Was 2012 The Year That American Orchestras Hit The Wall?

by Euan Kerr
January 1, 2013

2012 will go down as a year of orchestral turmoil in the U.S.: Strikes, lockouts and bankruptcies erupted time and again as once seemingly untouchable institutions struggled financially.

There's been particularly little seasonal cheer in Minnesota's orchestral community. Protests erupted after management at the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra each locked out their musicians, after the musicians had rejected contracts that cut their salaries by tens of thousands of dollars and reduced the size of the orchestras.

They are not alone, says Michael Henson, the president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra, who points to recent renegotiated deals in cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and St. Louis as examples.

Both the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra face large deficits, caused by declining revenues, increased expenses and the lingering effects of the poor economy. So Henson says his ensemble needs to cut $6 million a year from its budget, and that means cutting musicians' salaries. "That is an approach that most orchestras have sought to avoid over the years," Henson notes, "because for the most part they have sought to avoid the conflict that that produces."

A year ago, Stanford University economist Robert J. Flanagan published The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras, a book based on his study of the finances of more than 60 top orchestras.

He resists using the term "tipping point," but he says the funding model for orchestras has always been problematic — and that the economic downturn brought things to a head. Many communities established orchestras in the 1960s and '70s, aided by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and by the philanthropic support of foundations and individuals. However, costs increased, and orchestras became more dependent on those donations to keep ticket prices affordable. Flanagan says that many orchestra boards also wanted to be generous to the musicians in the orchestras they loved.

"Of course there are two signatures on every collective bargaining agreement, so some of it reflects what the musicians push for," Flanagan observes. "But some of it reflects what management seeks to sign off on. And it appears that over the years, many collective bargaining agreements have provided for more expense than the communities in which the symphonies are located can afford."

And this, according to Detroit Symphony Orchestra music director Leonard Slatkin, leaves an important question to be answered by each community: "How are we going to balance the incredible skill of these musicians, the need for music in the different communities, and what is a very difficult time in this country economically?" he asks.

There are some, however, who say it's not all bleak in the orchestra world.

Bruce Ridge leads ICSOM, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. He also plays double bass with the South Carolina Symphony. He points to the New Jersey Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and the Houston Symphony, which have all had extremely successful fundraising years. He says the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., just negotiated a four-year contract that included raises for musicians.

"The question really to be asked is not why some orchestras have had difficulty," says Ridge, "but rather why are some orchestras doing so well? How have they succeeded?"

That's a question that can only be answered one orchestra at a time.

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