Unemployed In San Antonio

There has been some good news coming out of the San Antonio Symphony administrative offices lately, such as the announcement last month that they will resume making music on September 17th, 2004 and the securing of a sponsor for some of their children’s concerts.

Unfortunately, that’s about all of the good news so far.  Since filing for bankruptcy last May, the orchestra went dark for the 2003-2004 season and stopped paying the musicians their salary and benefits.  But some people were getting paid their full salary and benefits, such as former executive director Steven Brosvik, the man at the helm of the organization while it sailed into bankruptcy.  I wrote a piece detailing that situation entitled The Captain Always Goes Down With The Ship Right? several months ago.

Steven resigned from that position in November of 2003 and I assumed was no longer with the organization – but recently I was reminded that’s it’s never safe to assume.  If you visit the San Antonio Symphony’s web site you’ll notice Steven is listed in the Staff Directory as the individual in charge of “Artistic Planning”.

It was extraordinary to learn that the orchestra would keep Steven on as an employee in addition to the other staffers.  I contacted SA Symphony’s new executive director (a position now called “President and CEO”) Bruce Johnson to find out what was up.

For me, the surprises kept coming as the conversation was short and unpleasant.  I asked Bruce if Steven was an employee or a paid consultant and he said,

“No, he isn’t he’s just helping us out”.

But when I pointed out that Steven is listed on the SAS web page with a title, SAS email account, dedicated phone extension, and voice mail Bruce said that must be a “mistake” and perhaps he should visit the page himself to see what was there.

That was one of the more baffling answers I’ve ever heard to a question so, just to be certain, I asked Bruce one more time if Steven was being paid by the organization as either an employee or a consultant. Bruce snapped back with,

“What business is that of yours? [Steven’s] personal finances are none of your concern.”

Pardon me?  Since when is simply acknowledging whether someone is either an employee or a paid consultant considered privileged information at an orchestra?  How is that digging into someone’s personal finances?  One of the things I do in my life is give private music lessons.  Would you think it’s prying unnecessarily into my personal finances to ask me if I charge students a fee for lessons?  Of course not, that would be silly.

Although I never did get an answer to the question of whether Steven is being paid by the orchestra, I did find out the following information about the “work” (can I call it that since he’s supposedly not an employee or a consultant?) Steven has been performing for the SAS:

  • Steven is in charge of negotiating guest artist and musician contracts for the 2004-2005 season.
  • Steven has helped plan the overall 2004-2005 concert season.

Additionally, Bruce said that Steven has been “instrumental” with helping him become acclimated to his position as President & CEO.  And why isn’t the new President & CEO able to hit the ground running?

Well, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Bruce has never managed an orchestra before.  To my understanding, Bruce comes to the orchestra from a managerial position at NASA.

Hopefully, Bruce has some additional advisors that will inform him that when the SAS files their Form 990 to the IRS for this operating year, they have to list the 5 highest paid employees earning over $50,000 and the five highest paid contractors (which includes consultants).

So regardless of the fact that Bruce thinks this information is “confidential”, the reality of the situation is non-profits are open for public inspection.  If the orchestra is concerned over how the public may view Steven’s working for the orchestra then perhaps they should seek the help he’s providing from someone else.

The Actual Unemployed Story

The people who are, in reality, unemployed at the San Antonio Symphony are the musicians.  I talked to several of the players to find out how well they’ve been holding up with being out of work for over a year now.

Many players have used up their 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, although some have been able to extend those benefits by finding temporary work.

I also heard about one person who is looking at having the bank foreclose on their house.  I also hear from many of the players that they are using their savings and retirement money to help get by while they wait for the orchestra to get it’s act together and start the concert season.

It is a sad situation for any individual to endure, but it does upset me to think that the orchestra’s decision makers are, in all likelihood, spending the organization’s much needed cash for additional administrators before they even start giving concerts again.

Especially if that money is being spent on someone that was responsible for the financial well being of the organization while it fell into collapse.

There’s no mention of the musicians on the SAS web site, and in the orchestra history section there is a noticeable omission about the time since the orchestra has gone dark.  There are no concert brochures for the 2004-2005 season and the musicians have received little to no information about their work schedule.

Are the members of the Orchestra’s executive management and board members just setting the orchestra up for another fall?  I hope not.  Not a mere 10 years ago, San Antonio was one of the most promising orchestras in the country.  They were making artistic progress at exponential rates and were attracting many highly qualified musicians to their auditions.

The next time anyone in the industry says that we aren’t amidst a full blown crisis needs to talk to the some of the musicians at the SAS.

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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