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Are symphony orchestras really in trouble?

Nov 3, 2015

The Grand Rapids Symphony is asking musicians to make more concessions in contract talks
Credit flickr user Steven Depolo / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

These are challenging times for one of Michigan’s symphony orchestras.

The Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians is still trying to come to a contract agreement with the Grand Rapids Symphony. Its  four-year contract expired at the end of August.

But the musicians continue to play as bargaining goes on. They’re trying to regain some of what they gave up to keep the symphony afloat during the Great Recession.

What’s happening with the Grand Rapids Symphony has been seen before in Michigan, when the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had a six-month strike in 2011 before musicians agreed to a contract that saw a nearly 23% pay cut.

Bruce Ridge, Chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, tells us that the recession forced symphonies all over the country to look at their operations and make adjustments, but argues that that isn’t the whole story.

“The true story to be told is how resilient our orchestras have been. We’ve emerged from the recession with tremendous growth in many places,” he says.

According to Ridge, the latest study by Giving USA reports that in 2014, donations to the arts reached an all-time high of $17.2 billion in America, and that arts and culture was America’s fastest-growing charitable cause, up 9.2%.

“The arts in America generate over $135 billion in economic activity every year and support over four million full time jobs for Americans,” he says. “Often lost in this discussion is that art is good business.”

Ridge says the idea that the arts are on the decline has been around for a long time, but he doesn’t agree.

“I think sometimes the negative perception can be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says, explaining that sometimes those in charge feel the need to cut funding or orchestra members, and that broadcasts a lack of confidence in the organization.

“Cutting back is a disincentive for people who are looking for new organizations to give to, to invest in,” he says. “We know that what’s really needed is investment.”

And with one report this summer ranking Grand Rapids third in the nation for economic growth, that’s exactly what he thinks the city and others all over the country should do.

“The truth about Grand Rapids is the city is growing,” he says. “This is a time for tremendous investment.… The greater the investment for these orchestras and for these musicians, the greater the return for the community.”

Bruce Ridge is a symphonic bassist with the North Carolina Symphony and the Chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. He tells us more about the importance of the arts in our society and the less quantifiable benefits orchestras grant communities in our conversation above.

- Ryan Grimes, Stateside