A Constructive Side To Controversy

They say everything happens in groups of threes, and to help fulfill that adage we have this season’s third brouhaha surrounding dismissal issues for a music director. This time we go to the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra in La Crosse, WI where according to an article by Terry Rindfleisch in the La Crosse Tribune the LCSO’s conductor, Amy Mills, will serve her last season as music director following next year’s concert series.

The article quotes the LCSO board president saying that

“In April, the board’s executive committee recommended Mills not be rehired for the 2005-06 season, based on a musicians’ survey, a consultant’s recommendations, and board members’ concerns”

The article goes on to mention a brewing controversy over that fact that some board members are alleging that they didn’t have their proxy votes counted which would have altered the outcome of the decision to not renew Ms. Mill’s contract.

If we put aside the very Floridaesque voting details of this particular situation for a moment and instead focus on how this situation helps to further define the stakeholders in an orchestra organization, we start to see an emerging clarity surrounding the actual influence of each group. 

When Adaptistration started last November, I made sure to include a collection of essays designed to help readers understand the different parties that comprise the stakeholders in any given orchestra.  You’ll find these writings to your right in the Orchestra Leadership section, each of which covers a specific group, their responsibilities, and their role in the orchestra.

One positive result from the controversies surrounding music directors this year (La Crosse, Kitchener-Waterloo, & Liverpool) has been to further define the influence and roles of each of those groups.

  • At Kitchener-Waterloo it was the Musicians and Patrons against a decision by the orchestra’s Board regarding the music director.

  • At Liverpool it was the Board, Management, and Patrons against a vote of no confidence from the Musicians against the music director.

  • At La Crosse it’s half of the Board and Patrons against the remaining half of the Board and the Musicians that determined there was a problem with the music director.

In all three cases we’ve seen well defined, organized factions representing each group of stakeholders.  And based on the progress of events from each conflict, the stakeholders with the most influence seem to be patrons that are also large individual donors.  So it appears that Golden Rule is still in effect – they who have the gold get to make the rules.

It also demonstrates the necessity for greater amounts of interaction between each group of stakeholders.  Much of the ensuing unpleasantness in each of these situations could have been avoided, or at the least marginalized, simply by people knowing each other on a better level and not placing an overemphasis on any one stakeholder.

It will be interesting to see what eventually happens in La Crosse.  I do have to point out that much of these problems would not exist if there wasn’t such a concerted effort on behalf of orchestra management and board members to purport the historical perception that the single entity of a music director is the heart and soul of an orchestra.

When we relate this point to orchestra administration, we see that managers rely too heavily on presenting the music director as a fund raising and marketing tool, and as a result many large donors develop a direct connection between their giving and the music director.  Instead the music director should be one of many individual musicians in the ensemble that create a connection with patrons.  Patrons need to understand that although music directors function in their role of a leader based on necessity as much as by skill.

Music directors should simply be responsible for helping to create a product worth admiring and supporting.  Anything beyond that is simply a smoke and mirrors trick from public relations professionals. 

Hopefully other orchestras and their stakeholders are paying attention to these events and learning from them.  That would be the most constructive outcome of all.

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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