There's encouraging news, at last, from Michigan, where the six-month strike by musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra may be over. The players will return to work on Thursday, even before a final ratification vote on a contract ironed out over the weekend.
Details of the new deal are sketchy, but you can pretty much count on the players taking a hit. Hard to see any way around that. The issue all along has been how deep a pay cut would be imposed.
There's just too much financial pressure on the orchestra, which lost $19 million over the past three years or so and faces a $54 million debt involving its concert hall. One particularly sobering statistic I read: there were 25,000 donors to the Detroit Symphony in the 1990s, about 5,000 now.
We've been through some of this in Baltimore, when the deficits just got too big, the options too few. The upshot is that in our fair city, fans of the Baltimore Symphony enjoy an artistic quality, week by week, from musicians who are worth a lot more money than they get. That, I assume, will be the case in Detroit under a new contract.
It's a bitter lesson in contemporary values, but arts organizations everywhere (or mostly everywhere) are learning to live within tighter financial constraints. They're also learning to live with the beginnings, at least, of new business models.
One bone of contention in Detroit appears to have been the extent of ...
community outreach projects the musicians would be expected to participate in. The Baltimore Symphony has been expanding that side of its operations substantially for a few years now, thanks in large measure to music director Marin Alsop's determination to open up the BSO experience to more people outside the doors of Meyerhoff Hall. There's no guarantee that new audiences, especially paying audiences, will materialize because of outreach efforts, but it's hard to argue that those efforts shouldn't be made.
I've heard it said here, and I can well imagine it being said elsewhere, that finely trained musicians want to concentrate on the music-making they trained for; that they find too much community service detrimental to the fundamental goal of sustaining artistic growth. But the movement toward embracing the world beyond the safe routine of the concert hall is surely going to gather momentum. It makes sense, short-term and long-term.
It will be interesting to see how that outreach issue and all the other disputed matters turn out in Detroit. An awful lot of effort will be required on both sides to make progress. And speaking of both sides, it's worth noting that the Baltimore crisis in middle of the last decade was really only brought under control with the departure of key personnel in management and on the board. I wonder if something similar will happen soon in Detroit.
Regardless, everyone involved with the present and future of the Detroit Symphony will start a whole set of fresh battles if the contract deal goes through -- battles for rebuilding the public's faith and support; for fostering mutual respect inside the institution; for ensuring the value of what happens onstage, no matter how much less will be in the pay checks ahead.
A tall order for any orchestra, but a struggle obviously worth waging. What happens next in Detroit will be of keen importance to many other places where budgets and artistic aspirations collide.