Theater Economics

April 26, 2011

From the indispensable "You’ve Cott Mail", a digest of arts news from throughout the English-speaking world, comes this sample of conventional wisdom about the source of arts’ groups funding troubles: a posting at ArtsMarketOn arguing that orchestra and theater bankruptcies prove that artists are just too damned expensive. The you-should-pardon-the-expression money graf:

“When they are asked to save performing arts organizations from bankruptcy, many donors know that what they are really being asked is to maintain . . . overly generous union contracts that can’t be met in today’s economy . . . . Business leaders . . . are seeking larger, systemic adjustments. We’ve heard from many – corporate leaders in particular – that they’ve had it. Many understandably worry at the signals they send to their own employees when they step in to bail out arts union jobs providing six figure wages and generous pensions. . . “

Oh, absolutely, we wouldn’t want to send signals to workers of any kind that their labor has value, and especially not to workers in those frivolous arts. Who do they think they are, expecting high salaries and pension benefits -- corporate executives?

Nor is ArtsMarketOn alone: At the Duke City Fix, after noting the shocking fact that union actors receive health insurance, a blogger named Terry S. Davis opines in his ironically-named column “Equity”:

“The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra just announced that it’s closing its doors, no longer able to pay its musicians. Those musicians, in seeking more security for themselves, became a bigger and bigger financial liability for the organization that provided them jobs. . . I do believe that art, the result of one’s passions, can be diminished if the artist is too comfortable; great art often emerges against impossible odds. I also believe, though, that we lose artists and arts organizations when they are given no security whatsoever.”

Absolutely: the biggest problem in the arts today is artists' being too comfortable. They’re just waiting tables and driving cabs for the life experience. And that’s quite a concession Mr. Davis makes: artists ought to have some security. Just not too much.

Taken together, these free-market prescriptions for arts management are the first good argument I’ve ever heard for public funding for the arts. If arts organizations can be compelled to treat their workers badly to please corporate contributors, it’s time for the government to step in. Oh, but wait: Wisconsin’s governor has just proved that politicians are no less frenzied in their cost-cutting, and no more hospitable to unions, than the corporate executives who own them.

Whether we can “afford” union contracts and pensions is really a matter of whether we value workers over, say, fancy buildings.  To single out union contracts as the culprit in arts organizations’ struggle is to accept the rhetoric of business people (and their Republican political handmaidens) that the worst thing to happen in the 20th Century was organized labor, and that the goal of the 21st Century should be to eradicate it.

Where’s the “equity” in that?