Monday, September 20, 2010

Should the Detroit Symphony Die?

Not being anything close to an expert on such swaths of art as music, drama and literature, I tend to use articles by people who know the stuff as hooks for my posts on these matters. Perhaps my favorite go-to guy is Terry Teachout, who wears many arts hats including that of theater critic for the Wall Street Journal.

In his bi-weekly non-theater "Sightings" column for the Journal's 18 September issue he discusses the plight of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra which is running an operating deficit to the tune of around $9 million this year and facing a strike by musicians unwilling to take a proposed pay cut to help the balance sheet.

He notes

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...

Sorry Terry, but the numbers you're using are misleading. You are citing data for cities based on populations within city limits. But city boundaries define the political city and not the physical city which is best represented by urbanized area or metropolitan area data. For example, the 2000 census had the Detroit metro area with near four million people (Wikipedia link here) -- nothing to sneeze at. It is that population, not just the population within the city limits, which comprises the pool of potential supporters and attendees of the orchestra, art museum and so forth.

Even so, the orchestra is in serious trouble. Terry concludes

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—the assumption that artists ought to be paid what they "deserve" to make, even when the community in which they live and work places a significantly lower value on their services. Any economist can tell you what has happened: In Detroit, being a classical instrumentalist is no longer an upper-middle-class job.

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. One way or another, they'll follow the money—and if there is no money to follow, they'll go out of business. The sad truth is that the Detroit Symphony is no more "permanent" than . . . well, your average auto company.

I am with him on this. We have to earn our keep.

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