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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The labor situation at the Metropolitan Opera is grim and getting grimmer. The labor dispute that has been brewing all year and now threatens to postpone or cancel 2014-15 season's productions has gotten so bad that the sides are considering bringing in a federal mediator.

Any interruption in the work at Lincoln Center, a hub for American cultural prestige, is a national embarrassment. It has happened once already recently with the cessation of the New York City Opera. And it is likely to happen again, now, with the Met itself.

Update, 8:30 a.m. Friday: Musicians agreed to work with Allison Beck of the of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and negotiations will continue Friday past the original deadline. Given ongoing negotiations, the Met's management said it would postpone for 72 hours a decision on a lockout. Tino Gagliardi, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, issued a statement saying the extension was an important signal but added, "Settling this dispute in three days is highly unrealistic given [General Manager Peter] Gelb's proposed draconian cuts."

And it is entirely our fault. We, as citizens, have allowed ourselves to believe a lie -- that culture can happily exist according to and entirely within free market rules. And that lie has led to the debasement of culture and a threat to the livelihoods of working musicians of all styles across the country.

No matter what the outcome at this opera house, the deeper problem remains that we have undervalued the arts as a society and left our treasured institutions to twist slowly in the wind every time there's an economic downturn.

To back up: the Metropolitan Opera is having financial difficulties, like classical music organizations pretty much everywhere. The downturn in the economy in 2009 led pretty quickly to the shuttering of opera companies and symphony orchestras nationwide. Subscriptions in particular fell off a cliff, leaving ensembles with no guarantee of audience revenue from one performance to the next.

As a result of those financial straits, the Met's management can't agree to terms for new contracts with its employees. According to the Wall Street Journal, General Manager Peter Gelb has advised union employees that they would be locked out as of August 1.

"The Met cannot continue on its current economic path; we must find cost reductions," he wrote.

The union fired back in a press release, accusing Gelb of a "cynical strategy to cover up for his failed management and lack of artistic vision."

The union accuses Gelb of "lavish overspending" on projects that have failed to win the support of audiences and critics. Criticism is rife of Gelb's unwillingness to rein in directors or ballooning costs that create lofty budgets only to outspend even those.

It is an old conflict now in the classical music world: musicians claim mis-management; management claims musicians must sacrifice promised pensions and salaries.

The solution? The Met management will be forced to offer some kind of modification of its position. The musicians union has outlined areas in a report where it thinks management could find necessary cost savings that would not affect musicians' compensation. But the musicians will also have to concede to cuts, as they have done at every other institution where this kind of crisis has been met.

Even that much agreement may have to wait until a few performances have been knocked off the season's roster and audiences and both sides are sufficiently disgusted.

In short, a win for no one.

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It will be ugly. It will be hurtful. And will accomplish nothing in the greater scheme. The economic pressures that led to this impasse will still be in play, leading to another eventually.

The goal right now is just survival, to find a way to pay musicians and trim costs for another few seasons on the hope that popularity and revenue increase as the country's economic standing improves.

There are other obstacles -- the rise of digital on-demand media is being credited with the decade-long collapse of subscription and ticket sales in the classical world. That problem isn't going away. The age-old "image problem" that dogs classical music isn't going anywhere either.

And what if the economy continues its turtle-crawl toward prosperity, or worse, retreats? The middle-class continues to diminish? What then?

Flourishing Traditions

The three legs of cultural institutions are these:

  • 1. an open market within which the best performers and performances can be financially rewarded.
  • 2. education -- one part book-learning and one-part responsible free press -- by which audiences understand the merits of performances and can gain information about events.
  • 3. taxpayer support that can even out the rough patches, rewarding ambition that enriches the cultural conversation and staving off the threat of financial ruin during trying times.

Those three staples provide stability for any art form and, as a result, for the entire culture. Take one away and the whole will certainly wobble, if not topple.

In case you've not been paying attention, the U.S. arts community has been standing on one leg for decades. Education among our youngest is poor and rarely found in public schools. And fewer and fewer taxpayer dollars have gone to the National Endowment for the Arts or any other arts granting agency.

Each of those legs requires inspired, determined leadership -- not just passionate musicians' voices, but convincing rhetoric and action from our society's most powerful leaders. They -- President Obama most notably -- have been completely AWOL on this discussion as the country has watched its orchestras and opera companies fail one after another.

Without the commitment to education and political support for the arts, giving from private individuals and corporations can never be expected to increase to fill the gap left by the exit of the federal support. Already, a new generation of high-net-worth individuals no longer sees a need to give to the arts.

The problem at the Met is a soap opera in which the lead characters have parts to play but no way to resolve the conflict inherent in the drama. Indeed, those problems could have been predicted a decade ago at least. It was only a matter of time before the noose would tighten close enough to begin to choke our leading institutions.

Like animals in a trap, the Met's management and its musicians attack each other when, in fact, what they do now is almost irrelevant. It's a reality show -- what substitutes for theater in a theater-less age.

We as a nation have put them in a hopeless situation. We have let them down, and we have let ourselves down.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York