This is the word that keeps coming to mind when I think about the recent spate of lockouts, strikes and general discord at US orchestras. The underbelly of orchestras that has been shown in too many of these cases completely undermines my belief that nonprofit organizations are filled with good people trying to do the right thing. Moreover, I worry that the public airing of these disputes has left the American public with the inaccurate impression that all orchestras are filled with greedy bastards both on stage and in the offices. I don’t know when it happened but it feels to me like we’re not in nonprofit-land anymore. Or we’ve gone to the dark side of nonprofit-land. Either way, it’s bad news. We’ve ended up somewhere that feels cold and soul-less.
To be honest, it’s hard for me to even reconcile the need for and validity of unions and hardball negotiations with a nonprofit ethic. I must be hopelessly naïve because I want to believe that (1) if you go work for a nonprofit you’re not doing it for the money; and (2) if you go work for a nonprofit that the nonprofit leaders are also not doing it for the money; and (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).
Clearly this is easier said than done.
These protracted negotiations and strikes always seem to raise the question, “What’s the value of the orchestra?” But one might just as easily ask, “What’s the value of the administration?” Perhaps if the administrators walked out the door and left the musicians to figure out how to raise money and market performances and keep the lights on we could better understand how much of the current administrative heft is still needed to keep the public, the money, and the electricity pouring into the joint.
Maybe it does take a village of administrators to run an orchestra in 2012. But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it takes seven really entrepreneurial producers, a more engaged band of musicians, a slew of volunteers, and some really smart public/private partnerships?
(It’s an idea.)
Likewise, we might ask, “What’s the value of the orchestra hall?” “What’s the value of a year-round concert series?” “What’s the value of liveness?” What’s the value of musicians who only play music?” “What’s the value of a professional orchestra compared to a community orchestra?”
I could list 100 other questions aimed at questioning all of the “taken-for-granteds” in orchestras—all the means that we have come to treat as ends, many of which contribute to the economic difficulties facing orchestras.
I’d feel better if orchestras that have clawed their way back to the beach after drowning in deficits and being caught in the riptide of contract negotiations and strikes were sitting together on the sand, facing the setting sun, wrestling with all of these questions, and trying to find new means to the common end of serving society through the arts. But can people who treat each other with such contempt ever hope to sit together and solve problems?
How did we end up on the dark side of nonprofit-land? And how do we get out of this dehumanized place?
ADDITION: For those who have not been tracking recent articles on orchestra crises in the US, here are few links: