Kennedy Center, with $25 Million Stimulus Funding, Furloughs 96 Members of National Symphony

Audience members watch as Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda conducts the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) during a concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, on February 14, 2019. - In the concert hall, the sound is crisp, slicing through the air like a sharp …

Just hours after Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill into law, the Kennedy Center — the recipient of $25 million — furloughed members of the National Symphony Orchestra.

The center, which was created by an act of Congress and is classified as a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy, has also canceled live performances until May 10 as part of the national guidance to limit gatherings to ten people or less.

The Washington Post reported on the furloughs:

In a conference call Friday night, Rutter told orchestra leaders that the 96 musicians would receive their last paycheck on April 3 and that they will not be paid until the arts center reopens. In addition, she said their ­health-care benefits would stop at the end of May if the arts center is still closed at that time. The announcement was characterized by several NSO members as a shock.

The center put statements about its status on its website, which said, in part:

As we fulfill our congressional mandate, we rely on ticket revenues and contributions to offset nearly every aspect of our business, including presenting live (often free) performances and offering education programs for millions across the country. 

Additionally, the Center is a job creator, providing employment for nearly 3,000 people and compensation for more than 1,000 guest artists. Our workforce includes artists, programmers, administrative and production staff, ushers, bartenders, food service employees, parking attendants, and many more, all of whom have been impacted or will soon be impacted by the closure of the Kennedy Center. The ability to deliver on our mandated mission is at risk. As a result, federal relief funding is the only way we will be in a position to reopen the nation’s cultural center when our government officials tell us it is safe to do so.

The Kennedy Center is extraordinarily grateful that Congress has recognized our institution’s unique status and has included funding in its economic stimulus legislation to ensure that we can reopen our doors and stages as soon as we are able. We will continue to work for and seek the support of our patrons to ensure the programming continues.

The center also asked for donations on its website:

Though the Kennedy Center is unable to open its doors to you right now, we are making a commitment to our community to use the power of the arts to inspire, unite, and lift each other up during this time of uncertainty.

Your gift today will be used to create digital educational content, provide virtual performance platforms and support for artists, and most importantly, prepare to welcome you back to the Center as soon as possible.

But critics said the furloughs are unacceptable.

Ed Malaga, president of the Local 161-710 of the American Federation of Musicians, said in a Washington Examiner report:

This decision, from an organization with an endowment of nearly $100 million, is not only outrageous — coming after the musicians had expressed their willingness to discuss ways to accommodate the Kennedy Center during this challenging time — it is also blatantly illegal under the parties’ collective bargaining agreement.

“That agreement specifically requires that the Center provide six weeks’ notice before it can stop paying musicians for economic reasons,” Malaga said.

The Examiner reported that Rutter said she will suspend her $1.2 million salary during the crisis. 

The payroll expense for the National Symphony is $400,000 a week. 

“Rutter said the $25 million fund from Congress would be used for ‘essential personnel to ensure we can reopen the center,’” the Examiner reported.

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