Union arts employers pinched by rising rents, falling support


Managers at the Oregon Symphony opened the most recent round of union contract negotiations explaining why they could not pay the wages Musicians Local 99 asked for, said Local 99 Executive Secretary Treasurer Mont Chris Hubbard. Portland’5 Centers for the Arts raised  rent and fees for the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall from $895,000 in 2016 to $1.56 million last year. At the same time, audiences remain smaller than before the pandemic, charitable donations are down, and local government grant funding has dropped. The symphony is pinched between rising costs and diminished revenues, said Isaac Thompson, the organization’s executive director. 

“The fact that our structural business model has these stressors directly affects what we are able to agree to from a labor perspective,” he said. Local 99 represents about 65 union musicians who play in the symphony.

Hubbard says concerns about rising venue costs and ailing revenue have also come up in negotiations with the Portland Opera which uses the Keller Auditorium, also managed by Portland’5 Centers for the Arts — a division of the Metro regional government that manages publicly owned entertainment venues. Arts organizations and the unions that represent their workers have started lobbying the state government to invest more in the arts to help. They’re also advocating for changes locally with the City of Portland and Metro. 

Why rent has gone up

Portland’5 manages the Schnitzer, Keller, and the Winningstad, Newmark, and Brunish theaters. Under a set of intergovernmental agreements, the city-owned buildings are managed by Metro and, more specifically, the Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Commission (MERC), a seven-member volunteer body appointed by the elected Metro Council. 

The City of Portland provides some funding for Portland’5 operations and capital projects, but that accounts for a sliver of the total budget, said Portland’5 Executive Director Robyn Williams. Almost 80% of the venue’s funding comes from “earned revenue” like rent and user fees. 

Portland’5 gives a rental discount to five “resident” companies that regularly use the venues. Those include Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, and Oregon Ballet Theatre. The resident companies pay many of the same fees as any other renter, but some items are waived. For example, resident companies can staff the box office themselves, instead of paying a ticketing fee to use Portland’5’s workers like an out-of-town organization must. 

For several years, Portland’5 raised rent about 3% annually for all renters, Williams said. Around 2017, MERC studied its budget and found it would soon cost more to rent the venues to resident companies than Portland’5 made from the performances. 

MERC developed a “multi-year plan of increases” for rent, but before it could implement it, COVID hit. During the pandemic shutdown, earned revenue plummeted for Portland’5, and Williams says she used Portland’5’s reserve and federal relief money to simply maintain and secure the buildings. When performances started up again in late 2021, the Portland’5 budget was more pressed than it had been before, and MERC moved forward with the rent increases.

“There is a lot of emotion tied up whenever costs go up,” Williams said. “We are kind of an easy target to pick at. That comes with the territory. We get it. Our responsibility is to make sure that we have well-run, well-maintained buildings for all of these users, and that’s not free.” 

Portland’5 increased rental rates for all users, but resident companies saw a 30% increase — the biggest jump percentagewise. That’s because they had the deepest subsidies, Williams said. The total cost still is still significantly less than what it would be for most other users of the facilities. For example, renting the Schnitz for one evening performance costs a resident company $1,315, compared to the $6,875 rate for commercial companies. 

Thompson, the symphony director, said fees have risen more than rent. He estimated that the symphony’s fees went up about 76% between 2016 and 2023. 

Most of those fees are pass-through costs for the Portland’5 workers that operate the building, like ushers, concessions workers, and security guards, Williams said. Those fees have risen to cover higher wages for workers and new security protocols in the buildings. 

“We’ve had to add so much security because of being in a downtown environment,” Williams said. “With active shooters and all the screenings we now have to do before someone enters our buildings, that equipment is our biggest investment.”  

Potential solutions

IATSE Local B20 — which represents about 100 front-end staff like ushers, box office personnel, and elevator operators — made some concessions at the bargaining table to try to keep rent low for resident companies. Union members waived their exclusive right to staff the box office during resident company performances so those groups wouldn’t have to pay the ticketing fee. They also agreed to allow volunteers to staff local performances in Hatfield Hall — the building that houses all three Portland’5 theaters — to keep fees affordable for smaller theater companies. 

But it’s not a sustainable solution to continue asking Local B20 to make sacrifices for small breaks on rent, said Hubbard, the Musicians Local 99 leader. 

“From our perspective, we want our employer not to be paying hand over fist for this stuff, but some of that is wages going directly to other union members,” Hubbard said.

During the legislative session this year, Hubbard testified in support of House Bill 4124, a measure that provided about $11.8 million of emergency funding for arts organizations across the state. About half of that was distributed to the state’s large “anchor” organizations, including the Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, and Oregon Ballet Theatre, which employ Local 99 members. 

That funding will certainly help this year, but it’s a one-time supplement that’s not a long-term solution, said Thompson, the symphony director. In fact, it comes after years of declining government support from the City of Portland. Between 2016 and 2023 — the same time frame venue costs for the city-owned Portland’5 buildings went up — grant funding from the city art tax was nearly cut in half, from about $700,000 in 2026 to about $400,000 in 2023. 

Darion Jones, the director of arts and culture for Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan, said the city isn’t directly responsible for that decrease because it contracts the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) to distribute the arts grants. 

In 2019, RACC changed its grant funding formula from a percentage-based model that paid more to larger organizations with bigger operating budgets to a model the group described as “more equitable and progressive” that gave more to smaller organizations and less to bigger groups.

This year, the city council set up an arts office to manage arts-related contracts, arts grants, the public art program, and coordination of Portland’s arts tax. Some of those programs were previously housed in different departments; for example, the Portland’5 venues were overseen by the city’s general facilities program but will now be connected to the arts office. 


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