Friday, May 24, 2013

Orchestra on the Dole

Norman Lebrecht has an interesting piece this morning about the Madrid Radio Orchestra:
From Orquesta Sinfónica y Coro de RTVE:
We are an orchestra and choir dependent on the national public radio and television, which proposed, as part of new contract negotiations, that we work for eight months a year and go on unemployment four months of each year. This is an unprecedented measure in Spain and the public opinion and our audience have felt so outraged that since it was announced there were spontaneous chants in our support,”publica” meaning “public”-as in “we want public, state supported culture”.
This reminds me of a couple of things. Back when I lived in Canada, I remember that sometimes artists who were able to get unemployment benefits, known as UIC for Unemployment Insurance Commission (if I recall correctly), now known as EI, would refer to them as a "UIC Cultural Grant". They would use the weekly check to support themselves while pursuing artistic endeavours.

It also reminds me that some Canadian orchestras simply do not pay players during the off season. I walked into a 7-11 (a 24 hour convenience store) once and saw the principal cellist of the orchestra working behind the counter. For him, being able to collect unemployment would be an improvement!

But what is truly odd here, unless there are some important facts being unreported, is that unemployment benefits come out of the same public funds as arts subsidies, do they not? It might be a different department, ministry of culture rather than ministry of labor, but it all comes from the same taxpayers, so economically there is no difference. Chanting that they want public, state-supported culture seems rather redundant when paying unemployment benefits to the orchestra members is certainly supporting them with state funds.

What seems obvious about our current system of support for the arts is that it is coercive in a way that the private patronage systems of the pre-welfare state were not. What am I saying? Now, state-supported culture means that all taxpayers are forced to pay for things they may not like or may be personally opposed to. Under private patronage, such as was practiced in Europe from the Middle Ages to the late 19th century, this never happened. A group of nobles got together to guarantee a stipend to Beethoven. The inhabitants of the city of Vienna were not assessed a tax for this purpose.

The chamber music society that I am part of relies on no government subsidy, but only private patronage. This is preferable here because government support is notoriously unreliable and those arts groups that rely on it tend to disappear as soon as the funding does. Our group has presented concerts for decades with private patronage alone.

Now, let's listen to some music. Here is the Madrid Radio Orchestra with an excerpt from the Verdi Requiem:

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