On Income Inequality, Big Art, Fat Unions and The Fat Lady

In all of the tiresome and very public discussions on “income inequality” we have been thru in America in the last year or so, how is it that NONE of them have focused on income inequality in the arts?

Fact is, income inequality among artists is tolerated at levels that would give nosebleeds to a Sherpa. Income levels at the very top of the arts are as astronomical as in any other profession – possibly, though not definitely, excepting hedge fund managers and majority stakeholders in anything even remotely internet and social media related.

And I have to say that as a dedicated Capitalist, that’s fine with me… although it can be amusing to see very-well-compensated “artists” mixing it up with the “Occupy Whatever” people.

But what about inequality among institutions?

The recent spate of conversations sparked by the Eric Gibson article in the Wall St Journal (“Fat Unions May Kill the Fat Lady”) points up, again, the incredible gap between those institutions at the pinnacle of the American Non-Profit world, the Metropolitan Operas, The LACMAs, the Gettys… and most of the rest of the residents of planet 501c3, who can only dream about the looming threat of “Fat Unions”. Try to imagine anyone referring to Actor’s Equity Association that way. Yes Virginia, there is such a thing as “Big Art”.

The problem, of course, is that in some regards “Big Art” doesn’t look very much like “Big Business” or “Big” anything else. It doesn’t have rich, one-percenter owners that we can all safely loathe (although it does have one-percenter donors – much harder to hate), it doesn’t make something that everybody needs (or at least, that everybody wants), and most importantly, it doesn’t throw off dollars the way Godzilla spews fire, or the Transformers hurl vehicles. It sucks up your dollars, and other peoples’ dollars, and burns them at an incredible rate, in often extravagant ways, in the name of someone else’s idea of culture. And of course, per the article, at the end of any given year, it often loses money.

Maybe it’s not so different from the rest of us after all.

I’d suggest that the Fat Lady that we really hear singing in the non-profit world, that we’ve heard singing for the last 10 plus years, that we’ve heard singing for NYC Opera, for the Minneapolis Symphony, for countless dance companies and smaller regional theaters around the country, and that Mr. Gibson suggests might be singing for the MET, isn’t singing for them at all. Or not just for them, and not even just for every arts institution flirting once again with insolvency. She’s singing for the way we have done business in the non-profit world since the dawn of non-profit time, or at least the dawn of prosperous, post-WWII America.

Consider this bit from Peggy Noonan’s recent Op-Ed on a very different subject, political (dis)unity in the US:

“The waste, the long-term deficits, the pumped-up Fed, the fear of impending bankruptcy—all gave rise to a feeling of alarm among many in the country. But not among many in Washington. Why?

I came to think that policy disagreement aside, it was that most people in politics grew up in and were surrounded by, in the first 30 or 50 years of their lives, an incredibly, historically affluent America, one whose financial strength was so mighty it could absorb any blow. This fact of their lives became their reigning assumption: You can do any amount of damage to America and it will be fine.

The country they grew up in is the country that lived in their heads.”

The non-profit performing arts world grew up in that same “historically affluent America”. We are not living in it now.

Whether or not you believe that America will return is one issue – but it seems clear that many at the Metropolitan Opera are suffering from the same delusion that Noonan’s Washingtonians suffer. No matter who you are in this economy, in this America, no matter how big your Art is, simply raising more money is not the answer. Big Art, little art, and all art in between need to reconsider their relationship with their donors, their dollars, and their community and their product. The country we grew up in, the country that is still living in our heads, is not showing up in our balance sheets. We need to find a new way.

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