by Meredith Snow, ICSOM Chair and Member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)
After 15 months of pandemic paralysis, our orchestras are going back to work. The quick nationwide rollout of vaccines by the Biden administration is creating the possibility of a near-normal summer season and the probability of a full return this fall.
It is unconscionable that a handful of our managements and boards chose to take remorseless advantage of this crisis at the expense of their musicians. Imposing the long-desired agendas of “right-sizing” and union-busting under cover of this crippling pandemic was ruthless and unethical. I believe in the long run this will cost these institutions, and their standing in the community, much more than was saved in musician expenses.
The dysfunction and ire left in the wake of these actions will not simply evaporate with the next gala opening. It takes years to cultivate the relationships that make our orchestras thrive. It will take at least that long to rebuild what was demolished with the stroke of a pen. Our music—our art—does not exist without the artists who bring it to life. If these board members and managers believe it is acceptable to kick their musicians to the curb and buy new ones for less, they are at best misguided and misplaced. They should not be the curators and stewards of our art.
In contrast, the vast majority of International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) orchestras have come through this calamity in one piece. The Biden administration delivered on federal assistance for the arts and for our AFM-EPF pension fund. Our patrons and donors have stood with us, for which we are deeply grateful. We have found ways to keep in touch and to keep making music.
I hope the revelations of racial and economic inequity in our society will stay at the forefront of our awareness and continue to be addressed within our orchestras. We have the time right now for self-assessment and the opportunity in the coming months to address our hiring practices at every level of our institutions. More inclusive programming, hiring guest artists of every ethnicity, and partnering with businesses of color in our communities, will all move our orchestras toward a more egalitarian workplace and improved representation of the communities in which we live.
Looking ahead, I believe that, in order for our industry to return to normal, we and our audiences must be vaccinated. If we continue to be hampered by masking, distancing, and testing, it will not be possible to make a full return. The economic toll has already been devastating. Vaccines are our ticket to full operational status and a return to our stages.
Will our audiences return to our halls? According to the research study “Audience Outlook Monitor” by the arts consultancy WolfBrown, as of May 2021, 95% of orchestra patrons who responded to the survey are partially or fully vaccinated. When asked about returning to live events, 30% would attend an indoor concert without distancing but with masks. An additional 24% would attend indoors with masks and distancing. The numbers for outdoor events are 49% with no distancing and an additional 36% with distancing—a total of 85% of patrons are ready to attend an outdoor concert right now. And those numbers are steadily increasing.
This is good news for our return. We need to be ready to meet audience demand—our outdoor summer seasons will be upon us in a matter of weeks. It is both thrilling and unnerving, after these many long months, to think we may suddenly return to our stages.