Fixing What’s Broken: a response

In the October 2003 issue of Senza Sordino, an ICSOM newsletter, is a complete transcript of an address by Michael Kaiser to those in attendance at the annual ICSOM conference. For those who are unaware, Mr. Kaiser is the president of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and just about as big of a dog in this industry as one can become (and I mean big dog in a good way). As the Senza Sordino editor writes “In recent years, [Mr. Kaiser] has emerged as a much-respected voice in the field of arts management excellence.” I highly recommend you take the time to go give the transcript a read.

All in all, I thought the ideas expressed in Mr. Kaiser’s address were wonderfully refreshing to read. His statement “I am absolutely convinced that most of the problems facing orchestras result from poor management. Too many arts managers today know all the vocabulary but have no real idea about creating revenue for their organizations.” acknowledges the immediate need for a change in the way orchestras conduct business. His seemingly genuine devotion and dedication to the production of art and the artists that create it especially impressed me.

Mr. Kaiser observes that “during the recent economic slump is that many arts organizations are reacting to this current challenging environment in exactly those ways that lead to sickness. By knee jerk reacting to short term fiscal problems by drastically cutting artistic programming and marketing, one virtually assures additional reduction in revenue in the future. Donors and audience members are attracted to important programming, to organizations that are vital and flourishing, not to those which are cutting back on visibility programs and retreating behind stale, if cheaper, programming.” Now, I ask you the reader to look at your local orchestra and decide which path it has followed: cutting artistic programming or promoting exciting, fresh initiatives. Most of the orchestras I look at have taken the first path. But there are some shinning lights: the embattled Pittsburgh Symphony has undertaken some adventurous programming designed to attract new patrons by making the audience experience more interactive. They have done so with the help of Arts Journal blogger Greg Sandow, which you can read about in his blog.

Mr. Kaiser goes on to show his ability to look at the “big picture” by considering the long term in orchestra artistic and administrative planning. He presents immediate solutions for immediate problems, but those solutions directly facilitate where an organization will be a decade from now. That’s smart coordinated planning. There’s definitely no “circling the wagons ” going on in his mind.

With all of his good ideas I was puzzled about he came to some of his views regarding community service through education programs. He spends too much of his focus on programs centered on servicing school systems. His desire is to build an audience for the future that is not relegated to the white upper middle class demographic. A good and necessary goal, but I believe that one of the best immediate solutions to this very real problem is by offering free concerts to the public at large. Instead of focusing on primarily playing in schools, orchestras need to bring families across all demographics to orchestra concerts. Playing at large public parks with free admission will do far more to serve the immediate need of exposing a new audience to the orchestra as well as give the administration a long-term tool for “high visibility” public exposure. At these concerts, the orchestra administration needs to pull out all of the stops: every executive, manager, staffer, and volunteer needs to be at these concerts with an organized plan to educate those in attendance. When I currently attend free concerts I never see booths with “ask me” displays, or any interaction between players and musicians. Once in awhile you see some of these events at family concerts, but almost never at free concerts. The outreach potential is limitless and it won’t cost as much as many of the in school education programs. I’ll have much more about this idea in future blogs.

Another troubling aspect of Mr. Kaiser’s address is his belief that there is an oversupply of performances in many cities. Huh? There are too many orchestra concerts? He states: ” it seems clear to me that over the past two decades orchestras and their unions have agreed to expand the weeks of performances to a point where audiences are too small to fill every performance in many cities.” I think his analysis is as far from reality as possible. Smaller audiences have nothing to do with too many performances and everything to do with the lack of bringing in a new, younger audience. But that’s also another topic for a future blog. Stay tuned.

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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