Oversight

The recent problems within the American Federation of Musicians regarding the accusations against Enex Steele of embezzling funds from the Sound Recording Special Payments Fund has caused me to stop and think. At first, I was upset that an organization dedicated to protecting musicians interests against abusive management practices was employing a manager who was allegedly abusing said musicnians. However, after reading the statements released from the AFM ( http://www.afm.org/public/press/press_10-14-03.php and http://www.afm.org/public/press/spf1014.pdf ) it appears that their oversight procedure was doing exactly what it was designed to do. This is good and bad.

Good: The Sound Recording Special Payments Fund Oversight Committee discovered an abuse of administrative authority and is actively pursuing the individual for the return of funds and property. A system of checks and balances helps prevent the seemingly bad intentions of a seemingly bad individual. Ideally, the misappropriated property and funds will be restored in full and the Sound Recording Special Payments Fund will be better off in the future.

Bad: Why doesn’t the union insist that orchestra management establish the same type of oversight procedures as part of its regular business practice? It seems that there has been a great deal of mismanagement lately regarding overspending organizational funds, running into debt, sloppy bookkeeping and downright lying about costs. I think the time and energy the AFM could put into launching an organized campaign designed to make oversight an expectation among orchestras is more than worth the effort.

What are the benefits of oversight? Simply put, accountability. It forces people to avoid short cuts, requires them to represent themselves with a minimum of spin, and prevents individual administrators from abusing their authority. Will management like it? Probably not. They’ll argue against the costs of instituting such a system and how those funds could be better spent toward reaching the mission of the orchestra. That’s just more spin. In reality, they just don’t want someone looking over their shoulder and possibly second-guessing their decisions. But who does?

Where should this oversight come from? Ideally it should come from the board, seeing that they are entrusted as guardians of the public trust. However, I believe an oversight committee should be comprised of an equal number of board members and player representatives (either musicians themselves or paid representatives). This committee should regularly conduct quarterly audits and investigations into the business practices of their orchestra. Results of these measures should be made readily available to the public at large. We owe this necessary measure to the musicians, the managers, and most importantly, to the patrons who willing provide financial support for their community orchestra.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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