Dollars and No Sense

03/06/2015 09:41 am ET | Updated May 06, 2015

Allow me to throw around some numbers.

Driving south from San Francisco I passed the new Levi's Stadium for the 49ers, which cost approximately $1.3 billion to build (Let me remind you that the NFL has non-profit exempt status). This week, the Supreme Court is reviewing the Affordable Care Act. The union Actors Equity is pondering the pay rate of $15.00 per performance for actors in Los Angeles theaters with under 99 seats. Last week we heard the news that Walmart raised the minimum wage for employees to $9 an hour. Flipping through TV channels, I came across the show Shark Tank where amounts of money just get thrown around an alarming rate. Young singers whom I follow on Facebook have yet to be paid for work they performed months ago. Little is making sense to me.

I read of the rates that actors get paid in L.A. when working in a smaller theater -- $15 per night and no rehearsal pay. I was absolutely stunned to the point that I cannot get it out of my head. I understand the argument these theaters have; that they are non-profit organizations operating on a shoestring and therefore cannot afford to pay more. The reality also is that actors will jump at almost any opportunity to perform, as will young opera singers. They want to hone their craft and also have an opportunity to be hired elsewhere. Some young singers I know have performed in theaters abroad shelling out their own money for their expenses, but not yet receiving compensation. Making a stink puts them at risk of not being rehired if the financial situation improves. Most people have an image of actors as the folks we see on TV or film, but for every one seen there are hundreds who are not. Live performance is alive and well in our country, but what is dwindling are donors and other help to keep the organizations afloat.

What I really have trouble getting my head around is how little our society and our country seems to value artists. Is it because we assume that anyone who would do anything for the love of it should believe that is compensation enough? It is true that most people in the performing arts, including the performers themselves, do it because they love it and believe in the arts as a reflection and expression of who we are as human beings and of our beliefs and culture. Why then is this not monetarily valued? It is hard to put a price on art, I suppose, but many long hours, not to mention years of study, go into the work. Artists are always around. Our society as a whole rarely contemplates life without them. They have become invisible. What we forget is how theater dates back to early civilization.


Many believe the non-film and non-Broadway performing arts cannot be for profit because it would mean that the ones holding the financial strings would then have control over the product. In sports, sponsorship works because the rules of the games do not fluctuate with the whim of the backers. They are fixed (we hope). There is also a wider audience for the advertisers to reach.

I applaud the news of David Geffen giving $100 million to the Lincoln Center for naming rights of the hall that houses the New York Philharmonic. This will help with the refurbishing of the building. As a matter of fact it thrills me to no end that a mogul who many people associate with popular culture would support classical music in such a visible way. But at the same time that money could pay a lot more than for a building.

My life is in the arts -- performing for over 34 years and teaching future opera singers. I have had it very good, going about as far as I could ever go, but the fact remains that I am self-employed. In our country, that seems like a four letter word. Applying for a loan as a self-employed person is torturous, even with a top credit rating and little debt and a steady 34-year employment history. Pretty incredible. Had I not worked at a university for a few years, I would not even have a retirement. People who have health coverage through their employers have no idea how hard the insurance industry has made it for those who do not. The Affordable Health Care law is a godsend for people like me. We are willing to pay out premiums for the peace of mind of being covered and not being turned away from medical care. Being self-employed can lead to a stressful life and therefore any stress history in my medical files would preclude me from being covered.

All that said, I am still stuck on $15.00 per performance and the $1.3 billion stadium. I really wonder if we as a culture will ever value the performing arts and artists to the point that performers can be compensated at the very least on a par with Walmart workers. Unfortunately, I think that the people reading this are tantamount to the choir and I am the preacher. How do I get through to the rest?