Seattle arts are in trouble

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.

Page back through the year and you can read the sad stories of the eight small theater companies that have failed in recent times. You can read about this year’s demise of Tacoma Actors Guild. And you can hear from mainstream theater companies that fundraising has been falling short.

How bad is it and is there a lot more to come? That was the question I posed to several observers of the scene, among them James Tune of ArtsFund, which directs corporate funds to local arts organizations. Tune noted that some of the smaller arts organizations have wisely taken steps to reduce their expenses and manage their budgets more prudently. He noted that ACT, which not long ago was teetering on the edge, has managed to finish its year in the black. He said the Rep and Intiman theaters similarly had worked to stabilize their finances.

Tune and the ArtsFund keep tabs on local arts organizations. A July, 2009 report said that, although no widely known cultural groups had folded, “Many have ‘lost limbs,’ having to cut back programming as well as administration. For many groups it means fewer performances, fewer gallery hours, or staging plays with just one or two actors and pared-back sets. It has also meant, for many, furloughs and layoffs.”

The report showed the greatest decrease in income to arts organizations has come from corporations and foundations. Surprisingly, two out of three groups reported steady or increasing attendance. The demand for cultural activities remains strong, even in a recession, but patrons are purchasing lower price tickets and programming is getting less risky. In the long term, cultural groups cannot maintain operations with both lower admission revenues and cuts in contributions.

The recession has had a larger toll on the city’s cultural edge that has been publicly recognized. Seattle has long enjoyed a rich arts and cultural scene: symphony, opera, ballet, theater, film and visual arts. For a city our size (population around 600,000), it is an incredible wealth of activities. Just in the theater arts alone, Seattle has more equity theaters than any city West of the Mississippi.

Put another way, this outsized performance by our arts groups and audiences means increased risk in a financial downturn. Our contributor base is not vast. Many corporations and foundations support multiple arts organizations. And with the departure from the city of such past contributors as Washington Mutual, Safeco, and Boeing, the pool of possible contributors grows shallower.

It is definitely time to start thinking about how we’re going to maintain our cultural edge. This city has not always been the cultural powerhouse that it is today. In the 1940s, Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor of the Seattle Symphony, referred to Seattle as in danger of becoming “a sort of aesthetic dust-bin.” Some dispute Beecham’s exact wording, but the gibe has stuck and serves as a constant goad to do better.

Seattle has built a vibrant arts community that draws people here. It attracts businesses to establish headquarters here, and it is a very large share of our tourism appeal. It is essential that we devise creative new ways to support our arts and maintain that cultural edge and not climb back into the cultural dust-bin.

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