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Drowning in Comfort

Art world discovers downside to eminence.

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When New York City Opera announced that it could no longer afford its home at Lincoln Center, blame settled all over: on a bungling board; on general manager George Steel’s esoteric tastes; on his predecessor, Gérard Mortier, who made expensive plans and never showed up to implement them; on whoever started the Great Recession. All the criticism was reasonable, but the conditions for failure existed long before any of those protagonists’ misdeeds. City Opera is a victim of the culture industry’s success.

The classical-music business grew rapidly in the mid-twentieth century, fueled by our prosperous country’s craving for high-culture prestige. Teams of well-paid union members performed for loyal audiences in expensive facilities. While playing in an orchestra was once a seasonal job with low pay and no security, by the sixties it was a comfortable profession. And as artists became white-collar employees, the organizations they worked for morphed into corporations.

That sort of stability does not come cheap. New York Philharmonic musicians’ salaries start at $134,940. A Lincoln Center stagehand can make nearly $330,000. The Philadelphia Orchestra, which is seeking bankruptcy protection, is staring at $44.8 million in unfunded pension liabilities. While City Opera pays no rent on the David H. Koch Theater, it has to lay out $4.5 million a year just to keep the facility running.

Money wells are running dry, especially in shrinking cities like Cleveland and Detroit. Organizations all over the country are finding that the system they erected, in which corporate sponsors, big donations, and regular audiences fund generous contracts, is now dragging them down. The grand, rigid infrastructure of the performing arts is starting to buckle.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the arts don’t follow market principles—creative innovation rarely makes productions cheaper. Staging an opera is an old-fashioned way to lose money, and in tough times, ambitions are ratcheted back. For their part, audiences forgo subscriptions, buying tickets a performance at a time, which raises the stakes—and the costs—of marketing. It’s a vicious cycle.

But arts organizations can eke out flexibility in other places: in bankruptcy court, by exploiting new media (as the Metropolitan Opera has), by selling real estate (the American Folk Art Museum), or by following the wealth (the Cleveland Orchestra has residencies in Miami and at Lincoln Center). In a harsh financial climate, the weak must find new niches. New York, at least, contains a range of habitats. This city has supported two opera companies and a scattering of smaller outfits for generations, and there is no fundamental reason why it can’t continue to do so. City Opera’s crisis might even prove beneficial. Freed from the enforced spaciousness of its theater, the company can perform Handel in homey venues, cast young singers who won’t have to shout to fill spaces their voices aren’t ready for, and choose specialty repertoire without needing to sell 2,000 tickets each night. If it can coax audiences to come along on its migrations, the company has a chance to show other battered groups how to adapt to climate change.


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