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Seattle arts are in trouble

From the Symphony to Bumbershoot to theaters, we face immense challenges in keeping Seattle's cultural edge. The financial problems stemming from the recession are worse than has been publicly known.
Seattle Symphony, on stage at Benaroya Hall

Seattle Symphony, on stage at Benaroya Hall

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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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 11, 2:43 p.m. Inappropriate

It is of great concern to me that the Seattle Symphony management speaks of "profit sharing" in regard to a proposed offer to attract and retain great musicians. The Seattle Symphony was, when I last checked, a non-profit organization, a charitable organization supported by a mix of performance revenue and giving, fulfilling a stated mission of delivering concerts of symphonic music at the highest level to the Seattle public. What place does profit-sharing have in this structure? Non-profit organizations are obligated to spend the money donated to them in the fulfillment of their mission, not in the creation of profit.
We owe a great debt to Deborah Card and the quality of the organizational leadership that built both Benaroya Hall and increased the resources of the Seattle Symphony to the current levels. Based on these levels the SSO has recently become able to recruit some additional quality players, some from institutions as august as the Metropolitan Opera, in the case of stand-out trombonist Koichiro Yamamoto and principal percussionist Mike Werner. This extended reach benefits not only the SSO, but also the Seattle Opera, which shares musicians with the symphony, the Seattle Youth Symphony, which uses SSO players as coaches, and the private students these musicians teach weekly in the community.
In addition, the SSO's claim that it "cannot spend money it doesn't have" has a hollow ring to it. Great well established orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, the LA Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, in fact...all of the major orchestras of this country use a highly sophisticated cash flow model which uses the cash gained from renewals of season tickets to fund current season expenses. Perhaps the SSO needs to find at least an interim executive director without delay to disavow them of the folly of their current economic experiments. Those of us that heard Kurt Masur lead the orchestra this past week experienced a true civic treasure in action and support it with both our patronage and dollars.

Posted Mon, Jan 11, 3:45 p.m. Inappropriate

I don’t understand the Symphony management saying they cannot spend money they don’t have at the same time they fail to make use of musician-donated services contractually provided to raise money. In fact, the Symphony management’s latest proposal eliminates those musician-donated services!

Miller

Posted Mon, Jan 11, 4:26 p.m. Inappropriate

It seems to me that a community as affluent as Seattle must contain a good amount of untapped resources. It's a shame that the Seattle Symphony returns time and time again to the same donors they have counted on for decades. It might be wise to find the truly connected members of Seattle and show them how great and exciting the Symphony could be. Find the previously unasked philanthropists and give them a real reason to donate. Great art, old and new, presented at the highest possible level is a treasure that can draw support; even after an economic downturn.

rtmaniac

Posted Mon, Jan 11, 7:16 p.m. Inappropriate

The Seattle Symphony has attracted the talent it has by offering a (once) competitive salary with other orchestras in its peer group, as well as the promise of salary increases. The musicians gave back much of those gains in 2005. To my eye it is not only about the money but those in charge of the symphony betraying the players trust by failing to care for the institution. Orchestras in the SSO budget range have endowments of three, four, five times the size. Why should the musicians be penalized for doing their job well, for drawing in so many paying customers that concerts are the principal source of revenue for the SSO, another thing different than most orchestras?

logos

Posted Mon, Jan 11, 10:31 p.m. Inappropriate

As it was explained to me, "profit-sharing," a misleading term, means that if the SSO board and management exceed some fundraising goals, a specified amount of that would go to the musicians. That would give both musicians and management an incentive for working for more contributions. Such features have been in past contracts, but the SSO has not done well in meeting the trigger points. That's led to the musicians' skepticism about such an idea this time around. But it certainly doesn't violate any non-profit criteria.

Posted Mon, Jan 11, 11:54 p.m. Inappropriate

I remember, in the 1980's, the establishment of the hotel-motel tax in King County. At its inception it was intended to be used to fund our arts organizations, which finally were given hope that they would be able to stop struggling for survival. Unfortunately the tax was hijacked by professional sports team owners, and has since been used almost exclusively for things like new stadiums for the millionaire owners and players of pro sports. How does this make sense? Yes, the sports teams draw larger audiences, but the arts organizations, which many agree are important to our region, are non-profit, and their workers (actors, artists, dancers, and musicians) are anything but millionaires. This situation could be changed without costing the citizens a red cent, with the hotel-motel tax reverted to its originally intended purpose.

catlady

Posted Tue, Jan 12, 12:05 a.m. Inappropriate


Thank you, Ms. Godden, for your thoughtful and objective article.

I find it striking (no pun intended) that the musicians of the SSO are represented and managed by people they have no ability to fire or even evaluate, no matter how demonstrable their incompetence. It seems management would rather preside over the destruction of the Symphony than admit that they can't do their job. Most performing artists have the option to change representatives. The SSO musicians do not, and their management pays no penalty for its own bungling.

The SSO Board has the power to avert disaster. First, they need to stop listening to the current management and its hired advisors, who equate non-profits in trouble with failed corporations. As has been pointed out time and again, Michael Kaiser has a viable model for addressing the financial challenges facing arts organizations during hard times, and an actual record of success. It's still not too late to save the Seattle Symphony, and others in the same boat. Visionary leadership is the key.

Posted Tue, Jan 12, 9:31 a.m. Inappropriate

In response to Mr. Brewster's kind attempt to explain the management's awkward "profit-sharing" concept, I think what we are seeing is an attempt by the musicians to "right" the ship. Musicians play musical instruments, managements manage and boards raise money. Any extensive variances from that model, with the possible exception of orchestras in the UK and abroad, are basically signs of institutional trouble. What we have in Seattle at the moment has the board attempting to manage, the musicians attempting to message distress to the public, and the management, either departed or... looking for employment elsewhere. But back to the "profit sharing" and incentives. The profit sharing concept seeks to provide incentives for the musicians to perform the primary task of the board, raise unearned funding. Perhaps what is really needed are incentives that bring the finest musicians to Seattle to play their instruments (and stay). The incentives that would bring top management to Seattle would be a commitment to growth and excellence. The incentives that should drive the board and broader community to redouble their fundraising efforts are fine concerts like we attended this past week. Being present at Benaroya Hall for a broad, insightful and thrilling performance of Bruckner 4 by Kurt Masur and the musicians of the Seattle Symphony made me proud to be a Seattleite. Perhaps this conversation will bear fruit in stimulating the civic leadership, as Ms. Godden certainly represents so well, to underscore the value of our wonderful orchestra to our community.

Posted Tue, Jan 12, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

there is this to be said for Seattle arts, except for the Northwest Ballet they really cannot leave town and show their face at any metropolitan area, can they? might it not be better to have one great equity theater instead of three mediocre ones? the "seafare pirates" somehow belongs into the category "revelry" as do some other matters that Ms. Godden mentions. i notice the bureaucratization of the arts here, no wonder the region produces so few artists of note unless they leave these provincial precincts.

mikerol

Posted Tue, Jan 12, 2:42 p.m. Inappropriate

As a board member of an organization that presents arts programs, I greatly appreciate Ms. Gooden's effort to shine a light on this issue. I am also grateful for the generosity of Jim Tune from ArtsFund, who took the time to share his management wisdom with our organization as the storm approached, long before the full brunt of the economic downturn made an impact on our city.

Solid advice and prudent planning have helped us continue to bring challenging programs to the community, commission and debut new works from artists who leave our stage and tour nationally, and to support the development of local artists so that they too may reach audiences beyond our backyard.

In the face of declining foundation and corporate giving, this backyard needs tending from its residents. As another reader suggests, Seattle has the level of affluence that suggests there may be untapped resources. However, the city will only have a vibrant arts scene if the people offer individual support, both large and small.

We can have great culture in this city.
But it's up to us.

Posted Tue, Jan 12, 10:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Oh please don't us get into an argument whether the Seafair Pirates are more important than the SSO! Look to the recent controversy in Philadelphia regarding the Mummers Parade, an over 100 year tradition that the City was going to cut out of their budget. These are all parts of what makes up a community's culture. Seafair has been here for over 60 years and is just as important part of our community culture as any arts organization. Tradition is a vital element of any community. Can one imagine Seattle without Blue Angels, Hydroplanes and the Torchlight Parade? Can one imagine Seattle without symphonies, art museums, theatre and dance?

That said, let us look to what's necessary to sustain our community culture, whatever form it comes in. But don't start the infighting - that gets us nowhere in a constructive dialogue. Catlady is right on regarding the hotel-motel tax. Jim McDermott wisely negotiated this package when he was in the State Senate. It should be preserved for its originally intended purpose, instead of being eroded away. If the Allen Foundation put as much into cultural funding as Mr. Allen puts into the Seahawks, would we even be having this discussion? Not to distract from the excellent contributions the Allen Foundation DOES make to the arts - I'm talking measures of magnitude here. And what about the Gates Foundation's contributions to local arts? Or whoever else is making their millions out of this community's intellectual wealth? Yes, it's important to try to salvage our schools (gawd knows THAT needs help!), AIDS in Africa, starvation in scads of other countries. But caring for community should start at home. And it appears from Jean Godden's and many other articles that our home is in big trouble - yet again.

Posted Wed, Jan 13, 4:02 p.m. Inappropriate

yup after 15 years of seeing the damned blue angels scare the hell out of the birds in seattle and the ridiculous seafare pirates i can see seattle also without the huskies and maybe some great theater instead in the stadium for the knuckle heads to enjoy. only then will there be something approximating a culture. just because something really stupid has gone one for a long time...

mikerol

Posted Thu, Jan 14, 11:28 a.m. Inappropriate

It's not just the arts. Woodland Park Zoo plans to close the nocturnal house because of budgetary problems.

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 6:25 a.m. Inappropriate

thank you for this thoughtful article about our struggling art community.

I was surprised to see no mention of 4 Cultures potential loss of funding in this article. As the one of the regions premiere funders of small and midsized arts organizations, individual artists etc it's loss would be felt across the board by almost all regional arts organizations. It's tough to find an arts performance or presentation in the area that has not been helped in some way either directly or indirectly by help from 4 Culture.

Posted Fri, Jan 15, 7:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Governance is the underlying issue. Too many directors are either friends and fans or merely dollar sign egos. Boards, especially in these challenging times, need a leadership blend of committed talents that can be brought to bear on the opportunities their arts orgs face. For SSO, it's marketing and HR; for others, it is succession planning as founders retire or are outgrown; for some, it's financial management and for others, fund raising. All of these matters require experience, expertise and a grasp of the distinctive character and mission of the arts enterprise for which directors or trustees are accountable. Too many boards have abdicated to staff key decisions on strategy, and have been lulled into unrealistic visions by charismatic exec or artistic directors. Many boards have not renewed and refreshed themselves with talent. Just as corporate boards must fight against becoming cozy clubs, arts boards must steel themselves to govern, i.e., to challenge themselves and their staff to renew and refresh strategies and talents to address the organization's cracks and strategic weaknesses these tough times reveal. Arts boards are not social clubs.

Posted Mon, Jan 18, 3:59 p.m. Inappropriate

This point may have been brought out before, but there are rumors amongst the players that management has thoughts of producing concerts with what is known in the industry as "a pick-up" orchestra. i.e. musicians called in from the union hall to fill a seat in the orchestra on a concert by concert basis. These are essentially lo-cost local "temps" who are not paid salary and benefits. They also do not enjoy the benefit of playing regulary with a group to hone a fine emsemble. Imagine what that will do to the quality of perfomance we have become accustomed to here in Seattle. Will it help entice future principal talents to seek this symphony as their home? What future conductor would relish the thought of looking into a new crowd of musician faces for each concert?

I am not an insider for either the board or the players. Just a frequent concert goer who would love to see this conflict settled quickly and fairly. I want to travel to Seattle, have a nice dinner and hear a brilliant concert. I am willing to put my money in resturants, parking garages, gas stations and ticket sales along with thousands of other concert lovers.

The musicians have not dissapointed me once. They are doing their part. They practice, keep their instruments in top condition and are reliable to show up for rehearsals and concerts.

The surrounding businesses are also a reliable treat.

I am dissapointed that the SSO board and management have led the SSO organization to such a state of financial peril. I am not sure they are capable of solving the problems they have allowed to materialize.

JVJohnson

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