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.