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Income Inequality in the Arts

French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has energized liberals, who share his thesis that income inequality is an inherent feature of capitalism that can be reversed only through government intervention, and caused a stir among conservatives, who naturally resist progressive tax policies. I have been wondering whether this struggle between the “haves and have nots” is also at the root of some of the recent headline-grabbing conflicts in the arts sector.

It is not surprising that arts leaders, facing declining revenues, look to reduce artist and staff compensation. When the Met Opera proposed cutting chorus members’ pay, however, did the General Manager offer to take a proportional 15% reduction in his salary? While the Minnesota Orchestra President took the same 15% pay cut his musicians accepted, that came long after receiving a substantial pre-lockout bonus. I wonder whether the adversarial principles of supply-demand economics used to set these compensation levels should be replaced with a system that is voluntarily more equitable.

In a thoughtful HowlRound essay, David Dower says the arts sector has succumbed to too broad an application of the “Scarcity Principle,” which is a useful marketing tool, but creates a destructive, “win-lose” narrative when applied to internal and external competition for resources. Dower urges us to “think of negotiation not as something defined by winners and losers but rather as an opportunity to create capital through the coordination of resources” — to “start from the gap between what I have and what you need and build a resource bridge over that gap.”

The question for organizations that serve public artistic interests, rather than financial self-interest, is how to remove supply and demand economics from the compensation setting process. How can the artistic director of a theater resist the temptation to pay a sound designer a pittance, merely because the supply of those qualified is great? How can a symphony musician’s union be motivated not to extract a salary guarantee that exceeds an organization’s ability to generate revenue to support it?

As noted in the article, The Paradox of Art as Work, “the question of who profits and who gets paid has become a contentious one.” The answer may lie not in developing strategies to win those compensation battles, but in replacing fixed pay systems for both leaders and those they employ with proportionally allocated variable ones, tied to the organization’s success.

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