Posted on May 9, 2011

April Is the Cruelest Month for Purveyors of High Culture

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2011

Kansas City’s Heart of America Shakespeare Festival says that unless it manages to raise $100,000 by next week, the company’s production of “Macbeth” will be canceled. Not so long ago, that would have been fairly big theater news. Now it’s just another drop in the bottomless bucket of high-culture fiscal crisis.

Consider the following:

On April 4, the Syracuse Symphony “suspended” operations after its musicians refused to accept a $1.3 million pay cut.

On April 7, the New York City Opera revealed that it was suspending plans to announce its 2011-12 season, pending the outcome of a top-to-bottom review of the company’s finances that is expected to lead to drastic budget cuts. “There is no line item that’s sacrosanct,” said Charles Wall, the new chairman. The American Guild of Musical Artists, the union that represents City Opera’s singers and production staffers, responded by threatening to strike.

On April 16, the board of Seattle’s Intiman Theater, one of the country’s top regional theater companies, voted to cancel the rest of its current season and lay off its staff.

On April 20, the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy.

That last event sent shudders up and down the spines of every classical-music manager in America. The Philadelphia Orchestra is universally regarded as one of the world’s half-dozen greatest orchestras. If it can get into a hole so deep that bankruptcy is the only option, then no orchestra is safe.

What’s the problem? In the immortal (if apocryphal) words of Sam Goldwyn, “If nobody wants to see your picture, there’s nothing you can do to stop them.” Corollary: If nobody can afford a ticket to your show, there’s nothing you can do to make them buy one. When money is tight and ticket prices keep climbing, playgoers and opera buffs will respond by staying home. Moreover, the high-culture business models of the past don’t work anymore. In particular, the subscription-based models that kept opera and theater companies and symphony orchestras afloat throughout the 20th century are no longer viable now that younger Americans are unwilling to commit in advance to attending future performances, and most of these groups are still trying to find consistently effective new ways to balance the books.

And what’s the moral of the story? Here’s part of it: High-culture unions that fight to hang on to an untenable status quo are shooting themselves in the head. {snip}