When exclusivity is a bad thing

In my mind the term exclusive usually conjures up a positive image. Unfortunately, when I think of the orchestra industry I think of exclusivity in a negative context. What I’m talking about is the absolute control the American Symphony Orchestra League (commonly referred to as “the League”) exerts over the training, hiring, and professional development of orchestra executive and middle managers. You can read more about this in my Orchestra Leadership: Miscellaneous Parties essay.

As we’re near the holidays, I’m only going to touch on this topic briefly and pose some questions. Then I would like to return to this topic in a week or so. In that time I’ll hopefully have the opportunity to talk to some of the leaders at the League. But in the meantime, here are my observations:

  • Most of the cultural headhunters (executive recruiters) are either current or past board members of the League. This is obviously a conflict of interest.
  • In order to even learn about employment openings, you have be a paying member of the League to search their database (most orchestra’s don’t list upper management positions on their web site or through other public venues).
  • Of the vast amounts of financial data the League collects from orchestras, all but the most benign is available only to managers of paying member orchestras.
  • Orchestra Boards merely shuffle or recycle executive directors from among current orchestra executives, regardless of past performance. Here’s a current example: Paul Chambers, the former executive director that led the Savannah Symphony into bankruptcy is now the executive director of the Roanoke Symphony.
  • The vast majority of professional development seminars and workshops conducted by the League are instructed by member orchestra executives or consultants employed by the executive recruitment firms mentioned above.
  • The League conducts a
  • Management Fellowship Program that merely creates nothing more than an inbred copy of the current inadequate leadership. The program boasts that “graduates, numbering over 140, hold over 75 leadership positions in American orchestras – 28 are executive directors.” Those 28 executive directors comprise 25% of all professional orchestras.

What sparked my interest with this are events from the past month. Two major orchestra executive directors have suddenly resigned amid curious circumstances: John Gidwitz from the Baltimore Symphony and Emil Kang from the Detroit Symphony. Both situations have strong similarities:

  • Each organization has either recently completed or is completing a major capital project.
  • Both executive directors are leaving at a time when they “should” be most critical to their new hall’s success.
  • Both organizations have multimillion dollar accumulated deficits.

Behind the scenes talk is that the executives we’re asked to leave due to their respective orchestra’s current financial crisis. I’m willing to bet hard cash that both of these positions are going to be filled by executives from other League member orchestras, and that each of these executives is trained, practiced, and fully vested in the management philosophy of the League. This “recycling” practice is contrary to my recent discussions about enabling patrons and empowering musicians, so it is something that I wholeheartedly believe should change.

I’ll make one final point: American history is riddled with attempts to monopolize an industry (for-profit and non-profit alike). In each of those cases the argument to break that monopoly was that it stifles creativity and innovation. So why do the business leaders that occupy America’s orchestra boards subscribe themselves to such a historically non-American philosophy such as practiced by the League? Remember my quote from Benjamin Franklin in an earlier blog? “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”


This should be an interesting conversation and I look forward to your input. Send your comments and observations, pro and con, to my contact email.


PS In their recent article about Mr. Kang’s resignation, the Detroit Free Press makes an issue of Mr. Kang’s age: 35, implying that his troubles were partially due to this fact. I think that’s a bunch of nonsense and sincerely hope that was not the writer’s intention.


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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