On Monday evening, I attended the annual meeting of a non-profit performing organization I work with. The stated purpose of this meeting was to let the members know about what had been accomplished by its board during the last year. An underlying agenda was to urge the members to support the group’s upcoming season through planned giving. As I watched the presentations by both the board president and the executive director, I was reminded of the economic realities that we are all operating under at this point in time. Many of the members have experienced losses due to the recent fluctuations in the stock market, and they may not have the level of discretionary income they have previously enjoyed. Some of the younger members may have been wondering if they would continue to have their jobs in the near future. Even in DC, home of the government, there are doubts about the stability of one’s employment. For those who work in the financial sector, there is the scary thought that their once invincible workplace might cease to exist sooner rather than later.
As a consultant (contractor) who often works on an hourly or per project basis, I am cautiously considering the possibility that the groups I work with will decide that they can no longer afford my services. This decision would have less to do with how I do my job and more to do with what my services will cost. An executive director recently told me that their board loves my work but is not sure they can afford to commit to hiring me for more than one project at a time. I have been very honest with the group about my need for regular work. At the same time, I consciously leave time open in my schedule for doing what I know they will need and eventually ask for. This is the game we play; but the rules have changed somewhat.
Presenting concerts takes serious money, and the money sometimes comes from corporations or foundation gifts. The reality is that it takes both individual and corporate giving to sustain the level of performances that many groups have come to expect in the nation’s capitol. In addition to being the seat of our government, Washington, DC is also known as the “choral capitol of the United States.” There are more choirs per capita here than in any other city in the US. When giving is down, as it has been since 2001, the ability to mount expensive productions becomes more a question of fiscal survival than an exercise in artistic creativity. We are all trying to do more with much less. Many performing groups in the area have cut positions and increased the workload of each remaining staff member. At the same time, the price for venue rentals, stage crews, and other vital aspects of each performance has increased to the point where groups are starting to look for secondary venues that might better fit the available budget.
The arts in this country have always been on somewhat shaky ground as far as funding is concerned. The state of public school arts education is a prime example. Every year that I taught choral music was a year of uncertainty until I knew that I had recruited enough kids away from extra AP courses to have the requisite number to be a full time teacher. Even when I had enough students, the available funding was usually laughable. I was so used to doing more with less that it became second nature. Symphony orchestras are dying, theater companies are closing their doors, and dance companies are deciding to offer a less ambitious season in an attempt to stay afloat.
Now that I am out in the professional music world full time, I often come face to face with another reality: the expectations are even greater here but the chance of paying the price may be less possible.