The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: On the last day of the Fiscal Year, The Ear says to arts groups “Show us the money” — and where it goes — if you want more. Cultural organizations should be transparent about their budgets, and accountable to the public about money, power and politics.

June 30, 2014
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is June 30, 2014.

You might well think it is just another day of another month in another year.

Except that it is not.

It marks the end of Fiscal Year 2013-14.

That means that all kinds of organizations -– for-profit businesses, non-profit groups and charitable organizations – will be figuring out how they met, exceeded or failed to meet their budgets for the past fiscal year that ends today.

It also means they have set budgets for the new fiscal year that starts tomorrow, Wednesday, July 1.

budget columns compared

 

The Ear knows that he has been deluged with requests for donations, often multiple mailings from the same organization. Now, perhaps it is due to the gradual recovery and an expanding economy, with more disposable income at play.

The requests have come from big organizations like the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Madison Opera, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, the Overture Center for the Arts, the Wisconsin Union Theater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, Edgewood College and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) among many others.

Of course the requests for help have also come from smaller organizations including the Oakwood Chamber Players, the Madison Early Music Festival (MEMF), the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (BDDS), the Wisconsin Baroque Ensemble, the Middleton Community Orchestra and the Ancora String Quartet among others.

But there has been a lot of turmoil in the music world lately. Last year saw the death of the City Opera of New York and of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. It saw the death and resurrection of the Minnesota Orchestra, which chose to spend a lot on money on a new hall rather than on the musicians who make the “product.”

Anyway, it all got The Ear to thinking that we hear constant pleas about need, including how ticket prices just don’t cover production expenses. So no wonder that there is a lot of competition for donor dollars.

money.3

But what we don’t hear very much about is what happens to the money that the various groups collect –- often in large amounts. Does anyone out there know the salaries of the conductors and executive directors, of directors of development and of the musicians?

So here is my proposal to classical music groups in the area:

Fair is fair. If you feel you can honestly ask the public for money because you need it, then I think the public is entitled to know why that money is needed, and how it has been spent and will be spent.

I would like to see how big many endowment funds are, and how much many groups draw from them each year.

I would like to see how much money goes to top administrators. And how much goes to overhead expenses like hall rental and score rental, to advertising and business operations. And how much actually goes to musicians.

budget calculator

Maybe it could be cast in percentages, like in a budget pie chart — then posted on the group’s home website.

Budget pie chart

Better yet, I would like to see raw total numbers out in the open and easy to access.

How about stating expenses and income in terms of how a given amount of cents is spent out each dollar donated.


budget pie

I would also like to see some comparative salaries over the past five years. Partially that is because I want to see a history of percentage raises at a time when most working people are not seeing their wages rise, and have not seen that for a very long time.

I suspect a lot, maybe even most, of donation requests and organizations are completely above-board. But I also suspect some potentially embarrassing things are being kept quiet or secret or conveniently overlooked. They could be things that might discourage ordinary listeners from making donations, or help the rest of us to prioritize to whom we will give money.

But The Ear says: If you don’t come clean about spending the public’s money, then you forfeit your right to ask for that money.

I don’t say all this as an enemy or even skeptic of the arts. I say it as someone who supports the arts and culture, someone who thinks transparency and accountability will help the arts, especially given the current widening wealth gap and the concern it has raised.

So The Ear says:

“Show us the money.”

He also notes that bring a non-profit organization and being a charity are not the same thing, just as he recalls the abuses more than a decade ago of the national head of the United Way who was living in luxury off the money that good people donated to eradicate or at least alleviate social misery and inequality.

Finally, The Ear can’t stop thinking that a big part of the problem that classical music organizations face with falling attendance and not attracting young audiences has to do with how much a ticket goes for. Moreover, he suspects that the lion’s share of such expenses are NOT going to the individual musicians’ salaries.

Madison Symphony Orchestra overhead 2

So I ask all large and small music organizations -– all arts organizations, really –- to move quickly and openly toward greater transparency and accountability. Even if it is available on some tracking website, we should not have to search for it. Such research should be done for us, the targeted donors.

When you ask for our money, please also tell us where it has gone in past fiscal years and where it will go in the coming fiscal year.

Talking about money and power and politics in the arts often seems to demean the arts in the minds of many people. It somehow seems to dirty the arts to link them to such non-aesthetic things.

But such is the reality. The Ear knows from many years of being an investigative reporter -– one who uncovered criminal wrongdoing and even scandal at the Wisconsin Arts Board — that money, power and politics rule the art world as much or more than beauty does, and they do so in the arts no less than in other worlds.

It is too bad that the regular media don’t do a better job of policing the arts, which only want positive feature stories, approving reviews and good PR. Citizens need to be informed, especially since Big Money has become more important.

So isn’t it time to get some things cleared up, specifically the financing of arts group in the coming fiscal year?

budget money in a jar

What do you readers think?

Do you have relevant facts to share?

Should arts groups disclose -– either by law or voluntarily — their budgets and where the money that they have already received has gone before they are entitled to ask for more money?

Let The Ear and his readers and especially the arts groups in town know where you stand and what they should do to satisfy you so that you can help them.

 

 


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