Disaster in Detroit

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2010

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is staring into the abyss. In order to survive a fix-it-or-else financial crisis–the DSO is expected to run up a $9 million operating deficit by the end of 2010–the management wants to slash the pay of its musicians by nearly 30%. The musicians have responded by voting to authorize a strike, and it is widely feared that this may lead to the orchestra’s demise.

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The numbers tell the tale: Nearly two million people lived in Detroit in 1950. The current population is 800,000. Forty of the city’s 140 square miles are vacant. Downsizing is the name of the save-Detroit game, and Mayor Dave Bing, who is looking at an $85 million budget deficit, wants to slash civic services drastically and encourage Detroit’s remaining residents to cluster in the healthiest of its surviving neighborhoods.

Can a once-great city that is now the size of Austin, Texas, afford a top-rank symphony orchestra with a 52-week season? Does it even want one? The DSO, after all, is not the only one of Detroit’s old-line high-culture institutions that is sweating bullets. The Detroit Institute of Arts and the Michigan Opera Theater are also in trouble, and the editorial page of the Detroit News recently declared that Detroit is “no longer a top 10 city by any measure. The reality may be that this region can no longer support a world class orchestra, or art museum, or opera company. . . . They are remnants of an era when the city was awash in automotive cash.”

Brian Dickerson, the deputy editorial-page editor of the Detroit Free Press, reacted angrily in a column published last month to what he called the “elegiac resignation” of this editorial: “{snip} What’s incredible, and ineffably sad, is the complacency with which Detroiters are shrugging off the disintegration of a cultural infrastructure our predecessors spent the entire 20th century putting in place.” But it isn’t complacent to admit that Detroit may no longer be able to afford the DSO–or that the city’s “unwashed masses” won’t lose any sleep if the orchestra is forced to close its doors.

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What makes the Detroit Symphony different is that it is not a provincial ensemble. It’s long been ranked as one of America’s top 10 symphony orchestras, in terms of both pay scale and artistic quality. Many of the recordings that the DSO made for Mercury in the ’50s and ’60s remain in print to this day. But what few seem to want to admit other than euphemistically is that comparatively few of the citizens of Detroit appear to be willing to pick up the tab for such an ensemble. In a city that is itself in desperate financial straits, the care and feeding of a major orchestra is not a priority.

I agree with those musicians who argue that cutting the average salary of a DSO player from $104,650 to $75,000 will transform the orchestra beyond recognition. The DSO will inevitably lose its best members and won’t be able to attract replacements of comparable quality. But the players’ decision to respond to the orchestra’s financial crisis by voting to strike is a classic symptom of the cultural-entitlement mentality {snip}.

We like to think that great symphony orchestras and museums are permanent monuments to the enduring power and significance of art, but in the 21st century, we are going to learn the hard way that this is simply not true. Great high-culture institutions reflect the fundamental character of a city. In America, most of these institutions were founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as manifestations of civic pride. But when a city’s character undergoes profound changes, as has happened in Detroit, the institutions are bound to reflect that transformation. {snip}

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