Norman Lebrecht Is Absolutely Correct

Arts Journal linked to one of Norman’s articles in La Scena Musicale today.  Now the mere mention of Norman Lebrecht can cause a variety of responses from those involved with the orchestra business.  You’ll see passionate support from some while others start to gather kindling and light torches.  And in all fairness I’ve been in both of those crowds depending on the topic.  But this time Norman is right on target with the problems in the reporting of American arts and culture. 

See no evil, hear no evil, speak [write] no evil

Here’s an excerpt from Norman’s article:

The failure to challenge is a fundamental flaw in US arts journalism. The appointment of a visibly ailing James Levine to ‘revitalise’ the Boston’s Symphony Orchestra was reported uncritically in the Globe. The shenanigans at Lincoln Center, where heads roll periodically and reconstruction plans flounder, are immune to the scrutiny that attends any public project of comparable prominence. As an arts place, Lincoln is off-limits to investigative journalism. Critics are free to diss Philadelphia’s new concert hall and the New York Philharmonic’s performance under Lorin Maazel, but any inquiry into the workings of these organizations is ruled out by unstated convention.

Is there investigative cultural journalism in America?  If so, it’s slipped passed me.  More importantly, I think we should ask WHY we don’t have any investigative cultural journalism in this country.  Norman goes into several good reasons in his article but one is left out; there is a belief among those involved with non-profit arts groups that the natural “goodness” of the enterprise should insulate them from the scrutiny associated with for-profit organizations.  This invariably leads to defensive attitude and a remarkable lack of pragmatism when it comes to bad news, or news that isn’t accepted among the public within their expectations.  Consequently, these organizations believe they are entitled to nothing but positive press and unwavering support on issues related to non-artistic topics.  The outcome of this attitude is a lack of accountability among cultural executives and a lack of access for journalists to even the most basic of operational information.

I’ll share an example with you; in the course of gathering information for an article I’m writing, the marketing director for a particular orchestra complained to me that they’ve never had a journalist request as much information from them as I was. And as a result, that reason alone meant that they were not going to provide me with information I was requesting.   And what was this information that was exceeding the limits of their department’s ability?  I was asking about the number of performances they gave in the course of a year and how much of that year’s budget they allocated toward developing a new concert series.  And this wasn’t some little $300k annual budget orchestra either, it was a mid level, multimillion dollar budget ICSOM orchestra.

Spin, spin, and spin some more

Here’s another excerpt from Norman’s article:

When the head of the Met decides (or is obliged) to step down, as Joseph Volpe did some weeks ago, he does so in a friendly interview with the New York Times which does not once inquire whether Volpe quit because he’s pushing 65 or because his box-office has gone dead since 9/11.

I remember reading one of the only articles at that time which was decidedly critical of Joe Volpe was by Greg Sandow, here on his blog at Arts Journal.  I thought Greg’s piece was well written and fair based on the obvious evidence.  But somehow there’s a puff piece in the times about Volpe’s “retirement”.  When did it become “bad press” to let people know that a cultural executive is getting canned?  The same thing happened here in Baltimore when John Gidwitz “announced his retirement”.  The Baltimore Sun ran a big piece with a color photo detailing Gidwitz’s tenure here and his accomplishments.  I will give the article’s author some credit though since he did mention a few controversial points in Gidwitz’s past.  But the one thing not mentioned anywhere in the article was the fact that Gidwitz was currently running the orchestra into the ground: there’s the miserable Strathmore Hall project has cost the orchestra millions, the fact that the orchestra is millions more in debt and accumulating even more every day, the players have taken a cut in salary, their audience numbers are steadily dropping, and the orchestra’s operational expenses have skyrocketed out of control.   And somehow the Baltimore public is supposed to feel better about Gidwitz leaving if they believe the spin that he’s “retiring”.

All that tells me is that the orchestra’s executive board doesn’t want to look like they let a leader stay on well past his prime when they should have gotten rid of him seven years ago.  I would have much more confidence in the Baltimore Symphony as an organization if they just came out and canned him publicly.  That tells me there’s someone on the board in charge who’s capable of seeing what’s wrong and what needs to be done to fix it.

An opposite example of this is when Enex Steele got caught stealing from the AFM’s Sound Recording Special Payments Fund they didn’t cover it up and let him leave “gracefully”.  No, they came out and said out oversight procedures caught a crook and we’re doing something about it.  They wrote detailed press releases saying what they thought was embezzled and the improper conduct they uncovered.  That tells me the AFM is serious about making things better right here and now as well as improving them for the future.

Another troubling fact of critical press related to the internal workings of an orchestra or the people who manage them is how organizations respond to negative press.  Take for example my criticism of the American Symphony Orchestra League, these people seem to be so ticked off at me that they won’t even respond to my email or return phone messages.  Is the work they do so inherently good that they don’t deserve criticism?  They respond by ignoring those that examine them.  But that seems to be the standard operating procedure for these people: step one: dig hole, step two: insert head.
Don’t ask, don’t tell

Since I started writing this column I’ve been fortunate enough to come into contact with a number of top notch journalists and writers.  And they all complain about how much trouble they have obtaining information that may be considered “sensitive” by orchestra administrators.  A journalist with a major metropolitan paper once told me that compared to people who spin for government agencies, national politicians, multinational corporations, and foreign governments, by far the most secretive, least professional, and inadvertently “Nixonesque” public relations people are those who work for orchestras and opera companies.  All of these journalists stated the same reasons motivating this counterproductive behavior which you’re reading about here and in Norman’s article.

Orchestral organizations haven’t helped their situation by positioning themselves outside of the mainstream cultural consciousness either.  By simply being so far removed from mass public concern, orchestra PR professionals have not had the same pressures to adapt to a changing public the same way for-profit institutions have.  The only press they believe in is good press (this goes back to the “goodness” point above) so if you don’t tell them up front that you want to write a puff piece then it’s nothing but voice mail and unreturned emails for you as a writer.  And if you even ask a question that they interpret as speculative, then the flow of communication quickly dries up.  So what is a cultural writer supposed to do at this point?

The one thing that I like about the bloggers here at Arts Journal is their willingness to listen to, publish, and respond to criticism of their views in a non-defensive manner.  It serves to further clarify the author’s positions and perhaps cause their readers to consider options they wouldn’t have otherwise.  I love to receive criticism (constructive or otherwise, it’s all the same in the end) about the topics I write about.  It’s why I regularly publish Reader Responses and allow many of the individuals I interview to include a written response in the article itself.  In the end, it creates an ongoing cycle of feedback and self examination that provides a much more through outlook on any given topic.  Public relations professionals in the cultural sector could learn from that example.


An Aside: Norman’s article mentions a quote from Sam Bergson; an obvious typo on the part of La Scena Musicale as regular  readers know Norman is really quoting Sam Bergman.

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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