Friday, December 11, 2009

What Is An Artist Worth These Days?

Apparently, not that much. Every day seems to bring more bad news about financial disasters and resulting cuts. There are also numerous cases we don’t know about or are not supposed to. Perhaps an orchestra is threatening to go on strike as the administration’s demand of a double-digit  percent pay reduction is kept hush-hush by both the musicians and the organization itself. In addition there must be countless smaller arts groups in deep doo-doo, but they are not considered important enough to make the news. Many of these have either been forced to cut their seasons short or have downsized radically. For example, a former symphony orchestra may present fewer concerts and even then in chamber orchestra format, obviously for financial reasons.

This week we learned about an emergency loan of $14 million from local government to the Los Angeles Opera, to keep it afloat. The group had spent an enormous amount of money for next summer’s “Ring” production. As the local paper put it, the opera company had become too big to fail and the bailout in the style of Wall Street was necessary. They must have known for a long time that the funds would quickly dry up, yet went ahead with their grandiose and extremely costly plans. This is not that much different from what happened with certain investment and commercial banks and big corporations, such as AIG. Staging Wagner’s cycle will never bring back the money sunk into the production and, in my humble opinion, such plans are reckless today and should be put on ice until much later. Placido Domingo’s other opera company in our nation’s capital recently announced a smaller season and there was no further mention of their “Ring” which was canceled a year or so ago. Knowing what an economic mess L.A. and California in general are in, there are a lot of very upset people down there who consider financial help of such magnitude, for an elitist cause, a crime.

Leonard Slatkin has postponed his return to the podium in Detroit many times after a heart attack. Reading rather depressing news about the financial situation in that city one understands why he is in no hurry to come back to a situation that could do damage to a healthy person, not to mention one with heart problems. Also, the famed Cleveland Orchestra has its share of troubles. Among other suffering opera companies is Atlanta which has to cut its budget and number of productions for next year.

Although this is not the case universally, most musicians feel some kind of entitlement to their jobs and often insanely large salaries in the top orchestras and refuse to yield as far as their pay, the most expensive part of the budget, is considered. They must see themselves as irreplaceable, although in truth they all could be replaced with fresh talent from the pool of thousands or perhaps tens of thousands. Yes, they are eager to bring up the word experience, but a truly talented young instrumentalist will learn on the job quicker than any of the old-timers is willing to admit. Based on all the auditions I’ve been present in during my long musically active life, I know that in the ranks of orchestra musicians there are a whole lot who got their jobs when interest to play in their ensemble was low, as was the skill level of applicants. Today they would have no chance in finding a comparable job. Unions are, of course, determined to protect their members, just as is the case with teachers nationwide. That is why it would be essential to have a re-evaluation of each individual every so often and throw out the protection in place currently. A miserably bad teacher stays in a city’s system, preventing a young, eager, passionate and talented colleague from helping our youth and schools. Never mind the arts, education is a most important element in a society as it sets up young individuals for life. Add music and arts appreciation to the curriculum and have it taught by capable and inspiring people, and perhaps two decades from now an opera, a concert or a play may still have an audience.

A suggestion for a short-term solution to a fiscal crisis: since musicians of an orchestra insist that they are all equally important, have everybody be compensated with the same amount, even after a necessary cut in base pay, until matters improve radically. This would apply to the music and executive directors as well, and of course to principals and concert-masters and mistresses. That would indicate true solidarity, the backbone of union thinking. On the other hand, since the organization's MD and ED have made fortunes, especially if they have remained in their position for a really long time, they could easily forgo compensation entirely or make large contributions to their employer, just like Baltimore's Marin Alsop just did by giving a $100,000 to the orchestra's educational initiative, OrchKids.

It’ll be curious to witness what 2010 will bring with it. I have a pretty strong sense about it and my intuition is seldom wrong. Sometimes it takes longer for matters to take the direction I foresee, but eventually it seems to happen.

Happy first night of Hanukkah!
illustration by talvi