Kansas City Performing Artists See Incomes Trending Upward, But Community Support is Needed More Than Ever

As new technologies wreak creative destruction in our nation’s workplaces, many Kansas City performing artists are making a good living doing what they love.

For example, dancers at the peak of their careers can make between $1,200 to $1,500 a week at the Kansas City Ballet.

But not everyone thinks that’s enough. “I wish I could afford to pay them what they’re worth,” said Jeffrey Bentley, the ballet’s executive director. “What they’re worth is a lot more than what they accept. The national arts community never pays their artists what they’re worth.”

Bentley said the Kansas City Ballet has gone from being a “stepping stone company” to a “destination company” for performers, but only about a third of the ballet’s annual budget comes from ticket sales. The balance flows from philanthropy and endowment money. “Ticket income is going to go up and down. I can’t name you any ballet companies that are able to fill their houses for every single show.”

The Kansas City Symphony derives about 40 percent of its revenue from ticket sales, said executive director Daniel Beckley. Like the ballet, most of the balance comes from philanthropic and endowment sources. Nonetheless, Beckley said our hometown symphony “seriously out-performs other orchestras in terms of the percentage of our budget that comes from classical music ticket sales.”

Those robust ticket sales, accompanied by funds generated by community generosity, support good salaries for Kansas City Symphony performers. This was demonstrated last year when the symphony and its musicians successfully negotiated a two-year early extension of their collective bargaining agreement. The extension calls for a four percent increase to the musicians’ base salary in the 2021-22 season and a three percent increase for the 2022-23 season, bringing the base salary in the final year to $67,800. With contractually guaranteed electronic media payments, musicians will make a minimum of $69,186 in the 2022-23 season.

“It’s really important to us to pay the musicians in a way that encourages them to move here, and gives them the incentive to stay here,” Beckley said. “We’ve had an initiative here to become a destination orchestra, rather than this being a stepping stone to another mid-tier orchestra.”

Brian Rood, a Kansas City Symphony trumpeter and chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee, said the contract extension “helped to provide some more stability to performers’ incomes.”

Rood recalled that the symphony was not a full-time orchestra when he began playing there in 1995. The subsequent transformation to full-time status contributed to higher salaries. “We began a 20-year cycle of gradually increasing musician salaries and benefits.”

Beckley said the Kansas City Symphony musicians play a more participatory role in the organization than do musicians with other orchestras. “They’re contributing members of the board. They participate not only in board meetings, but on every committee. We have musicians sitting on our finance committee. The resulting transparency between management and musicians has established a culture of trust and mutual respect.”

The idea of making the Kansas City Symphony a more attractive and retentive place to work took root in contract negotiations and discussions several years ago, Rood said. “The musicians wanted to think of the symphony as a destination orchestra. The management and the board were so excited about that idea that they came up with a destination orchestra task force.”

That goal helped drive the negotiations that led to the contract extension. Under the terms, the musician base salary will increase nearly 32 percent from the 2015-16 season to the 2022-23 season, averaging a 4.5 percent increase per year.

“We want to keep people here in Kansas City for as long as we can,” Rood said, adding that the latest salary increase “brings us a little bit closer to some of the orchestras we want to keep future musicians from being enticed away to.”

A Good Pplace for Actors, Too

Positive numbers also are afoot for those who perform on Kansas City theatrical stages. According to the 2019 Regional Theatre Report of the Actors’ Equity Association, a union representing the world of live theatrical performance, Kansas City venues provided 14.9 work weeks per member for 219 Actors’ Equity members during the 2017-18 season, which ended in May 2018.

Based on the Actors’ Equity tabulation, Kansas City ranked No. 3 on its list of 28 cities. Outranking Kansas City were Greater Washington, D.C./Baltimore, which provided 20.8 work weeks per member for 1,171 Actors’ Equity members, and Central Florida, which provided 16.4 work weeks per member for 981 members. The list does not include information about Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, whose theater scenes operate differently from those in other cities.

“There are countless exciting performances being created every year by professional actors and stage managers working at Equity theaters in Kansas City, not just Broadway,” said Brandon Lorenz, national director for communications and public policy at Actors’ Equity national headquarters in New York.

About The Author: Julius Karash

Julius Karash

Julius A. Karash is a freelance writer, editor and public relations person. He formerly was a business reporter for the Kansas City Star and executive editor of KC Business magazine. He devours business and economic news, and is keenly interested in the relationship between arts and economic development in the Kansas City area.

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