It’s a sad day. Or maybe not.

On Monday, October 1, the New York City Opera announced it was closing its doors and filing for bankruptcy, according to a story in the New York Times.  This iconic institution, one of the nation’s finest opera companies, was founded in 1944 as an alternative to the more tradition-bound Metropolitan Opera Company — Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia said at the time he wanted to provide “cultural entertainment at popular prices.”  Over the years, the NYCO always seemed closer to the ground and scrappier than its older cousin next door.  They earned a reputation for producing American operas and new works (their last performance was of an opera called “Anna Nicole”) and innovative performances of classic works.

I loved the New York City Opera.  In the seventies, when I was studying voice and hoping to be an opera singer (we see how well THAT turned out), I read everything I could read about the company, idolized Beverly Sills (the diva who ended up managing the company after her retirement) and even saw a couple of performances there in New York.  The NYCO was the location of one of the most amazing operatic performances I’ve ever seen — Beverly Sills as Violetta in La Traviata.  I can still see – and hear – her final aria as her character died while she spun out a perfect, pianissimo but still laser-beam bright, high A as she lay on her back.

Ah well.  So, what are we to make of this?  Also this week, the Minnesota Orchestra failed (again) to come to agreement with its players, leading to the resignation of its conductor, Osmo Vanska.  We’ve talked before in Artini about other struggles in Columbus, San Francisco and Philadelphia as one by one, orchestras and other traditional cultural ensembles go belly up or struggle to stay afloat.

What is the reason for this?  Opinions are as varied as there are music lovers.  It’s common to blame disputes between management and musicians, with musicians invariably blaming management and business leaders invariably blaming the musicians’ union.  To me, these troubles mirror similar struggles facing cities, states and America as a whole these days.  Take Detroit for example.  Some city leaders’ claim that the city is bankrupt because they can’t pay promised pensions sounds an awful lot like a board member of the Minnesota Orchestra complaining that the high cost of musicians’ salaries is to blame for the problem.

But these are complex issues, and we can’t get away with blaming one “side” or another.  These are endemic problems, that are complex and have been building for many years.  Relieving pension liabilities won’t help Detroit in the long run unless the city can find a way to thrive in the 21st century without the manufacturing base that enabled its growth in the 20th century.  Cutting musicians’ salaries won’t help in the long run if the organization can’t figure out a way to keep up with the new ways that audiences are accessing the arts.

In my opinion (and this is just my opinion, I have no stats to back this up), I believe that part of the reason that we are where we are with our larger cultural institutions has to do with the tension between commercial businesses and not-for-profit businesses.  Faced with ever-increasing fundraising needs, large arts organizations have turned to business leaders to staff their boards of directors, hoping that these leaders will have access to wealthy people and corporate funds.  Instead, however, business leaders are often impatient with the arts’ business model, and consider fundraising a failure of the organization.  Unlike many other businesses, however, the arts can’t always innovate from the program side to cut costs — it takes just as many musicians to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as it did in 1824.

The reason so many arts organizations are organized as not-for-profits is that providing culture to the community is considered a public service.  But once you get to the point where, despite contributed income, ticket prices have risen to a point that they rival commercial Broadway shows, it allows people to question whether or not that public service is being performed.  The reputation that large cultural institutions have beyond the circle of ardent arts lovers is that they are pleasure palaces for the wealthy.  And, I must admit this is not far from the truth.  I may anger a lot of my arts friends by saying this, but I don’t believe that the mere presence of a symphony orchestra or an opera company or a museum in a community indicates that the community supports culture.  And, I also don’t believe that if new audiences aren’t flocking to the symphony or opera in droves, that indicates that we have become a nation of cultural idiots.

In my experience, people flock to the arts when the arts are accessible to them.  I’m going to anger even more people now when I ask, does everyone reading this and bemoaning the end of the symphony or opera do their part by subscribing or donating?  Or do you do as I do (full disclosure here), and attend once or twice a year and spend the rest of the season looking at operas on YouTube and PBS and listening to recordings?

It’s tempting to call the demise of the New York City Opera a nail in the coffin of culture.  It doesn’t have to be so.  I think it is an opportunity — an opportunity to rethink the delivery of arts and culture and respond to the tremendous variety of delivery methods currently available to us.  It’s an opportunity to rethink structure — maybe we can’t afford to support an opera company AND a symphony AND a ballet in the same city, but maybe we can support one organization that does all three using a common orchestral ensemble.    It’s an opportunity to consider unusual spaces for performance, innovative delivery methods (as the Met Opera has done by broadcasting performances in movie theaters across the country) and seasons that don’t have to consist of a classic series, a pops series and a holiday gala.

Can this happen?  What will it take?  Please let me know your thoughts.

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About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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6 Responses to It’s a sad day. Or maybe not.

  1. Betsy Tanenbaum says:

    This is a great post, Ellen! I am in the process of preparing our annual membership drive letter and corresponding materials and am focusing on change as opportunity. The other day, I was reading the AFTA news and reviewed a study that indicates that arts participation in traditional venues has dropped between 2009 and 2012 (even musicals saw a 12% drop!). There was a really good quote by Randy Cohen though: “People are not walking away from the arts so much as they are walking away from traditional delivery mechanisms. People are engaging with the arts differently.”

    As a gallery with a permanent collection, I see New Visions Gallery as a “traditional delivery mechanism” and we have been working hard to not only keep our core programming, but also diversify our program delivery so that the community feels like they can still engage. We are blessed, being in Marshfield Clinic, with a built-in audience…but parking is so horrendous when the Clinic is open, there are very few individuals who will come to the Clinic when they are not ill or have an appointment to see the exhibit. Times are definitely difficult right now for the arts sector (we are certainly scraping by), but I think it is a tremendous opportunity for us to rethink how we are doing things. For us, we’ve found success in collaborations with other organizations in town (splitting the work and benefiting from sharing our audiences), but every community and arts organization is different. We will certainly continue to address this because things are only going to keep on changing!

  2. I was a stagehand at NYCO for five seasons running at the theater formerly known as the State at Lincoln Center. Previous to my time there, I’d been the production manager/stage manager at NYC’s Town Hall on West 43rd Street for seven years. I had never before and have never since seen such a horrendously managed operation as NYCO. Routinely, as in six days a week, NYCO went through lunch, dinner, incurred a wide variety of penalties simply because the technical staff was unable to organize the work in such a way that didn’t trip the financial penalties in the contract they themselves had signed. I contrast my experience there with my work at the Metropolitan Opera where the day’s labor was extremely well planned (work being organized at least two years prior to its hitting the stage for technical rehearsals). NYCO’s employment of Gerard Mortier only underlines the fiscal irresponsibility of the board of directors. Mr. Mortier had a history of bankrupting opera companies with his lack of management skill that made him a clearly dangerous choice for a leadership role at an institution that was already flirting with financial disaster.

    The collapse of NYCO is a simple case of business mismanagement. The refusal of the board to acknowledge that the realities of shepherding art to the stage had changed since the company’s inception were disastrous. At any point along the slide to October 1st 2013 the company could have cut back, redesigned how they spent their labor dollars, made more sensible personnel choices, and simply displayed less hubris toward both its own employees and the economic realities of doing business in the cultural landscape of New York City.

    I had a tremendous fondness for NYCO. In line with its populist past, the company had a history of promoting from within; I was able to work on its production of Handel’s FLAVIO when I needed an internship to complete my college education. It was at NYCO I learned to love opera, both the music and its production values. The assistant directors, administrative staff, singers, and other workers and artists who made up its core are among the finest people I’ve ever known. I loved the music it produced. I will miss it terribly —- and I know its demise could have easily been prevented if Kellogg and company had simply listened to the advice of their own managers and lawyers and fans.

    • Thank you for your perspective, Alexander. It’s nice to hear from someone who worked there. I’m so sorry to hear about the mismanagement issues. No business — arts business, not-for-profit, for-profit — can succeed if it ignores best practice. 😦

  3. Regarding my previous comment about NYCO and its chronic mismanagement, take a look at the article from the New York Times I’ve linked to below. I think you’ll find it enlightening about the level of incompetence and hubris involved:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/12/business/ransacking-the-endowment-at-new-york-city-opera.html

    • Wow. Just…wow. I can’t imagine that people could be so short sighted – this is not-for-profit 101, never dip into the principal of your endowment! Thanks for sharing.

      • I just wanted to show you that it wasn’t simply my own pretty obvious bitterness and disaffection that I’m speaking out of. I think this particular “Titanic” scenario should stand as a warning to arts organization to build internal cultures that are inclusive. Even the Met, which is a tremendously difficult place to work, promotes from within and is now once again listening to the professionals that oversee its day-to-day operation. We have a bias in our country that those that make the art always know best about how to execute it. This is not always so, as we can see from what happened at NYCO.

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