Peeling The Onion That Is the Met Budget

The 5/30/2014 edition of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article by Jennifer Maloney titled New York’s Metropolitan Opera Opens Its Budget Curtain although that’s really a misnomer. Having said that, Maloney’s article manages to peel back the first paper thin layer of the onion that is the Metropolitan Opera (The Met) budget and just as likely to make you cry.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-067But the one thing you can count on throughout the course of this multi-union labor negotiation is the process will be painstakingly slow and unlikely to provide enough transparency to draw reasonable conclusions. Moreover, you can expect to be bombarded by a deluge of spin, misdirection, and obfuscation so that by the end of the process, you’ll risk becoming so jaded that you simply won’t care.

Ideally, all stakeholders will keep this in mind and temper their respective approaches but if the scorched earth tactics that defined the Minnesota Orchestra labor war are any comparison here, you can expect that the higher the resources and higher the stakes, the more likely things will get ugly before they settle.

To date, The Met has adopted a classic approach of repeating a simple message best defined as a “projected dire finances” position; the ship won’t sink within the next few seasons but if substantial and permanent labor concessions aren’t secured, then all bets are off and the institution could collapse.

This is a risky bargaining position for an employer to adopt because the more they play up the danger of insolvency, the more difficult it becomes to retract that position without looking like an alarmist.

On the other side of the bargaining table, most of the labor unions have reacted to their employer’s position with more of a tempered approach (albeit one extreme exception). Most aren’t openly refuting the idea of concessions to one degree or another and instead, are focusing on the need for increased financial oversight and efficiency for all production aspects.

For now, The Met is already engaging in sleight-of-hand PR when it comes to financial transparency. For example, when Maloney asked about storage costs for a portion of the “Prince Igor” production sets, she received a healthy dose labor dispute prestidigitation.

“Some nights, when there was no room to store them in the wings, the poppies had to be trucked to off-site storage. They filled eight trucks. The Met didn’t disclose the cost of that storage, saying it wasn’t part of the production budget.”

Kudos to Maloney for including this crucial bit of detail and if it is any sign of things to come, you can expect nothing but more of the same.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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