Morgan Faulkner earned her Equity card about six months ago, a status symbol among actors, a level of acceptance for professionalism in her industry. Since then she’s not found any work. (Well, she’s a waitress.)

Eight years ago, I directed Morgan at UNM in Once Upon a Mattress. She went on to earn her BFA in Musical Theater from Penn State and has been living in New York City for about a year. That Equity card may be part of her problem.

Getting an Equity card means you have benefits with any acting jobs you get. It means you are protected from having to travel in a cramped bus for more than ten hours in a day, six if you have to perform, too. Actors’ Equity Association represents American actors and stage managers and helps them earn a measure of security. More and more companies are hiring only non-Equity actors, sending them out on the road instead.

Union actors are more expensive, in part because the producers have to chip in to cover benefits. They have to work harder to figure out the route their show's tour will take because of those pesky length-of-travel restrictions. It’s just easier if you can treat your performers, well, less humanely.

Actors have Actors’ Equity; musicians have the American Federation of Musicians. As with actors, union membership makes musicians more expensive.

The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra just announced that it’s closing its doors, no longer able to pay its musicians. Those musicians, in seeking more security for themselves, became a bigger and bigger financial liability for the organization that provided them jobs.

Certainly musicians’ pay was only a part of the balance sheet that was out of balance for the symphony. Donations have been down since the economy tanked, ticket sales for classical music are ever harder to peddle while marketing costs continue to climb, and on and on.

Artists and arts organizations both have difficulties finding any measure of equilibrium in a free-market system. When a private company seeks to cut expenses to save itself money, an easy target is personnel, one of the two biggest slices of any budget pie chart. For arts organizations, it’s always the biggest. But if you cut the personnel budget, you cut artists who make the product and, without them, there is no product.

I do believe that art, the result of one’s passions, can be diminished if the artist is too comfortable; great art often emerges against impossible odds. I also believe, though, that we lose artists and arts organizations when they are given no security whatsoever.

Wednesday night, I was returning from a trip to New York, where I had caught up with Morgan and her job woes. While in the Dallas airport, I saw a man wearing an Ohio State jacket. I knew his apparel signaled his support for one of the sports teams from that university, rather than the university itself. Just for a moment, I imagined that his jacket championed the Ohio State dance department, or the marching band, maybe. My flight of fancy conjured up a world where the cooperative, nourishing world of the arts was not subject to the ferocities of markets, that we could provide a measure of comfort to the artists who give us so much.

Then I landed back in Albuquerque and read that the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra had closed its doors.

Terry S. Davis

Popejoy Hall

Views: 11

Tags: New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, Popejoy, Popejoy Hall, actors equity, arts, arts management, equity, musicians union, nmso

Comment by once banned twice shy on April 22, 2011 at 10:09am

Well, it was the University of New Mexico who decided to quit nourishing the symphony, wasn't it?  When Popejoy Hall was first built, it was built with the idea of giving a home to the NMSO and local theatre groups.  The former manager negotiated lower rental rates for these groups.  However at some point UNM decided that Popejoy had to be a profit-making road house.  

 

When I picked theatre as my first career, I knew right away that I needed my union cards (IA and Equity). Theatre is the type of business which lends itself to rampant abuse of talent and crews by management.  No way was I going to work in theatre without a union making sure I didn't get screwed by management.  

Comment by Terry S. Davis on April 22, 2011 at 10:32am

The University has always been prohibited from "nourishing" any local entity by the anti-donation clause of the State Constitution. Moreover, the state legislature changed the funding formula for the University back in the '80s. Instead of giving a lump sum for the general operation of the University, it gives money only for those aspects of the University directly related to instruction. Entities like Popejoy had to make back their own expenses without support from the administration.

 

We now function as a not-for-profit arts presenting organization within the structure of UNM, a very different business model than was in place when Popejoy was built 45 years ago. We bring the large shows here to appeal to a broad base of theater patrons while still trying to offer a wide array of other shows to accommodate the eclectic tastes of New Mexico's performing arts lovers.

Comment by Bill Eyler on April 22, 2011 at 4:20pm

Popejoy Hall has only made minor adjustments to its rates in 15 year for the Symphony.  For some of those years, the organization flourished, enjoying the bouyancy of a non-profit organization with a healthy donor base and a large cash infusion from a few donors.  They were in this very same pickle in the early 1990s with UNM was 'nourishing them' as you say with UNM (read: taxpayer-based) subsidy in low rents and low labor costs.

 

Even this year, NMSO still had full status as a resident organization, getting prime dates before even UNM dates were booked.

 

The fact is they lost nearly 30% of their patrons over the past five years due to a number of reasons, and because of that, a serious drop in revenue both from patrons and donors.  Intending to fix their declining fortunes by expanding their offerings, adding venues, AND trying to maintain an albatross of a building, all factors that added to declining fortunes [deja vu: ACLOA/MTS].  I'm not making any mention of the artists themselves; that's another story for another day.  Classics (and Classical-based Pops) deserve a place in Albuquerque and these excellent musicians deserve their 'voice' as artists.

A symphony will indeed rise again.  This time for them is hard and sometime ugly, but they are still accomplished professional musicians and will regain their voice.

Comment by Crosley on April 25, 2011 at 2:45pm

In this new world of 24/7 content acquisition, organizations either stay relevant to what the market demands, or they die. Live theater, symphonies, newspapers, etc. are all in decline because people have found other, more preferable ways to access content. I haven't subscribed to a paper newspaper in years, because I read the news online. I pay for online access - I recently subscribed to the NYT so I could get past the paywall - but I am never going back to reading a paper newspaper. Or listening to CDs, or reading paper books, or watching third-rate theater companies put on semi-competent productions of Neil Simon plays. The world changes. People can either jump on the change train or get run over by it.

"While in the Dallas airport, I saw a man wearing an Ohio State jacket. I knew his apparel signaled his support for one of the sports teams from that university, rather than the university itself. Just for a moment, I imagined that his jacket championed the Ohio State dance department, or the marching band, maybe. My flight of fancy conjured up a world where the cooperative, nourishing world of the arts was not subject to the ferocities of markets, that we could provide a measure of comfort to the artists who give us so much."

I have to say, the whole idea of the "world of the arts not being subject to the ferocities of markets" sounds a lot like paying quasi-talented people to do nothing, to me. There are a ton of people making a lot of money in the arts - just not your ex-student, and not the NMSO. People may not consider the Lion King on Broadway to be art, or Lady GaGa songs to be art, or a movie about a talking Easter Bunny to be art, but those works are, in fact, products of "the arts" and the creators have been substantially rewarded for them. I think what you're really trying to say is that we should support starving artists who can't make a living - but if they were good at what they did, and could play the game to get where they needed to go, they wouldn't be starving. There are any number of blockbuster actors and actresses who started out at the bottom and worked their way up to the top. They were either great at what they did, or smart enough to figure out what they could do that people would pay for. Sorry for your ex-student, but whether she knows it or not, hers is an old story. Millions of bright-eyed young people just like her have moved to the Big Apple with stars and their eyes and hopes of "making it," only to find out that they didn't have what it takes, and would eventually need to think about getting a real job. At least three or four of my friends went through that same thing and they survived and are happy now, Morgan will be too when all is said and done. Although, if you want to give her some free advice from a stranger (and we all know what that's worth), she might want to think about throwing in the towel and finding gainful and progressive employment sooner rather than later.

It's great people find something their passionate about and want to do it for a living. The market, however, isn't obligated to support people just because they really love being an actor or a performance artist or a cellist or whatever, especially if they aren't that good at it, or if there is too much supply for the demand. The arts aren't any different than any other product - either find a market for what you're selling, or go sell something else. And that's not really even a recent development.

Comment by Terry S. Davis on April 25, 2011 at 3:48pm

@ Crosley: You're quite right that market forces are making certain commodities obsolete, but that just means, for example, that The New York Times is not its newspaper in physical form; The New York Times is its content, no matter how it’s delivered.

But you seem to write off the hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind experience as bad because it can't be mass merchandised. Just because ticket sales for a show don’t number in the millions doesn't mean the people performing in it are "quasi-talented." I'm hoping you won't try to make the case that Lady Gaga has more talent than any soprano at the Metropolitan Opera simply because the pop diva earns more money.

So many live arts experiences — along with several other human disciplines (medicine, education, personal care) — can't be sold by the gross. And it's the cost of that very personal experience, the worth of the artist's labor divided by the limited number of seats in the house, that makes live performance so expensive and more tenuous in this economy. But if we can’t sell it en masse, should it go away?

You seem to indicate that the only art worthy of survival is that which finds a mass market. I hope that isn't true. If we all start to view the arts as "content acquisition," we will lose the incalculable value of sitting in a room with hundreds of other human beings and sharing in the energy and empathy that flows off a stage through the audience and back again. That is content that cannot be acquired 24/7. That is an arts experience that can only happen at a set time in a set space and that can only be felt in its fullest by the people in that space when it happens. No recording or simulcast can replace the intensity of that experience. That is the experience that I hope we can find a way to save.

 

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