Recent news from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has me thinking about one of Jesus’ most harrowing parables.
Jesus told the story of a servant who owed his master an enormous sum of money. When the master came to collect, the servant begged for forgiveness, and the master forgave his debt. Then another man who owed the servant a far lesser sum begged for forgiveness, but the servant who had just been forgiven his debt refused to extend grace to the poor man. The master, justly outraged, reversed his act of grace and threw the servant in debtor’s prison (Matthew 18:24-35).
Last week, President Donald Trump signed a massive $2 trillion stimulus bill aimed at reviving the economy as it struggles with the effects of the coronavirus. Democrats worked hard to force $25 million in funding for the Kennedy Center into the bill, and Trump relented. Yet mere hours after Trump signed the stimulus bill, the Kennedy Center sent an email to the National Symphony Orchestra, a group of about 100 musicians, telling them they wouldn’t get paid after April 3.
“The Covid-19 Advisory Committee was broadsided today during our conversation with [Kennedy Center President] Deborah Rutter,” the orchestra’s coronavirus committee told musicians in an email, obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. “Ms. Rutter abruptly informed us today that the last paycheck for all musicians and librarians will be April 3 and that we will not be paid again until the Center reopens.”
The $2 trillion bailout dedicated $25 million for the Kennedy Center, in order to “cover operating expenses required to ensure the continuity of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and its affiliates, including for employee compensation and benefits, grants, contracts, payments for rent or utilities, fees for artists or performers.” The Kennedy Center apparently did not interpret that $25 million as extending to the National Symphony Orchestra, its house orchestra.
A veteran member of the orchestra, who spoke to the Free Beacon on condition of anonymity, slammed the Kennedy Center’s duplicity. “It’s very disappointing [that] they’re going to get that money and then drop us afterward,” the musician said. “The Kennedy Center blindsided us.”
The Kennedy Center recently completed a $250 million renovation, and it received $41 million from taxpayers last year. The cultural center shut its doors on March 12 in response to the coronavirus. President Rutter told The Washington Post that she would forego her $1.2 million salary during the closure, but it seems the center did not allow members of the orchestra the same choice.
On Saturday, the orchestra filed a grievance, citing its four-year collective bargaining agreement, which it signed last September. The contract stipulates that artists be given at least six weeks’ notice before paychecks stop.
Many Americans were outraged to hear that the coronavirus bailout would direct much-needed funds to the Kennedy Center, rather than to areas of the economy harder hit by the coronavirus crisis. Yet this news about the Kennedy Center laying off its orchestra mere hours after the bailout passed will likely incense them even further. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats obstructed the bailout in order to fill it with pork such as Kennedy Center funds, and now even the Kennedy Center has refused to spend its money on its house orchestra.
On second thought, the parallel to Jesus’ parable isn’t quite right. In the parable, the unforgiving servant owes his master something. In this case, the Kennedy Center was not asking for the U.S. government to cancel its debt, but rather for the government to pay it millions of extra dollars in an economic crisis. For the Kennedy Center then to lay off its house orchestra — in apparent violation of the contract — is arguably worse than the unforgiving servant. Yet it seems sadly unlikely that the government will revoke the $25 million.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.