Last week’s story about protracted and unfruitful labor negotiations between the Seattle Symphony and the players union has finally shed light on some of the immense challenges facing the city’s cultural organizations in these difficult times. If ever there was a time to be concerned about the city’s cultural edge, that time is now.
Until now, it’s been hard to assess the rumors circulating about the Seattle Symphony. And, while the Symphony is just one member of the arts community, it is a central mainstay of the city’s cultural scene. Among the most distressing possibilities: a musicians' strike, management lockout of the players, cancellation of the entire 2010-11 season, and even a bankruptcy filing.
In the last week, I’ve spoken with a number of observers and principals who all agree that the situation for the symphony is perilous. Consider: The symphony has a $4 million debt, vacancies in its two top positions (executive director and artistic director), and has not reached a new contract with the musicians union after eight months of increasingly contentious negotiations.
Tim Hale, chairman of the local players union, stopped by my office a few days ago to sound the alarm and offer some background. The story, as told from the musicians’ point of view, is grim. Symphony management, he says, is asking the union for a contract that calls for a 10 percent wage cut, on top of previous wage cuts and concessions. In 2005, the union agreed to a modification of its contract that cut $3.2 million in wages and benefits. That put the players’ minimum base pay at $78,750 (paid by both the symphony and the Seattle Opera). Hale brought in figures showing that pay is considerably below what comparable orchestras pay, particularly when you factor in Seattle's higher cost of living. What’s more, the contract offered by the board would be for five years. Musicians would not again reach 2005 pay levels until 2014.
The union’s membership is expected to vote on management’s “last and best offer” this week, but Hale thought it unlikely members will approve it. Hale indicated that the length of the contract was especially problematic.
Symphony management argues that they need a five-year agreement, both to balance the budget and to attract top level talent to the vacant leadership positions. They argue, too, that there is provision for profit sharing and a contract reopener. They declare: “We cannot spend money we do not have.” Nor, they say, can they expect contributors to support an organization that cannot sustain balanced budgets.
Distressing as the Seattle Symphony impasse appears, it’s not the only bad news on the artistic front. Toward the end of this year, I started to hear multiple hard luck stories. Those facing steep budget shortfalls started coming to my office, looking for whatever small assistance the city (also economically strapped) could provide.
First with a tale of woe was Seattle Seafair. The city’s iconic summer festival was reeling over multiple economic whammies: loss of the festival’s prime hydro race sponsor, General Motors; and blows to the festival’s reserve fund from the economic downturn and from some unsound investments.
Next with an equally sad tale was One Reel, the nonprofit organization responsible for Bumbershoot and other local art productions. One Reel is looking at large unpaid bills owed to the Seattle Center, partly due to weather — an unprecedented three straight days of rain on Labor Day — and partly due to the economic hard times. Bumbershoot, a long-running festival at Seattle Center that celebrates its symbolic ties to the rainy Seattle climate, is out looking for a sturdy financial umbrella.
Seafair and Bumbershoot, while not classical arts organizations, do have cultural spinoffs. Like the arts, both are dependent, not just on admission fees, but on sponsorships, fundraising campaigns, and public largess. They are the canaries in the coal mine, harbingers of cultural hardships that echo throughout the region.
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