Reader Response: Empowerment Issues

After reading the blog about Empowerment Issues, Paul Primus wrote in with his observations. It’s important to note that Paul is the Principal Second Violin for the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble that has experimented with greater musician participation regarding orchestra governance. Paul was a member of the Denver Symphony when it collapsed and remained to become a member of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, so he has a unique historical perspective on these issues.

“As someone who has been in an orchestra with a different structure than “normal” for 14 years, I think that most of what you have to say is valid. Most orchestra members, even in a “co-op” orchestra, do not want to be on time-consuming committees, and we have learned that it is much better to have a few good administrators than many ill-trained musicians attempting to get the same job done. It has been extremely difficult to find a conductor willing to have less power than most places give, and I’m sure the same would be true with other positions. We have nine musicians on the Board, and one of the nine is always in [an executive seat], like vice-president. Our position on issues gets heard, and although the financial info doesn’t always get disseminated to the entire orchestra, enough musicians are on the finance committee to make an impact.
We have learned that if we truly try to run ourselves it’s extremely hard to get grants and donations sufficient to have a decent salary. Being an organization that is in the public eye, we don’t want to get to the point where a no confidence vote is even an issue. That’s why having sufficient representation on the Board is so important. In the old Denver Symphony days, we had two orchestra members on the Board, but their positions ended up being more as observers than participants. Aside from financial contributions, our orchestra members who serve on the Board are expected to participate and be on committees, especially the Artistic Committee, which does the programming and soloist/guest conductor decision making, along with the conductor and artistic administrator, as well as many personnel issues.”

Paul brings up a number of good points, such as in ideal situations, a no-confidence vote should not even be an issue. However, the past year has shown that when orchestras go out of business, they do it quickly and without much prior notice to the players. I think the use of a no-confidence vote is certainly a last resort measure. But the fact that it exists would give board members and managers a relevant frame of reference concerning how much responsibility they have to the musicians as well as the community, and therefore act accordingly.
Another good observation is that musicians are certainly not a replacement for talented, competent managers. Musician participation among committees simply allows the flow of information to exist in an uninterrupted form between all involved parties.

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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