The potential outcome of the current Utah Symphony strike has me very concerned. As the former assistant to the manager of the now-bankrupt Nashville Symphony, the strike's causes, as given by management and orchestra members, sound hantingly familiar.In the spring of 1984, after a year of negotiations and six months of a play and talk agreement, the Nashville Symphony musicians went on strike in the middle of the season. Their disputes with management centered on the need for higher salaries, greater job security, more say in the artistic direction of the orchestra, and many points related to working conditions.
After a two-month strike, a four-year contract was approved by my superiors in management and the orchestra members. It called for modest increases in salary and benefits in the first three years of the contract, then a large jump in salaries and number of full-time musicians in the fourth year. This contract was similar to the one proposed by Scott Matheson and the musicians that would give the board several years to get adequate funding available.
When I saw the figures that had been negotiated in Nashville, I told my husband that I knew it was unlikely that the orchestra would make it through that final year. The NSO was gambling that the then current economic boom would sustain this growth. It did not.
After their endowment of close to $3 million was depleted, and after attempts to renegotiate the contract last fall, the orchestra closed its doors just after the new year.
Lest I be accused of comparing apples and oranges, I will admit up front that the Utah Symphony and the NSO are not at all in the same league in artistic quality or budget. Base salary here is almost twice what it was in Nashville and the Utah audiences support the Utah Symphony much more in their concert attendance figures. Not all of Nashville players were full time, but they actually had more musicians on their payroll.
On the plus side for Nashville, however, was a booming economy and a greater population base. In the two months since I have returned to Salt Lake City, I have heard much about the dismal economy, and from what I can see from my very limited view, the community and press are not supporting the orchestra like it did in Nashville.
Like Nashville, the Utah Symphony has been running at a deficit and using their endowment to balance the budget. Both orchestras have very small endowments to begin with. Nashville's was actually more proportionate to their annual budget than Utah's is. The Utah Symphony just cannot afford to continue this practice and remain financially healthy.
In Nashville, the musicians disparaged the board's fund-raising abilities and management's ability to fill the hall in the press. Since their strike lasted two months, the musicians formed the "Nashville Alternative Symphony" and tried to mount their own fund-raising concert to help their strike cause. The concert lost money.
It has been my experience that those in symphony management are not there to get rich, but because they love music and love to work with people. The board is made up of volunteers who not only give of their time, but their money.
Last year alone, almost $700,000 was donated to the symphony by board members. It is their job to get out there and raise money and audiences.
This is no easy task and it is inevitable that troubles will arise when they are dealing with so many variables. It takes a huge infrastructure of management, board, community, and state to keep an orchestra going.
The Utah Symphony travels throughout the state frequently. It has been an example to many other orchestras of just how to reach these smaller towns. In Nashville, the Utah Symphony was often mentioned in board meetings as the best example of these types of concerts.
These concerts are valuable in generating not only good will and new audiences, but state and national grant money. The National Endowment for the Arts looks upon such traveling favorably when they distribute monies. Unlike Nashville, which did not travel as much, the Utah Symphony receives state monies.
In Tennessee, the small, more culturally deprived towns often had the most enthusiastic audiences. Even though many of these concerts seem unrewarding to perform, they are vital to the mission of the orchestra.
Utah is fortunate to have such a fine orchestra. A city of the size and location of Salt Lake City seemingly should not be so lucky, but we are. We should strive to keep the high artistic level of the orchestra. We cannot afford to lose our orchestra like Nashville and so many other cities.
I plead with the board to be fiscally responsible in their negotiations and avoid jeopardizing the future of the orchestra. I realize that the musicians have a large investment in their careers in the way of education, instruments, time, emotion and hard work. They deserve to be compensated fairly.
But they cannot afford to sign a contract that will take care of short-term wants and neglect the long term health of the orchestra. Do not make the mistakes that Nashville did. Try not to bargain for more than the community is able to support.