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During Lockout Season, Orchestra Musicians Grapple With Their Future

The Minnesota Orchestra is one of many orchestras around the country dealing with labor disputes.
Greg Helgeson
The Minnesota Orchestra is one of many orchestras around the country dealing with labor disputes.

It's been a tumultuous time for American orchestras. Labor disputes have shut down the Minnesota Orchestra and Indianapolis Symphony, and strikes and lockouts have affected orchestras in Chicago, Atlanta and Louisville in the past year.

Whether Mozart is on the bill or Mahler, it's an expensive proposition to present a symphony orchestra. To do the music justice, you need between 80 and 100 musicians to play it, and their salaries and health care benefits make up most of an orchestra's budget. Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, a service organization that represents professional and community ensembles, says the last half of the 20th century was a period of enormous growth for performing arts organizations.

"That included the importance of elevating the stature of performing artists — including musicians — to people who were deserving of a living wage and full-time employment in as many cases as possible," Rosen says.

Federal funding through the National Endowment for the Arts and corporate philanthropy drove a large portion of that growth. But a lot of that money has dried up, and many orchestras, from the top tier to the bottom, have seen their subscription sales drop, endowments shrink and philanthropic giving decline. In fact, as recently as two years ago, Rosen says 50 percent of his organization's members were running a deficit. It may be a coincidence that so many musicians' contracts have recently come up for renewal, but it's not surprising that when they do, orchestra players are being asked to make concessions — sometimes significant ones.

Ray Hair is president of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents orchestral players. He says labor negotiations have become increasingly contentious in today's environment.

"I think over the last decade, there's been a change in the attitudes from the employers towards labor unions in general," he says. "I think that it's finally made its way into the symphonic sector, which is practically 100 percent unionized."

It's not just employers. Orchestra board members, many of whom come from the corporate world, are exerting their influence. That's certainly the case in Indianapolis where there's an interim executive director and no development or marketing director. The board is now negotiating a new contract. It's one that asks musicians to take about a 30 percent salary cut, says Richard Graef, who plays French horn and is chair of the musicians' negotiating committee.

"The problem in the arts world is you cannot cut your way to prosperity," Graef says. "You can't cut what you do and expect to raise more money. We can't perform less. They want us to perform almost eight weeks less a year. ... Well, that will bring in a whole lot less money, that will bring in a whole lot less donors, and we will have a lot less audience see us. When we do that, we will make even less money."

The Indianapolis musicians have been locked out since the beginning of September. Their symphony management declined to speak to NPR, but sent a statement that reads in part: "The ISO must take immediate steps to bring expenses in line with income and become significantly less dependent on the ISO Foundation's endowment, which has been depleted of more than $50 million over the past five-year period."

The endowment has also shrunk in Minneapolis, where the musicians have been locked out since Oct. 1, but union president Ray Hair says the orchestra is spending a lot of money on things other than musicians' salaries.

"Minnesota has raised somewhere between $50 [million] and $75 million for a hall renovation," says Hair. "We know that their financial condition at the end of August of 2011 — that's right around a year ago — we know that they had assets of $192.5 million on hand, which is an increase of $9.4 million from the year prior. We know that their president and CEO earns $390,000 a year. And we know that the music director, Maestro [Osmo] Vanska, we know that his base salary is $1 million per season. Now, does that sound like an orchestra that needs to lop off 30 to 50 percent from all of its musicians? I don't believe so."

Minnesota Orchestra President Michael Henson points out that the orchestra ran a $2.9 million deficit last year, and administrative staff has been cut by 20 percent. On top of that, the musicians got a significant pay raise in their last contract.

"We have been very transparent with our players over the last three years, in numerous meetings, with the challenges that we face," Henson says. "We've been managing a 19.2 percent pay raise over the last five years in one of the worst economies in the last 100 years in this country and, indeed, in the world."

Rosen, of the League of American Orchestras, says that for orchestras to survive in this economy, they need to be more flexible and innovative. He points out that the Colorado Symphony, which has had its own financial and labor challenges, has begun a new initiative.

"They identified as revenue sources a number of communities surrounding Denver where the orchestra had never played before, because the venues were too small," Rosen says. "Their contract at the time didn't allow for them to break the orchestra up into smaller groups, so they changed that in the contract so they can play in smaller groups, and now they've opened up a new income stream by sending smaller groups into ... as many as 25 different kind of satellite communities with smaller venues. And that always is a sign to funders that you merit their support, because your service to community is growing."

Musicians from both Indianapolis and Minneapolis are trying to serve their communities during their lockouts by organizing concerts. Last weekend, pianist Andre Watts joined members of the Indianapolis Symphony to play Beethoven.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.
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