexistent compensation that comes with their art work.

Here’s the second point that I was attempting to make above: Asking people to do it for the love and not the money (i.e., take lower wages) only works if everyone is on the love boat. Arts administrators cannot pay themselves rather decently and expect everyone else to happily work for non-living wages.

In any event, returning to the orchestra post, my initial point was simply that money is not the primary motivator for pursuing nonprofit arts work; one assumes that if money were the motivation most people would pursue other work given that nonprofit arts work is often difficult to find and, once found, often involves long hours and low pay (a lot of love, not so much money).

The reason I characterized the recent disputes as “unseemly” (a word that was also questioned) is because, as I understand it, a few involved locking musicians out of orchestra venues or refusing to let musicians play concerts they were willing to play—behaviors that strike me as rather out-of-step with the idea that nonprofit professional performing arts organizations exist, in large part, to support talented artists and the creation of great art works and educational programs: it is the means by which they are understood to achieve their ends. What ends would those be? Let’s call it “contributing to a civil society”–an idea Russell Willis Taylor spoke eloquently about in a recent keynote address.

We presume that nonprofit performing arts organizations exist in large part for the purpose of supporting artists, who (as a colleague in the theater said at a recent meeting) are the workers that make the artistic goods and services around which our institutions are centered. They justify the nonprofit administrators’ salaries; not the other way around. At the formation of the nonprofit arts sector in the early-to-mid twentieth century, many nonprofit organizations were granted nonprofit status first and foremost on the basis of doing just that—providing better wages to artists so that they would not have to hold other jobs, so they would be available for rehearsals and performances, and so that the quality of the performances would improve.

Likewise, a cornerstone of the case for nonprofit status for theaters in the 60s and support from the Ford Foundation was the support of acting companies. To be clear, this wasn’t charity. A case was made that the quality of theatrical performances would only improve if actors could devote more time to their craft and rehearsals and didn’t have to also work other jobs on the side; and also, that no actor in his or her right mind would relocate from New York to Texas without some financial incentive and the promise of being able to play multiple roles within a given season. A key feature that was intended to distinguish the “professional nonprofit” theater or orchestra from the “community” theater or orchestra was the quality of its talent and productions or concerts—quality that was achieved through deeper investments in artists.

So here we are decades later and most theater companies that had acting companies (and not all of them did) have lost them. And now, as I watch the proposals for contracts based on fewer weeks of employment and significantly lower salaries in some professional orchestras I wonder if some orchestras are pursuing a path of nonprofit professional resident theaters (perhaps to a lesser degree, but nonetheless in spirit): outsource as much of the “talent” as possible, but keep the administrators.

I share the concern of Margot Knight who remarked:

What I DON’T see, often enough, is the willingness for pain to shared among EVERYONE that works for the organization in a proportional way. (e.g. EVERYONE takes two weeks unpaid leave which equates to a one-time savings of 4%). Depending on the job and the responsibilities, the time can be taken throughout a year or all at once. And that should be coupled with EVERYONE having a role to play in fund development. There must be some models that are collaborative, that are working, to ease this discord.

We have systematically made the case for administrative growth (and the sustaining of the infrastructure that was built up) over the years—growth that has had the unintended effect of increasing pressure on the artistic product to bring in higher revenues. We now have artists supporting arts institutions. It’s the opposite of the goal at the outset.

I’d like to suggest that one thing that might distinguish a “professional” nonprofit arts organization from an “amateur” arts organization would be that it pays its artists well enough that they can take money off the table (in the words of Daniel Pink, in a great RSA animate video on money and incentives) and invest sufficient time to achieve a level of mastery in what they do. What seems to be at issue in many of the recent disputes is that not only  are wages being reduced to the point where it is making money an issue (i.e., people are sincerely worried about being able to pay rent, support children, etc.), but contracts are being shorted to the point where they are sincerely concerned about the quality of their work.

As Margot Knight remarked, the musicians feel backed into a corner.

Many Americans have, of course, had to accept much lower wages in recent years (and many have lost their jobs entirely). Those working in the arts cannot expect to be immune from this reality. As Andy Buelow suggested, no one is entitled to wages in perpetuity and our wages are, to a great degree, based on our value to society. There was a time when society valued professional journalists and that seems to be waning. There was a time when being a customer service representative, or an accountant in the US, might give one steady employment—now one’s job is likely to be outsourced to India.

Is it troubling that society places less value on orchestras and theater companies and dance companies than it once did?


Do we have to face this reality and respond to it?


But in line with Margot’s sentiments, if orchestras have reached the point where they need to dramatically reduce wages and weeks for the band I too would feel better if I saw administrations being radically restructured as well. Indeed, I’d go one further and say that BEFORE we start cutting wages to artists we should perhaps pursue all possible ways to restructure the administration of the organization.


Well, some are evidently trying outsourcing large parts of the administration. I have more confidence in this approach than trimming positions across the organization and trying to make do with a dangerously bare bones staff. But there could be another way forward. In one of his comments William Osborne* quoted a well known report by Richard Hackman on the low level of job satisfaction of many orchestra musicians:

It is true that the most powerful influence on orchestra players’ professional satisfaction is the degree to which their organizations provide them opportunities for meaningful involvement in orchestral affairs. (We also found that professional dissatisfaction was highest in orchestras where the board of directors dominated the decision making process, the other side of the same coin.)

Artistic advisory committees are a case in point. Many orchestras have them, but few orchestras take them seriously. Musicians on the advisory committee may (or may not) meet regularly, but rarely do their views count in developing the artistic direction of the orchestra, in choosing guest conductors or soloists for future seasons, or in deciding about tours or repertoire. […] Players are professional musicians who have much more to give to their orchestras than usually is sought from them—and involvement about artistic matters is one arena in which those potential contributions can be harvested. But it has to be real involvement. Pseudo-participation usually is worse than no participation at all.

Notably, in the same video mentioned above, Pink suggests that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are what contribute to job satisfaction. Does the musician that does nothing but play music feel connected to the purpose of the organization (contributing to civil society through the arts)? Does the administrator that does nothing but execute a marketing or individual donor plan week-in and week-out?

With growth and professionalization of the nonprofit arts sector came specialization—a degree of which, by all accounts, seems to have enabled quality of performances to improve (perhaps even to a degree that many people cannot now fully appreciate). But specialization comes with tradeoffs. And it is sometimes hard to reconcile the myopia that comes with specialization with the full-on, whole-hearted, multiple-skill investments that we often expect (and may increasingly depend upon) from employees of nonprofit arts organizations.

Is it completely crazy to think that one way forward is a degree of generalization (or de-specialization): for musicians to take a more active role in running their institutions? If there is only enough “concert” work to support a 20-week contract, could musicians be paid the remaining weeks of the year to do (not only) education and outreach activities but also to help run the joint (as I hinted at last week when I asked what would happen if all the administrators walked out the door and left the musicians in the building)?

Moreover, is it possible that these entrepreneurial musicians would be more fulfilled in their work than the majority of musicians or admininstrators (working in nonprofit arts organizations) are at the moment?

And that the band would still play excellent concerts?

Is this a better option than shuttering our orchestras when they finally collapse under the weight of their asset intensity ratios?

I’d be curious to hear from those that have been doing this for years, and also those graduating from music or arts admin programs these days.

* Correction: In the original post I inadvertently credited Henry Peyrebrune with citing this particular quote from the Richard Hackman report. While Mr. Peyrebrune initially raised Hackman’s report for discussion it was William Osborne who cited the above mentioned quote in his comments.


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  1. Civil Civilian says

    I’m an administrator in the symphony orchestra world. This implication that administrators seek to cut artist pay to protect their own is completely at odds with my experience. In order of ease of implementation and avoiding “unseemly” public battles, there are many things an administration can and does do before seeking a cheaper orchestra. Easiest is for senior management (the only administrators making more than section musicians) to take a pay freeze. Next is an administration-wide pay freeze, followed by administration restructuring or outsourcing, debt restructuring, and many other very painful cuts that are all FAR less painful than seeking wage or benefit concessions from a collective bargaining unit like a symphony orchestra. See Minnesota for a drastic example. It’s exceptionally difficult. Harder than any other management challenge I can think of. The only reason that seeking concessions from artist unions is not a very last resort in every case is that the contract usually represents the lion’s share of the operating budget, so you can’t really address serious fiscal difficulty without going to the orchestra.

    And yes, I’m presupposing that every possible effort is also being made to increase revenue, which everyone prefers (excepting some Board members who are feeling more and more tapped to solve what they see as business model problems).

    I agree completely that orchestra musicians could add to the artistic programming discussion. I also sympathize with my colleagues in programming departments who work harder and longer than anybody else, and who would probably cringe at the idea of bringing even more cooks into the kitchen.

    And I’d also like to see more working musicians in administrator positions. Just first acknowledge that most arts administrators didn’t do anything arts administration masters program. Many have an MFA in the art themselves. Many set out to be the professional artists who they now support.

  2. says

    I strongly believe everyone in ANY organization — nonprofit, arts, commercial, retail, what-have-you — should be well versed in all aspects of running the business. (Before going further, I should post the disclaimer that I come from a theater and retail management background.) Having been a one-person administrative shop for the past five years, I can vouch for the “love of the game” mentality, and that having a larger skill set has allowed me to be more flexible in responding to audience needs and internal demands.

    The one caveat I would append to your piece is finding musicians (or actors) who are willing to be taught how to do the business side of the art. We’ve all noted ad infinitum about the lack of business/entrepreneur training of artists in formal schooling. Making sure the artists have the open-mindedness to embrace this new side of their engagement with the organization will make it easier to teach them the specific tasks necessary to handle the administrative side, and, hopefully, ensure the sustainability of the business.

  3. says

    Thanks for continuing to expose these issues, Diane.

    My concerns align with yours, and I’ll say it more directly. Most large budget non profit arts administrations provide themselves with the security of health care, pensions and ample salaries while denying them to artists.
    This contravenes the central mission of the arts sector– as you so clearly point out.

    Over the last forty years, we’ve seen mission drift so now AUDIENCES (most of whom are also secure with no need for charity) receive more consistent support in the form of ticket subsidies, and are more central to these institutions than artists, who have once again become devalued “jobbers.”

    There are a number of small institutions where artists share the work of the administration, so it’s a workable idea. And there are artistic advisory committees where artists do make a meaningful contribution. I agree that it’s time to revisit these solutions which were among the first to be explored in the non profit arts movement. But when artists are fundamentally left out of their own community organizations, how do they find a role in the process of making decisions?

    A more central concern is that salaries at the very top of institutions have migrated upwards, so that now ADs EDs and Development Directors earn 10 to 25 times more than their average workers, and artists are among the workers paid the least in these settings. Likewise “service” jobs–marketing, development, IT, and tech jobs are paid in line with the “marketplace” but artists are paid what the institution (sometimes in line with a union) decides it can afford.

    It’s just a classic setting for practices that are self serving and ultimately abusive. And the whole sector really doesn’t seem to be able to confront it meaningfully. At this point, our commentary alone isn’t going to change it.

  4. says

    Actually, I’m the person who posted the Hackman quote you mention above – though it was in response to something Mr. Peyrebrune said. I think your ideas about involving artists more closely in decision-making processes are very important. Arts administrators need to consider that idea very carefully. And your ideas about sharing the pain are not only important, they are noble.

    I think we should also note that no other country has been having so many of its most established orchestras shut down or go on strike. (Over the last decade Germany has closed a number of orchestras, but this was due to redundancies created by unification and not a change in attitudes about the support of the arts. The country has actually increased its arts funding.)

    So why does Germany have 83 opera houses with 52 week seasons while the USA only has about 6 real opera houses for a country with four times the population? And why is our longest season only seven months? Why does Germany have 133 fifty-two week season orchestras while the USA only has 17 – and with that number rapidly shrinking?

    The answer is that we are the only country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding (encompassed on the Federal, State, and Municipal levels.) This is the foundation of our problems and yet it is seldom discussed by American arts administrators since it would likely put them in conflict with the conservative perspectives of some of their Board members.

    In that sense, American arts administrators have characteristics similar to Creationists. They have to work within a system with so many unconfronted fallacies that none of their theories, solutions, practices, and rationalizations really work. They come up with endless ideas about how to solve funding issues, but since the basic foundation of the system of thought they use (private funding by the wealthy) is so obviously ineffective and anachronistic their problems are never really solved. And they can’t discuss this topic unless the crushing forces of reality come down upon them. God just put the dinosaurs on earth 7000 years ago and then “He” turned their bones to stone. And by programming more film music, letting people applaud between movements, letting the audience dress casually, by performing in unusual venues, and by letting musicians work in the administration, we going to alleviate the deficits of our orchestras. And by the way, the universe was zapped into existence in seven days.

    Sorry, I know I’m being a bit naughty, but how long is this folly going to go on? When are we going to face reality and admit that we are the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding, and that until we develop one, we are never going to solve the financial issues that vastly limit our cultural lives? No matter how many ideas we come up with, we can’t build an effective system of arts funding on a foundation that is as ridiculous as creationism. In these discussions with arts administrators there will always be the big unmentioned elephants in the room just like when talking to creationists. It’s pathetic to watch. I know this is a rather harsh broadside, but it’s meant to be constructive.

    • Ted Spickler says

      I understand the frustration expressed by those in the arts that the USA does not have anywhere near the level of government support achieved in Europe, for example. However in an economic climate with trillion dollar deficits it would be sheer fantasy to think we can get tax payer approval for increasing the amount of federal arts funding. In fact we must fight to keep what little is still there! This country is gradually losing the audience for orchestras including among the new super wealthy who were brought up on rock concerts. Reductions in the size of the military can only plug holes in the sustainability of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid let alone getting unwilling tax payers to support orchestras, opera companies, and ballet. That’s not going to happen so keep on with cuts and at the same time the effort to build a new audience.

  5. says

    Thanks for the references, Diane. To answer your question, I think Orlando Philharmonic is a interesting model. Yes, it’s small ($3M+) and it might not be replicable in any marketplace other than Orlando which boasts a very rich and deep pool of talented musicians because of the theme parks. BUT, it is an orchestra which has thrived in difficult economic circumstances, tripled its subscriber base AND has musicians on its board and working in its administration. The average salaries are low in comparison to full-time orchestras (it is fee for service) but I still wonder if aspects of its operational model would work in larger markets. And, I might add, it doesn’t sound like a $3M orchestra–the chair of the Detroit Symphony was visiting a colleague once and had gone to a concert. I asked him what he thought the budget was–he said $8 or $9M and was shocked the quality was so high for so little, telling me he had to raise that amount every month. But, again, it is a part-time orchestra, performing about 125 times a year in various configurations throughout the region.
    They did unionize a few years ago (the vote was very close and it revealed a schism between some of the younger orchestra members and the group of musicians who had essentially formed the new model in the wake of the demise of the Florida Symphony back in 1992). But they continue to thrive in a very tough market.

  6. Eska Laskus says

    When looking at the 20 hr/ work week number, everyone forgets the +20 hr of practice and study that’s needed to come to rehearsals prepared (not to mention the rest that the body needs in order to be able to perform at the highest level). Musicians also serve on various committees and get involved with outreach activities that are often over and beyond their work week. I don’t see how it would be possible to carve out enough time in their day for arts admin activities in a way that makes it productive and worthwhile for the organization as a whole.

  7. says

    A thousand ¡¡BRAVOS!! to William Osborne for saying it like it is. And another thousand to Diane Ragsdale for continuing to seek a constructive way to talk about this dreadful situation.

  8. Kyle Clausen says

    Echoing some of the comments above (and adding my own), I would like to share two thoughts. First, I have been a professional arts administrator for nearly 10 years now, and my experience has uniformly been that non-profit arts orgs always seek to spare artistic programs and artists from financial cuts until it is the last resort. If you look at the symphony orchestras currently trying to re-negotiate their CBA’s with musicians, you will find that the administrative operation has already been severely cut, and so now they must move to re-negotiating with the artists. Secondly, the idea of having artists involved in the administrative workings of an organization is problematic for two reasons: 1) most “artists” would not deign to be involved in marketing, fundraising, finance, etc., and 2) you are pre-supposing that just anyone can be a talented arts administrator. In the same way it would be insulting to the musicians to have the marketing assistant or development director be the flute sub or associate concertmaster, it is equally insulting to arts administrators to suggest that just anyone can be a skilled, effective fundraiser, marketer, or general administrator.

  9. Cindy Im says

    As an artist and part-time theatre administrator, I agree with a lot of what you are saying! I do have one question though- I wonder how implementing something like this would affect inclusion of less educated performers? If this were to actually be implemented, people would have to be chosen based not only on their skills in the performing art, but also in administration. Would this lock out non-qualified performers, as staff would feel that they are due artistic roles for working for the org on the admin side? And what are the implications for the art itself- would it suffer from potential mediocre artistic execution by people who can fulfill both the artistic and admin sides adequately in favor of a nonqualified admin/fantastic artist? And what would be the implications on programming (which would be selected by the admins/performers in the company)?


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