Friday, October 4, 2013


The news, as I write this, is all about the shutdown of the federal government precipitated by a small number of Republican congressmen obsessed with Obamacare. I won't tarry on this subject, as opinions and reports are legion elsewhere. I want to concentrate on two other important shutdowns- those of the New York City Opera and the Minnesota Orchestra.

Although the orchestra is still in business technically, it is frozen in a labor dispute that has  dragged on for a year. The  issue of course is money. On October 1st the musicians rejected the latest - and fourth- offer from management. Furthermore its music director since 2003,  the highly respected Osmo Vanska resigned - as he promised - if no agreement could be reached in time for the orchestra to prepare for concerts at Carnegie Hall this fall. The orchestra  cancelled  its 2012-13 season and won't open its 2013-14 season in Minneapolis  scheduled for October 4th. Even the solution offered by the renowned mediator, former Senator George Mitchell, failed.

Mitchell, who had helped broker peace in Northern Ireland and been a special envoy in the Middle East, ran into the special environment that exists in labor negotiations in non profit arts organizations. Many years ago (40 to be exact) I wrote my thesis at the Harvard Business School on collective bargaining in symphony orchestras. My professor, James J. Healy was a nationally known arbitrator in numerous labor-management disputes. In discussing my paper with him, he shook his head and said: "My goodness, I've never run across anything quite like these situations."

Here's a current example. There is now  a dispute between the management of the San Francisco Ballet and its dancers. The  dancers, in a recent statement, said they are seeking "provisions that
demonstrate a sufficient level of respect" and "protections against bullying by the artistic staff." You can write in salary and benefit provisions as well as basic work conditions, but it is difficult to craft language that will successfully guarantee respect. 

In Minnesota, according to The New York Times, players called the last management proposal "artistically unsustainable" referring to the concern that too low salaries (latest proposal was an average of $104, 500 a year) would mean the orchestra would not be competitive in the market for the best players. Well, unless the sides can get together, there won't be an orchestra.... period.

[Speaking of average annual salaries and labor disputes, the stagehands union on October 2nd  struck New York's Carnegie Hall, causing cancellation of the opening night gala with the Philadelphian Orchestra. At Carnegie Hall, the average  total compensation for a stagehand is  over $400,000 a year . No comment.]

The October 2nd  announcement of bankruptcy and folding of the New York City Opera is a very sad story This company, now in its 70th year, was started as "the people's opera" and was housed for years in the relatively small  City Center. Offering lower ticket prices and often more adventurous programming than the august Metropolitan, it also was the starting stage for the likes of Beverly Sills and Samuel Ramey. In 1965 it moved to the State Theatre in Lincoln Center, across the plaza from the Met. Here is where some think the trouble began. The theater was much bigger with more seats to fill, higher fixed costs and poor acoustics to boot..  Deficits began to mount.

In 2009 the theater renamed the David H. Koch Theater began a long-term process of renovation.. In 2011, City Opera management decided  not to produce a season there, electing rather the next year to perform in a number of venues elsewhere in the city. To finance  the "dark" year, the endowment was raided to the tune of $ 24 million. The number of performances fell, as well as the size of the audience, along with the finances. A last minute fundraising appeal failed. At the time of declaring bankruptcy, City Opera was earning more from its thrift shop than from its endowment.
Clearly along the way there were strategic errors on the part of management, compounded by the effects of  the "Great Recession."

In both the cases of the Minnesota Orchestra and City Opera, their shutdowns mean a slice of a city's soul is removed. We need all the soul we can get these days. The arts and music give us solace; politics, especially in D. C,  provide the opposite.