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ICSOM Celebrates 50 Years

ICSOM Looks to the Challenges of the Next 50 Years

by Bruce Ridge, ICSOM Chair and Member of Local 500 (Raleigh, NC)

The year 1962 was momentous. The modern environmentalist movement was born with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and The Beatles recorded their first single. Andy Warhol premiered his Campbell’s Soup Cans exhibit, Nelson Mandela was arrested in South Africa, Johnny Carson took over as host for The Tonight Show, and Marilyn Monroe died. The first African-American student entered the University of Mississippi, the first Wal-Mart opened, and America endured the Cuban Missile Crisis, all while the space probe Mariner 2 relayed the first information ever received from another planet.

And in Chicago, orchestra musicians created a revolution of their own with the founding of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM).

It was a time of great difficulty for orchestra musicians. There was almost no job security, and annual income hovered around $5,000. Orchestral players were treated terribly, and it was said that “people who push brooms are treated better than symphony players.” Musicians were excluded from participating in the ratification of their contracts, and benefits such as health care and pensions were nonexistent.

The creation of ICSOM changed everything. The musicians who stood up to organize themselves in this ultimate act of democracy bravely stared down threats from their managements, scrutiny from their union, and the doubts of their colleagues in order to change the lives of working musicians everywhere, while elevating the status of orchestral musicians in communities across the world.

Adhering to the principles set forth in the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which proclaimed that “The individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless to exercise actual liberty. To be genuinely free, the individual worker must be able to organize collectively,” the founders of ICSOM set out to change everything about their field. ICSOM went on to play pivotal roles in creating the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and in establishing an audition code of ethics in the pursuit of a mission that led American orchestras of all budget levels to be included among the finest in the world. ICSOM ushered in a golden age for orchestras and music in America, reaching countless children, enhancing the education of a nation, and stimulating the economy of our cities.

Now, 50 years later, orchestra musicians again face a time of crisis. New aggressive and regressive tactics on the part of many managements have created an anti-union atmosphere, seeking to curtail the investments made by communities across America in their orchestras. These managements are reflecting an atmosphere that exists in our country where CEO salaries rise as the income of American families falls. It is an atmosphere that prompts a presidential candidate to claim he will address the country’s budget deficit by eliminating funding for the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It would be easy to dismiss such a disingenuous statement were it not for the fact that these anti-worker sentiments are gaining traction in many media outlets, where writers too often seek to publish reports with barely a minimum amount of research. The fact is that the entire amount of the federal budget invested in the arts is just .066%, and the return on that investment is seven to one. Anyone with the most basic understanding of business knows that cutting the arts is bad for America.

But, as in all times of crisis, there are inspiring stories emerging. The good news is that, when ICSOM met in Chicago in August to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the group of musicians that arrived has never been more unified in its positive message or in its support for each other. This solidarity will be crucial in the months and years ahead.

At this writing, our colleagues in Atlanta and Indianapolis are locked out, and the musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra face irreparably destructive managerial proposals. The musicians represent the only hope for saving their legendary institutions, and they will need support from every musician in the AFM and throughout the country, even as we await news of similar tactics on the parts of boards and managements elsewhere. These tactics mirror the negative rhetoric that fouls the discourse on the arts in America—rhetoric that arises from self-serving pundits that seek to elevate their names and salaries on the backs of musicians.

In Chicago this August, ICSOM recommitted itself to once again changing everything. For while we arrived to celebrate a historic past, our eyes remain squarely focused on a greater future. ICSOM is in the process of creating the American Symphonic Advocacy Project (ASAP), a new 501c3 organization that will have the ability to spread a message of positive advocacy. Where managerial organizations have failed to serve the cause of the arts in America, ICSOM and ASAP will succeed through selfless dedication and through the energy of our members.

Much has been achieved in these first 50 years of ICSOM, but should we fail to once again answer the call to advocacy, there is much to be lost now. While we cannot guarantee success, we can guarantee failure should we not make these efforts. We will continue to unite in a spirit of collegiality that will serve as a beacon to the communities that surround our orchestras everywhere.

The year 1962 marked many crucial events. Perhaps one of the saddest was the crash of Air France flight 007 at Orly Airport in Paris, a plane that carried 130 people to their deaths, many of them the cultural leaders of the arts community of Atlanta, Georgia. These members of the Atlanta Arts Association had been on a month-long tour of the art treasures of Europe, as they sought inspiration to make their home city of Atlanta a true mecca for the arts. Sadly, they never returned home. But much of their vision was accomplished through the growth of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the opening of the Woodruff Arts Center, which was originally named the Memorial Arts Center as a tribute to the visionary cultural leaders who lost their lives in the tragic plane crash.

How unfortunate that, 50 years after their passing, this same arts center, once named in their honor as a testament to their vision, is now offering a visionless solution to issues that surround their beloved Atlanta Symphony. The Woodruff Arts Center seeks to cast asunder the vision and work of the past 50 years, and our friends elsewhere face a similar battle. A diminished orchestra is no solution, and disgracing the investment of a generation is no remedy.

As the musicians of ICSOM were brought together by crisis in 1962, so again will we answer the challenges of a new era. As Gore Vidal wrote, “Whatever is wrong with human society can be put right by human action.” Through the creation of the ASAP, and by gathering strength from the inspirational dedication and vision of our members, we have no doubt that even greater achievements await ICSOM in these next 50 years.

ICSOM Chair Bruce Ridge (North Carolina Symphony, Local 500) addresses the conference delegates.

This year’s annual ICSOM Conference mixer was held at Chicago’s Symphony Center (home of the Chicago Symphony) and was sponsored by the Chicago Federation of Musicians, Local 10-208, and Local President Gary Matts.

This year’s ICSOM Conference convened an unprecedented meeting of esteemed musicians’ counsel. At the podium, ICSOM General Counsel Susan Martin with Bruce Ridge. Front row (L to R): Jon Axelrod, Barbara Jaccoma, Mel Schwarzwald, Marvin Gittler, Lou Kushner, Kevin Case, Bruce Simon, Yona Rozen. Back row (L to R): Harvey Mars, Rochelle Skolnick, Anne Mayerson, Steve Kaplan, David Van Os, Joe Hatch, Michael G. Okun, Zachary Moen.

 

 


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