Every organization has an origin story, and the American Guild of Musical Artists is no exception. Our story is that AGMA was created in March of 1936 over a game of golf played by Lawrence Tibbett, Jascha Heifetz, Alma Gluck and Gladys Swarthout. Whether that story is true remains unclear. What is clear is that on March 11, 1936 a group of prominent solo musical artists had come together to create a labor union to represent them in collective bargaining. In addition to Tibbett, Heifetz, Gluck, and Swarthout, the founding members included Kirsten Flagstad, John McCormack, Andres Segovia, George Gershwin, Fred Waring, and Paul Whiteman. An advisory board included Walter Damrosch, Lauritz Melchior, Ezio Pinza and Lily Pons, among others.
At the founding, AGMA represented both vocal and instrumental solo Artists. In 1937, the union affiliated with the Associated Actor’s and Artistes of American (the 4A’s) which gave the union jurisdictional protection under the AFL-CIO. At the same time, AGMA merged with an older union, the Grand Opera Artists Association, which had originally held the 4A’s charter. In the spring of 1938, AGMA also incorporated the Grand Opera Choral Alliance, expanding jurisdiction to Choristers and assuming the existing bargaining relationship with the Metropolitan Opera. AGMA signed its first collective bargaining agreement with the Met in August of 1938.
Eventually AGMA ceded jurisdiction of instrumental soloists to the American Federation of Musicians. This did not significantly affect the growth of the union, however, as AGMA continued negotiating contracts with opera companies across the United States during the 1940s and ‘50s. Much of AGMA’s history during the WWII years is missing, but it seems clear that even during the war, AGMA continued to seek ways to better represent members and to expand membership and signatories. In the 1950s, AGMA took particular interest in the growing field of regional opera companies and the touring Concert Choral groups that were becoming increasingly popular.
AGMA represented Dancers in Opera from the beginning of the union’s expansion beyond Solo Singers. In the late 1930s, the union was looking at the need to represent Dancers in dance companies. There was an expansion of representation in the 1960s that made Dancers a major part of the union.
AGMA’s constitution has always provided for a Board of Governors and National Officers as the governing structure of the union. Originally, to attend a meeting of the Board a Governor or Officer had to be present in the national office in New York City. This meant that the union was governed primarily by members from the New York Area. In the early 1990s, it became obvious that there was a strong need for Board reform. It was necessary to give members outside the New York area a voice in the governance of the union. The first step in Board reform was instituting the use of teleconferencing for Board meetings. This allowed members across the country to actively participate on the Board. Over the next ten years, the elected leadership – including many leaders from amongst the members of the Lyric Opera Stage Artists – restructured the Board to make AGMA more responsive to its members and more efficient and affective in representing them. One of the lessons learned was that in order for the union to be truly responsive to the needs of the members, the elected leadership must constantly reflect on how well the union serves and what changes should be made to ensure that service continues to grow and improve.
Lyric Opera Stage Artists are an important part of the present leadership of AGMA. Nine LOSA members currently serve on the Board of Governors. AGMA’s national President and First Vice President are LOSA members. In addition to those elected volunteer leaders, more than a dozen more serve as local leaders. These Artists, dedicated to the well-being of their colleagues as well as to their Art, are guiding and training the next generation of leaders as the task of guaranteeing fair and safe working conditions, as well as appropriate compensation, continues.
Looking at AGMA’s past should serve as a glimpse of AGMA’s future. LOSA members are a crucial part of that future. As the union’s mission statement states,
“We are AGMA: The labor organization that represents the Artists who create America’s Operatic, Choral and Dance heritage.”