A New Model At The SPCO

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Bruce Coppock and Herb Winslow of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) about their new model of governance and artistic leadership.  Bruce is the SPCO President & Managing Director and Herb is the Principal Horn & Chairman of the musicians’ representatives on the contract renewal committee.  We discussed the recent changes at the SPCO and how it will affect their future as well as the industry in general.

Before they adopted their new model, the SPCO ran itself much like every other orchestra in the country; they had a music director that made most of the artistic decisions, and the players simply played.  But this new model has removed the position of music director and replaced that artistic authority with a committee composed of three players and two artistic managers.  This new artistic committee covers all issues related to programming, artistic planning, touring, and hall scheduling, as well as player selection, tenure review, and musician dismissal.

The process to develop their new model started in August of 2002 and ended with their current master agreement.  This new system will weather its first test during their 2004-2005 concert season, a season where the musicians accepted an approximately 13% pay cut from their 2002-2003 base salary of $66,940.  Many in the industry see this new model as a sort of “money for power” trade, but according to Herb the musician’s acceptance of reduced pay was due to a desire to eliminate the “band-aid” solutions the orchestra had been using to cover their financial troubles over the past decade.  Herb went on to add that there was language in the new contact which provides for automatic pay increases above the mandatory minimum if the orchestra’s revenue grows faster than current projections.

The shift in artistic control was due more to the desire among all participants to increase the musician’s artistic satisfaction. Although the players have always been playing good music, they had very little input regarding the creation of their art.  They were functioning more like cogs in a wheel as opposed to really leading the artistic direction of the ensemble.  The new artistic responsibility among the musicians now provides them with the ability to control their artistic future.  Although one distinction the SPCO established compared to the system employed by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (which uses no conductor or music director) is that they would “partner” themselves with several principal conductors which would change from year to year.

When I asked Bruce why management decided to change the 45 year old status quo, he said “Our motivation is to make the concerts better.  And however painful the budget cuts have been, the artistic output has been extremely high”.  Bruce went on to say that one of the most beneficial byproducts of this entire process has been the increased amount of direct communication among managers, board members, and players.  “We simply can not have too much communication; and I mean the face to face type, not just memos and emails” says Bruce.

According to Herb the process has been anything but easy, “Although morale is low among players regarding the pay cuts, our playing has never been better and we’re starting to see the first signs of the real benefits from direct participation.  One of the reasons we accepted the pay cuts is because we were shown our entire financial situation with no filters.  Since we trust our financial officer we could see what had to be done”.   That’s not an easy thing for a musician to admit, but these initial years of their new model will certainly show whether it was all worth while or not.

Observations

Before speaking with Bruce and Herb I had read through all of the relevant articles about the SPCO process that were published in the October 2003 issue of Harmony.  Those articles detail this process from the viewpoint of all the SPCO’s stakeholders -board, management, and musicians – and I highly recommend that you take the time to read through some or all of the articles yourself.  When talking with Bruce about their changes I asked him if he thought their new system could be a model which other orchestras could utilize.  He modestly played down the fact that they only came up with answers that work for them, therefore they may not necessarily be the answers for other orchestras.

Instead of taking the 19th century “top-down” method of structuring their organization, they are rebuilding the way they work to suit the players.  By allowing those musicians to guide the artistic growth the SPCO will have a vastly superior product to offer their market.  I should point out that other orchestras have attempted to utilize a type of “self rule” model of operations, and not always to great success.  Musicians are not always known for “playing nice” among each other (pun intended), so it will be interesting to visit the SPCO in five years and see how well the musicians are getting along between themselves with their new system.

Likewise, whether or not the system will withstand the temptations of placing final decision making authority on artistic issues with senior administrative officials as opposed to allowing the new musician component to create a fair system of majority rule is something only time will tell.

However, even with those potential hurdles, I believe many other orchestras of similar size should consider the key component of allow those musicians to have majority voting authority beyond current governance practices.  Instead of managers, music directors, and board members always deciding what’s best, they need guide their decisions by input from the musicians.  There’s already too much group-think, too many heads-in-the-sand, and too many decisions made by the people who are least qualified to make them.

But St. Paul’s financial issue was the only thing picking at my mind as I came away from the discussion with Bruce and Herb.  During the interview I asked the question “why had the financial situation at the SPCO always favored spending to the maximum of your yearly revenue?”  The only answer was from Bruce who asked (rhetorically) “how many hours do you have?”  I didn’t want to pursue the issue because I was happy to talk with both of them and I didn’t want to deflect from the sincere good that the SPCO has been achieving.  But the issue remains, if the SPCO doesn’t find a way to change how they do business then all of the pay cuts in the world won’t prevent them from falling prey to financial collapse.

The current SPCO management was in place before the economic downturn of 2001-2002 so it was under their watch that these financial problems occurred.  And you can’t go around blaming the economy for your orchestra’s cash problems while you continue to do business as usual.  You need to admit the mistakes and publicly announce how things are going to change.  And it’s not just the SPCO, but nearly every orchestra in the country is guilty of the same transgressions.

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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