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Last modified: Friday, September 7, 2012

Tipsheet: Labor disputes difficult for arts organizations

Editors: Symphony orchestras across the United States are struggling with shrinking budgets and increasing costs, leading to difficult negotiations in many communities. An expert at Indiana University Bloomington is able to offer perspectives on these processes and how it can affect the arts organizations and the communities they call home.

It may seem like a thousand other disputes between management and labor, but the tense negotiations and threats of a shutdown of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra are indicative of a structural problem that plagues many arts organizations in the United States, according to Michael Wilkerson, lecturer in arts administration in Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs on the Bloomington campus.

Michael Wilkerson

Michael Wilkerson

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"One hates to think of something as beautiful as symphonic music sullied by an ugly contract squabble, but orchestras and many other arts organizations face ever-increasing costs and shrinking sources of funding," said Wilkerson, who proposes a new public funding system for the arts in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Arts Management, Law and Society. "The difficulty stems from an unavoidable fact: that productivity in a performing arts organization is almost impossible to increase. They can't play a Beethoven symphony faster, or with fewer players, else it wouldn't be a symphony orchestra. The standard performing arts organization can only earn half its needed revenue through ticket sales, and orchestra tickets are already too expensive."

Wilkerson says that, while there are no easy answers to dilemmas like those currently plaguing the ISO and other orchestras throughout the country, it's important for communities -- business, government and donors -- to see a museum, theater or orchestra as a community asset and find ways to support it.

Michael Wilkerson is a lecturer in Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs arts administration program, and his primary area of expertise is cultural policy and the organization and funding of the arts. He can be reached at 800-765-7755 or