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Announcing the inevitable: another US orchestra goes bust

We reported two months back that San Diego’s Orchestra Nova had to cancel its season opening. The conductor, Jung-ho Pak, quit soon after.

Today, Nova’s board has cancelled everything and declared bankruptcy.

Nothing very nova about that. Orchs up and down the USA are locked in the same gridiron of a negotiating language that no longer works. Last night, the musicians in St Paul, Minnesota, were told that they would stay locked out at least until February.

This is no way to run a business, let alone an art form. Someone, please, do it different.



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  1. Why is this happening Norman? Is this about labor market wrangling or the lack of patronage or both? Here in Australia we have none of that, the major state orchestras are almost entirely funded by Government, with corporate sponsorship and private donations filling the gaps.

    • With the SPCO, it is TOTALLY about ABSOLUTE control and the downgrading of the orchestra to facilitate a “chamber music society” model.

  2. The contrarian “negotiating language” of management and musicians in US orchestras is largely a symptom of our private funding system. Here are some reasons why:

    1. Private systems chronically under-funds the arts to the extreme that both sides end up like hungry pit bulls fighting over a small carcass in a pit.

    2. Private systems concentrate funding in major financial centers where the wealthy live. We thus have a few cultural institutions lavishly funded while the rest of the country remains culturally impoverished and bitterly fighting over funding. We notice that smaller but still quite large cities like Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Baltimore, Honolulu, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Diego and many others have problems because they are not among the largest financial centers. And the cities that are genuinely mid-range or small have salaries so small they are ridiculous. Public funding distributes support more democratically and thus engenders a stronger sense of cooperation between management and musicians.

    3. Under public funding systems, unions often work out uniform contracts for a wide-range of communities. This helps prevent orchestras from competing with each other for the comparative status afforded by higher salaries. It also helps prevent orchestras from trying to poach each other’s players.

    4. Private funding systems are susceptible to wide fluctuations caused by economic downturns. Big orchestras thus bitterly fight for their funding to maintain their status (like Detroit and Philadelphia) and small orchestras for their very existence. Government funding is far more stable so European and Commonwealth orchestras are not facing such severe problems due to the economy.
    5. This stability allows for better long-term planning so budgets and contracts are more stable and negotiations hardly even necessary.

    6. Public funding creates more communal spirit in the arts. The sense of service to the community is enhanced because arts organizations are funded by the community. Both management and musicians work together in a system that is inherently oriented toward the common good of society.

    7. Public funding creates affordable tickets and builds a wider base of support for the arts. Funding thus becomes more stable and this creates greater cooperation among management and musicians.

    The USA is the only developed country without a comprehensive system of public arts funding. Establishing one will be a long process, but it is the only viable alternative we have. Only the rationality and stability of a public funding system with stop the endless wars between management and musicians — among the many other problems it will sovle.

    • In reference to my previous post, I should add that Philadelphia has the 9th largest metro area GDP in the world, but ranks 178th for opera performances per year.

      San Diego has the 17th largest GDP among US cities. The San Diego Symphony (the city’s main orchestra) has closed due to bankruptcy three times. The last was from 1996 to 1998. In 2001, the orchestra ratified an agreement which increased the musicians’ annual base salary from 25,920 to $45,750, with an expansion of the concert season from 26 weeks to 41 weeks. In 2006, the orchestra ratified a new 5-year contract that raised the annual minimum salary from $45,750 to $57,776. The orchestra now has a 42 week season. By comparison, the US Navy employs 54,000 people in San Diego.

    • William, one day when I have time, I’d like to look at all this in more detail.
      For now, I must imply reply to your first point :
      ” 1. Private systems chronically under-funds the arts to the extreme that both sides end up like hungry pit bulls fighting over a small carcass in a pit.”

      It’s clearly not true. US orchestras (of the top-quality, full-time variety) are clearly far better funded with more expensive halls and far superior pay packages for the players than their UK equivalents. I would even suggest that they are better funded than many of their European equivalents, too. That flies in the face of your assertion.

      I contend that it is public funding of the arts that results in underfunding – just look at the orchestral scene in London. Public funding tends to be fixed X years ahead. The arts groups who exist now, the new ones coming up, and those that are only just beginning must scrabble over this fixed pot, and often tend to dilute their core mission to try and justify a bigger share (at the expense of someone else, of course).
      Private funding is far more open, and far more ready for growth. Musicians simply have to convince donors, or those who could become donors, that they are worth it.

      • London has five major fulltime orchestras and two major fulltime opera houses. And London’s ticket prices are far lower than anything comparable in the USA. UK musicians have decent incomes, there are far more professional orchestras per capita, far more musicians are employed, ticket prices are far lower, and their music reaches a much wider demographic. Audiences and interest remains strong. These are the factors that define an effective funding system.

        In the USA a few financial centers have highly paid orchestras and the rest of the country is culturally impoverished. The wealthy service themselves and ignore everyone else. We have fewer fully professional orchestras per capita than any other developed country. Our tickets are far more expensive than in any other developed country. The pay for musicians in regional orchestras is worse than in any other developed country. The unemployment or under-employment of musicians is far worse than in any other developed country. The bankruptcy of orchestras is extemely common. Interest and education in classical music is failing at precipitous rates. These factors define an ineffective funding system.

        We’ll just have to agree to disagree.

        • I fear we will.

          I take issue with the suggestion that the factors you outline “define an effective funding system”. If all those factors hold true (which I’m not so convinced by), they simply define a set of musical organisations that deliver what their audiences want within the funding they receive. They say nothing, really, about the funding system itself.

          Speak to most UK-based musicians, and they will say the same things you say about the USA – that the major cities have major orchestras, the rural regions are culturally impoverished, the state funding model in mainland Europe (eg Germany) works so much better, and so on. Many would take the same criteria you outline and use it to show how German orchestras have an “effective funding system”, and how UK orchestras do not.

          I suppose one major question must be whether any funding system should be deemed effective by the number of and quality of orchestras it allows for. Might others not argue that they don’t care, and it’s the number of ballet companies that matters? Or ice-hockey teams? Or country parks?
          In other words, do people only believe a funding system is effective when it funds what -they- want (with other people’s money, naturally), rather than what the next person wants?

    • Reliance upon public funding is a mistake in any democracy, where the government has to answer to the people. Classical music arose as a result of dedicated individual patronage, not the whims of collective popularity, and most arts support discussion these days assumes a context of generalizing support away from the enlightened few who can, in fact, be responsible for guiding a culture, and do, in fact, know enough about their era’s arts to make such decisions, to the public, which by definition can only make a collective decision, not the kind of decision that leads to great works of art. (This is not to say we have such enlightened persons, but they are what we really need, and our survival depends on creating them.)
      Popular music is the music of democracy, and those who want public involvement should be involved with popular music. In a democracy the individual in the audience can contribute only a few dollars for a ticket or a recording, just as he can contribute only his own personal vote, and maybe some networking, to an election. Classical music is a completely different entity than the popular music that democracy has a use for, and democracy is in practice hostile to it. Classical music is the art of people, we may wish for both patrons and the artists, who know better than others. There is no democratic aspect to Classical work: a practitioner of high art speaks for others, even if they are not asked for representation.
      Classical music will continue to degenerate as an art form, and even the works of the past, and their performers’ organizations, will continue to degenerate into a mere marketplace commodity, for as long as “public” involvement is thought to be necessary. Classical music can only thrive if its artists do not have to worry about whether their work is going to be popular. It can only exist if the super-rich pay the bills, whether or not the work is popular. The peoples of the worlds great powers are taught, often directly, to hate the governmental systems that gave rise to high art, and their alternative governments do not, in fact, support high art. A separate economy within democracy is what is needed, of patrons who support the art whether it is popular or not, and certainly without a public mandate. We have to set about apprising the wealthy that our needs are greater than we have been allowed to express them, and that we should not be expected to be popular. Classical music is the music of geniuses – the public should be free to follow, but geniuses should not be expected to be understood. Most discussion of arts funding consists of ways of dumbing the artists down to the public. That is exactly wrong.
      All labor-related issues in Classical music are mere details compared to the overriding concern for the resurrection of responsible patronage. Otherwise the standards of the art will only continue to fall, until another, more robust people, with, no doubt, a dubious commitment to high art, replaces our entire society, and artists as we know them will be lucky to be apparently irrelevant fabulists working only at their own expense and using technology to make what art they may.

      • Well said.
        Basically, as soon as a government tries to run anything – tries to ‘pick the winners’ – things inevitably start to decline. Because they get it wrong. Because spending other people’s money on other people is the least efficient form of spending. Because there is too much data to assess for a few people at the top to make the ‘right’ decisions; and because funding will tend to go where it has gone before to avoid an uproar, rather than to where it might actually develop something.
        In other words, it’s like trying to manage an economy. Look around the world over time – it is clear that the free market (millions of people freely making millions of decisions), for all the flaws you might find (and it’s hardly perfect), works far, far better than any attempt by a national government to control everything.

        Governments fund things and run things with, of course, the best of intentions. But it rarely works out, across many sectors. Let people use their own money, and be surprised at what they will do with it. Or do you patronisingly believe that everyone except a chosen few ‘arts guardians’ are such philistines that they don’t know how to spend their own money properly, and need to be forced to do it your way?

        • That mantra is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, and it is wrong, or more precisely only half of the truth. There are areas of the society – one could argue actually the most important aspects of a society – that are non-tangible assets. Culture and arts in general, as well as real education, fall into that category.
          Private primarily profit oriented enterprise never can sustain the society’s most important assets: culture and science. In short: the arts.
          And that is why the US is an extremely rich country and in the same time a cultural desert. (with a little oasis here and there)

          • I take some issue with your definition.
            Science is demonstrably profitable; or are you suggesting that we don’t all profit (as well as the research and manufacturing companies) from drugs & medical treatments various?

            Clearly the MOST important aspects of society are tangible. Or do you rate high art and ‘culture’ above the basics – clean water, heating, clothing, housing, food…? I suggest that without the tangibles, there is simply no point in the intangible existing. For if people have no access to food, to warmth, to education, to health, then they cannot fully enjoy the “intangible”.

      • Thank you for comments. All of Europe (comprised of about 30 democratic countries with a combined populuation of 500 million people) uses public funding and the standards of their cultural lives are much higher than in the USA. There is thus no concrete evidence to suggest that public funding lowers cultural standards, or that it is subject to degrading populism. In fact, the concrete evidence as demonstrated by Europe’s public funding system shows just the opposite. Pulic funding raises cultural standards, just as public libraries and state universities raise the general level of education.

  3. Look, if the money runs out then the money runs out. You either shut up shop and go home, or you try and work with the money you’ve got.
    Yet when managements try to do these things, they are pilloried on here or elsewhere. This band has run out of money, it has gone bust.
    Others in the US an see that they are about to run out of money, and are looking to restructure to avoid that. They realise that they have been over-generous with player salaries, and need to reduce them to a sustainable level. What is wrong with that? Every critic of this move seems to think that top management salaries should be reduced too (I’m not against that idea) – but seems unwilling to accept that it may not just be top management who have unsustainable salaries. The fact that bands are going bust shows that this is simply incorrect.

    There is no magic money tree. Orchestras must operate on what they can persuade concert-goers, funders and donors to provide. If they cannot, then there is no more orchestra, it is as simple as that. Sure, you think players ‘deserve’ more, tickets ‘should’ cost less, or whatever – but economic reality overrides that. If the income of an orchestra is only X, it must programme suitably and pay its staff – players and administrative – appropriately to fit within X.

    • Sorry, you show very limited understanding of the world and human condition. Art is not a small family business. Think about it that way:
      True Art NEVER ever was profitable. Yet it is one of the biggest achievements of mankind, separating us from the Chimpanzees.
      Based on your POV, anything that is not profitable has no right to exist. That’s ultimately the end of anything that separates us from animals.

      • No, not true; you misunderstand what I’m saying.

        I freely accept that much art is not profitable (at least, not at the time when it is being created).
        But the bottom line remains that any organisation has to exist within the realms of what it has or can get.

        The arts – or here, an orchestra – doesn’t need to make a ‘profit’ per se; but it must exist within the bounds of the money it can raise, be that through ticket sales, media activity, donors, sponsors, state or federal subsidy, and so on. I’m merely making a practical point – nothing to do with what mix of funding sources you think are ideal, or whatever. This is entirely separate from the discussion above.

        Simply: if the money isn’t there, it isn’t there.

      • as an aside – true art was never profitable? The orchestral players at top US orchestras earning $140k++ probably find it quite profitable, thank you very much. Or is what they are doing not ‘true’ art? And if it isn’t, why are we asking for them to be subsidised more – I mean, if it isn’t true art, shouldn’t the money go elsewhere?
        I imagine some of the more popular contemporary composers also find their true art to be fairly profitable as well. Or are you suggesting that if it earns any money then it ceases to be true art?

  4. The US can – or could, if it wished to – afford these things. (Especially if we closed some of our military bases in Europe and our Congresspeople stopped spending money on weapons the Pentagon doesn’t even want. But that’s a different conversation. At least we are, at long last, mostly out of Iraq and probably leaving Afghanistan soon.)

    Alas, there just aren’t enough voters here who are willing to see large amounts of taxpayer money spent to subsidize classical music, opera, dance and theater. Many of the voters who oppose spending public money on the arts do so as a matter of basic principle – they simply do not accept that tax money should be spent on what they consider entertainment.

    It will take years of education and advocacy (and possibly the secession of a few states) to change that attitude among a critical mass of US voters. (Paging William Osborne! Come home and put your formidable energy and passion for this topic to work!)

  5. Yes, it will take years of education and advocacy for Americans to develop a public funding system. And we should never lose sight of the fact that this is our only viable alternative. The small forms of adaptation that are so often recommended to help orchestras might temporarily alleviate some of the minor symptoms, but the much deeper systemic problems will remain until we develop a public funding system like all other developed countries have long had. The evidence is abundant. As an arts community, we need to patiently work together to help our society face this reality.

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