Starting 2021 With An Empathetic Perspective

While vaccine rollouts are helping performing arts organizations take a serious look at season planning schedules, furloughed artists and arts admins have yet to see the rays from the light at the end of that tunnel.

In order to gather a better understanding of just how deep those economic cracks run, I want to point out two articles of note that came out while I was on holiday break.

The 12/26/2020 edition of The New York times published an article buy Patricia Cohen that does a good job at demonstrating that even before the pandemic, artists hovered below the national median annual salary and many of them lost all or part of their income. Even well-known names like violin soloist Jennifer Koh saw their income evaporate in a matter of weeks to the point where she began drawing benefits as a taxpayer in the form of Federal and State food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Cohen does an excellent job at examining artists from each major arts sector to provide as comprehensive an overview as possible. Each of those accounts corresponds with the five months of data we compiled on changes to employment status since the onset of the pandemic. The results were sobering and illustrated a clear picture of just how much per-service and salaried orchestra musicians are enduring.

Next up is an article by Jason Haaheim, Principal Timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Regular readers know just how sharp of a mind Jason has by way of Shop Talk guest appearances and his popular blog. His post from 12/30/2020 provides one of the best firsthand accounts of what life has been like during the pandemic for a professional musician.

Moreover, Jason’s position at The Met complicates his existence thanks to the scorched earth tactics that employer has taken with employees. In a nutshell, the employer locked out those musicians and engaged in what Haaheim defines as blackmail in order to get even low wage payments during shutdowns. He references Alex Ross’ apt, and concise, analysis from his 12/12/2020 New Yorker article:

“The Metropolitan Opera, which furloughed around a thousand employees in the spring, has offered to resume sending paychecks to unionized employees but only if they accept long-term reductions in salary. Elsewhere, institutions have managed to avoid gutting their employees’ livelihoods.”

That last line is particularly important because it reminds us that these decisions are ultimately choices. And while there is no shortage of difficult choices to go around, that doesn’t seem to be stopping some from making them intentionally worse. In The Met’s case, this seems to be exactly what’s going on.

Jason’s post covers a lot of ground but be sure to check out the “Precipitating Exile” section. I’m flattered he found some of my public thoughts on how the pandemic can foster counterproductive governance in the form of the following quote: “You’ll know ‘bullshit expertise’ when settling old scores is being repackaged as ‘transformational change.’”

In turn, this made me think of Brandolini’s law, also known as the bullshit asymmetry principle, which emphasizes the difficulty of debunking bullshit: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

I sincerely hope stakeholders don’t get caught up in the glue trap that is Brandolini’s law and instead, realize when they’ve crossed the event horizon where going around the problem is better than going through it.

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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