You Can’t Spell Collaboration without “Labor”

Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article about a dispute between the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra and their board and executive management over the extension of their music director’s contract.

Since musician involvement on governance issues is a strong topic here at Adaptistration, I contacted John Koen, a Philadelphia Orchestra cellist and chair of the members committee, to talk to him about the situation.

I quickly learned that the musicians were very upset over not being included in such a monumental decision such as an extension of their music director’s contact. 

John said, “The issue surrounding the decision to extend our music director’s contract flares up many of the old problems dating back to our strike from 1996.  After the strike our then Mayor, Edward Rendell, assembled a committee to investigate how to improve working relations within the orchestra.

One of their conclusions was that the orchestra leadership should continuously include input directly from musicians at the executive committee and board levels.  Since that time, the number of musicians that sit in and offer opinions on behalf of the players at board meetings has grown from two to four.”

The orchestra’s president, Joe Kluger, confirmed that four musicians do sit in at board meetings and represent the musician’s opinions.  This would mean that the four musician representatives comprise approximately 5% of the board of directors.

John went on to express that the increased representation on the board and on the executive committee has created increased opportunities for musicians to educate board members.  Another positive effect has been an increase in the amount of discussion related to artistic and operational issues that have been historically disregarded.

So it appears that although there has been some tangible advancements made since the late 1990’s, the collaborative process is beginning to show some cracks in the foundation.

“The topic of the music director contract was never on the agenda for the last executive committee meeting” said John, “but our discord isn’t over artistic issues surrounding the music director so much as the apparent breakdown in the procedural process that provides the musician representatives a voice.”

Joe took a different point of view saying,

“I feel confident in saying that our musician leaders were appropriately consulted in this decision, as they are in all matters that have an impact on the artistic integrity of the Orchestra. Five musicians attended the Executive Committee meeting last Tuesday and were therefore completely aware of all of the factors that led to the extension of the [music director’s] contract.”

John continued, saying,

“It’s only been blown into an artistic issue due to insufficient communication and a lack of soliciting musician input.  Situations such as this that make me fell like the collaborative process is something [management] says but don’t always practice.”

And that final sentiment is the most important to consider.  Currently, the big buzz throughout the orchestra administration industry is to become more inclusive toward musicians in the decision making process of their orchestra.  Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, uses it as a corner stone for many of his speeches.

But one of the defining characteristics related to sincerity is sticking to your principles even when it isn’t seen as convenient at the moment.  Bending the rules, spinning your interpretation, and living in the gray zone between the black and white of right and wrong won’t create the credibility needed for trust to ensue.

For better and for worse, musicians have very long memories and they don’t forgive or forget all that often.  When executives and board members decide to selectively implement a policy of including musician input, it erodes at the sincerity of those efforts. 

The result is that musicians become jaded and suspicious toward future attempts toward including them in governance issues of the orchestra.  They begin to feel like management and board members only see them as “labor” instead of the stakeholders that they actually are.

Doing the right thing is rarely easy or the path of least resistance. True, the board and executive management of the Philadelphia orchestra were able to settle the matter of the music director contract in less time than if they included the musicians in the entire process, but at what cost?

Some clarification about the title: Although I typically despise referring to orchestra musicians as “labor”, I use it here because it facilitates the catchy title.

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.

Related Posts