Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Mutilating Record: Elaine Calder and Trisha Mead talk about what their cuts mean

By Barry Johnson

At this point, the whole Mutilating the Majors debate is spinning totally out of control. That's a good thing -- see the post below on journalism and debate. On the other hand, it's difficult to stay in the loop enough to hear about substantial contributions. For example, Elaine Calder, president of the Oregon Symphony, commented to a blog post by symphony violist Charles Noble. And Trisha Mead at Portland Center Stage blogged about the debate on the PCS website, too.

Mead's recap is excellent, and her explanation of Center Stage's thoughts as it tried to balance cutting its budget with its efforts to produce great theater lead you to conclude that Center Stage went about this juggling act with great care.  I like where she ended up -- with a reminder that Center Stage (and by extension all of the arts) depends on its community of supporters to do its work. Yes, it IS in our hands.
"We've got big plans in the pipeline. But we need fuel for the journey ahead. And we hope that what does not get lost in the debate about balancing budgets is this:

No matter how fiercely we marshal every penny, our pennies all ultimately come from you, our audience. Our community. When you vote to sustain or increase public funding. When you commit to seeing a full season of work. When you demonstrate your passion for our work by donating, you literally create the organization that we are today (and hope to become tomorrow).
When you walk back out into the night after a Portland Center Stage performance feeling that your life... that all of  Portland is richer for the experiences we provide... that is the moment we earn our keep.
So keep showing up Portland. That is what will make the sacrifices worthwhile."
Calder talked about the way the symphony has gone about balancing its budget, too, and I think she expressed more clearly than I did what exactly the cuts mean, even when the knife is applied deftly and intelligently.
"But the cuts to staff and orchestra size, furlough days, wage freezes, shortened season, reduced/eliminated pension and parking contributions and changes to the health insurance plans are saving an enormous amount of money, and I’d describe this as increasing our internal subsidy of the company during a period when the external subsidies have been reduced. 
...we are now collectively providing a subsidy of approximately the same size as the Miller Foundation’s generous $1 million annual grant. I hope we can soon get back to healthy levels of earned and contributed income, so we can stop depending on our musicians and staff to balance the budget."
A great way of thinking about the salary reductions, benefit give-backs and furlough days -- as internal subsidies of the symphony.

The only place I'd disagree with Calder, with all due respect, is in her characterization of what my position would be on the decision by the opera to cut a mainstage production this year.  I wouldn't question that specific at all.  Given its present revenue projections, the opera should deploy its resources to produce the very best work it can dream up and get on the stage. If that means fewer productions, so be it.

I'm on the record (from my days at The Oregonian) with an argument that our arts groups should probably do fewer productions: Do less with more. They should be able to market, educate, find sponsors and locate partners more easily, the fewer shows they do -- up to a point, of course. The numbers matter less than the impact, ultimately. Which the art organizations understand -- both Mead and Calder mention the importance of keeping the quality of their concerts and plays as high as possible.


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