What can be learned from the NYC Opera?

I've been talking a great deal about the Minnesota Orchestra lockout and "negotiations," as well as going through a post by Philip Kennicott with a fine tooth comb. Then, another arts debacle slams its way into my thinking.

The NYC Opera my cancel most of their season, and next season, and indefinitely, if they don't raise a lot of money.

Alright, for the moment I'm going to ignore the wanker that posted this article which is bereft of sense and chock full of logical fallacies. Mainly because my good friend Ashley Hirt already took care of dealing with that nonsense. Instead, I want to look at a correlation between NYC Opera and the Minnesota Orchestra.

Back in 2009, the NYC Opera went dark for the season. This was due entirely to the renovation of their hall in Lincoln Center. I remember quite well some of the past fights. George Steel, general manager and artistic director, was actively trying to move the NYC Opera out of Lincoln Center (this is in 2011, I believe). He said it cost too much money. The musicians wanted Steel out. Great stars signed a petition to keep the NYC Opera in Lincoln Center. In the end, the company left Lincoln Center and has performed at various venues around NYC. Even at Steel's hire in 2009, the company was in bad straights. There were some major hurdles to overcome.

Going dark for a season is incredibly costly. No productions means no immediate revenue. It also makes getting donations difficult, even when you went dark for a "nice" reason like renovations. And the timing was horrendous. Here's NYC Opera, taking out large sums from their endowment to pay fixed bills, loans, administrative costs, and all the day to day workings of a company. They laid off quite a few administrators in '08-'09 to save on costs. But the recession decimated a poorly invested endowment, along with taking out huge sums to pay their trimmed down cost.

They finish the dark '09 season with no endowment to speak of. That means they had little or no money to borrow from to get their shortened '09-'10 season going--a season which started late and had less planning, as their previous director was fired during the dead season and replaced with Steel.

Donations generally lagged after '09. The controversy over leaving Lincoln Center, and unpopularity of the move hurt donations. Costs were being cut as quickly as possible, with the orchestra turning from a full-time gig, to a part-time gig, to a "pay as you go" gig. The amount of productions shrank. Slowly, but surely, NYC Opera was going away. All this translated to one big factor:

A loss of faith in the company by it's musicians and patrons.

Hopefully you've started to see the correlations between NYC Opera and the Minnesota Orchestra. Minnesota just spent a season dark. While data on donations from last year haven't been reported, I would guess they are WAY down. And I would guess they had to pull from the endowment to pay for just about everything. There are tons of fixed costs--the hall, administration, electricity--that are still there whether or not the orchestra is playing.

And if the orchestra isn't playing, it's harder to get donations. Here's a board screaming about the dwindling endowment, and the high rate of costs, but how high are those costs compared to revenue right now? Considering there is no revenue from concerts (in fact, they've having to pay back for tickets), and donations are undoubtedly way down, I'd guess that their grand plan of "breaking the union" is doing nothing but bankrupting the orchestra.

We all understand times can be hard. Most people want to pitch in and make things work. Musicians want to make music, and want to keep orchestras solvent. But the mismanagement of the orchestra is so amazingly obvious, that it's almost unbelievable.

So, why not learn from the NYC Opera. Going black for a season is a quick way to kill any non-profit. Or for-profit! Let's be honest, what would happen if Wal-Mart closed FOR A YEAR. All the stores. What happened if they didn't open for a year and a half, and when they did, they were half the size with only a few people working.

Would anyone bother going back to Wal-Mart?

The trust of the Minnesota Orchestra is horribly shaken, just as it is currently with the NYC Opera. Both are struggling to survive. But at least the NYC Opera, while definitely having a tumultuous relationship with its general manager, are at least trying to work together. In both cases there have been horribly mismanaged moments. And, in both, it wasn't the musicians that boned most of it up. In NYC, the musicians have given back, tried to make it work. And it hasn't.

In Minnesota, they're not even getting a chance to make it work.

Can you really trust this organization now? Even if a contract is ratified, how long until Minnesota runs into the same (or worse) issues because of this horrible gulf? Will they stagger on like NYC Opera, or fold immediately?

The musicians have shown they can self-produce concerts--18 in fact. Now it's time for the management to show they actually know how to run an orchestra.  Though, I fear, the damage to the community's faith has been irreparably damaged.

1 comment:

Ashley Hirt said...

The NYC Opera and the Minnesota Orchestra are both cautionary tales about the bureaucratic side of creativity. It just doesn't matter how "good" your performances are; if the organization is ineptly managed, you're in trouble.

We've probably all had jobs where the boss was incompetent, and the employees knew that and kept things running anyway. But that only works for so long.

In the case of NYC Opera, you can't expect the musicians to go out and sell cookie dough to raise enough money to have a season. That isn't their job. They attend to their duties of being professionals. They are, as musicians have been throughout CENTURIES, dependent on benefactors to create a space for them to work. Whether these benefactors are nobility (sup Esterhazys) loaded to the gills (hello Helzbergs) or just everyday people who appreciate what musicians do, our shared cultural heritage exists because someone stepped in to meet a need.

They'll get their money, it's New York City (like you said). I do think George Steel was in way over his head when he took the gig, so while it's tempting to lay a lot of the blame at his feet, it's more complicated than that. Poor timing with regard to the economy is another factor. Not only were people dialing back the giving, they were also eliminating expenses by not purchasing tickets.

It's sad that in times of crisis art is the first thing to go. That's when you need it the most.