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April 1, 2023Rochelle Skolnick - AFM Symphonic Services Division Director
In late January, the Sphinx Organization held its annual SphinxConnect conference in Detroit, Michigan. This year’s conference celebrated 25 years of the Sphinx Organization, which is dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. Each year since 2018, I have attended the conference with an AFM contingent that included International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) President Paul Austin, Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) President Stephen Wade, Local 7 (Orange County, CA) President Edmund Velasco, and Local 802 (New York City) President Tino Gagliardi.
As always, the conference included a lot of stimulating discussion about how to advance diversity in classical music, along with some wonderful performances by Black and Latinx musicians, clearly demonstrating the depth of talent and artistry that already exists among musicians of color.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about since SphinxConnect is the way our industry labors and bargains under the cloud of a scarcity mindset and how that impacts our approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The scarcity narrative tells us, falsely, that our community support is all tapped out, that audiences will never return to our concert halls post-COVID, and that our institutions can’t possibly do everything they need to do and still pay the artists a living wage.
Meanwhile, the reality is that the already high compensation for managers, music directors, and guest artists continues to climb at rates far greater than the wages of orchestra musicians and institutional endowments reach all-time highs. Yes, it is challenging to run a symphony orchestra well, but I call BS on the scarcity narrative. Buying into this false narrative often has the predictable result of pitting those of us who are chronically underpaid against one another. If the size of the pie is fixed, then the bigger your piece, the smaller mine is. And our employers are all too happy to encourage us in this thinking.
The scarcity narrative intersects dangerously with the imperative to make our institutions more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive of voices and bodies that have for too long been marginalized and excluded from our art form. Our managers tell us they want to diversify our orchestras and we all agree that is an essential pursuit. But then the managers, under cover of the scarcity narrative, propose to bring musicians of color in as fellows to be paid a fraction of our bargained wages, and in some cases, displacing full contract musicians or regular subs. When we resist moves like these, because they would treat Black and Brown musicians like second-class citizens and undermine our bargained standards of compensation and job security, we’re accused of standing in the way of diversification.
Another example: Our opera managers tell us they want to showcase more diverse voices by producing operas written by and featuring individuals historically excluded from our stages, also a worthy endeavor. But then they tell us that they’re going to mount the new works in a black box theater, which can’t accommodate the full orchestra. These smaller productions will then replace some of the mainstage productions, resulting in substantially less work for the musicians. This is the scarcity narrative in action.
The reality is that we will never be successful in diversifying our industry without fair and equitable wages and working conditions for all musicians. Think about it: when entry-level wages in an industry are at poverty level and employment security is precarious, the only people who can afford to pursue careers in that industry are those whose families have the accumulated wealth to support them. But because of systemic racism, families of color simply do not have the accumulated wealth of their white counterparts. In the United States, Black and Hispanic or Latino households, on average, earn about half as much as the average White household and own only about 15% to 20% as much net wealth.
I believe we must attend to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our orchestras if they are to survive and thrive. That means interrogating our current audition and tenure processes and adopting measures to eradicate implicit bias. It also means committing resources to develop talent in communities of young musicians who have not previously had access to those resources and don’t have access to familial wealth. But most of all, it means making sure that more musicians can make a living wage from their work in our orchestras.
The bottom line is, if we are going to succeed in moving the needle on DEI in symphony orchestras and beyond, we need to join forces with those leading the work to diversify our industry and together push back on the scarcity narrative, together demand that we can and must do both. We must attend to the important work of diversifying our art while also ensuring that the artists can afford to commit themselves to that work because they are being compensated fairly and treated with dignity in their workplaces.