An Interview With Dan Hart

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Dan Hart, the former executive director of the Columbus (OH) Symphony and the incoming executive director for the Buffalo Philharmonic…

Before the interview all I really knew about Dan was that before Columbus he ran the Virginia Symphony, which is where he began his relationship with JoAnn Falletta, who is the current music director for the Buffalo Philharmonic.

I also knew that Dan seemed to be running a steady ship at Columbus, progressively growing their budget and patron base.

But then the financial lid blew off of Columbus like an old fashioned pressure cooker gone bad.  The Columbus Symphony went from having a tidy surplus to a $1.3 million deficit in the period of one year.

It seems that there were financial problems that had been growing slowly over time due to managerial mistakes.  Much of those details were examined in the “Negotiation News From Columbus” article yesterday.  But the highlights included $600,000 in losses due to voluntary write offs and managerial accounting errors.

As a result of the CSO’s financial problems, a donor offered to give the orchestra $1.5 million with the stipulation that Dan resign as executive director.

I talked to Dan over the telephone about these issues as well as his new appointment to Buffalo.

Drew McManus: Tell me about the current CSO deficit.  I understand
that $600,000 in losses were due to write offs and accounting errors.

Our problems at Columbus aren’t due to write offs.  For example
$50,000 was related to office renovations and those are perfectly
normal expenses.  The remaining losses were due to circumstances beyond
our control, such as the sliding economy and resulting shortage in
ticket sales.  Our earned income was down quite a bit as a result.
Drew McManus: And what about the accounting errors?

Dan Hart: There were no accounting errors.
What about the latest audit that reported there were numerous
accounting errors such as reporting pledges as actual donations and
reporting ticket revenue twice?

Dan Hart: I don’t know all of the details from that audit off the top of my head and I’m not in the office right now.
I understand that you voluntarily cut your own salary in
March, 2003 as a result of the growing financial problems, is this true?

Dan Hart: Yes, it is.

I wasn’t able to get any further details about those issues, so I continued on to the issue of the $1.5 million donation offer.

Drew McManus: I understand there is a donor in Columbus who is
willing to give the orchestra $1.5 million under the conditions that
you reinstate Alessandro Siciliani as Music Director for another two
years and that you resign.  Do you know why the donor would submit such
a stipulation?

Dan Hart: I guess the donor thought the problems were my fault and that responsibility starts at the top.
Drew McManus: Did the CSO board of trustees consider taking the donation?

The donor’s offer wasn’t rejected out of hand, but in the end the
board felt that they didn’t like being dictated to in that way.
I understand that the CSO musicians took a vote to endorse or
reject accepting the donation with the stipulations.  In the end one of
their representatives said the vote passed by more than 90% to accept
the stipulations.  The representative also said that although the
musicians have had good relations with you in the past they still hold
you accountable for the current financial problems related to
mismanagement.  Did that vote have any effect on the board’s decision?

Dan Hart: I don’t think so, but you’ll have to ask the board members.
(I did attempt to contact Columbus Symphony board chairman Michael McMennamin, but he did not return my calls.)
I also understand from some of the musicians that the board
rejected the donation because you and the board don’t have a very good
working relationship with Alessandro Siciliani, is this true?

Dan Hart: I think [Alessandro and I] worked well together.
So did the board seriously consider accepting the stipulation
that they reinstate Alessandro Siciliani for another two years?

Dan Hart: No comment.

Next, I asked Dan about his recent appointment as the executive director for the Buffalo Philharmonic.

Drew McManus: I understand you’ve worked with JoAnn Falletta before, in Virginia.
Dan Hart: yes, we worked together for 4� years at Virginia.  I think her approach is unique and I worked well with her.
Drew McManus: How did you go about getting the position and who did you interview with at Buffalo?

A representative from Buffalo approached me about the position in
mid June of 2004.  I met with the board leadership, some of the staff
and managers, and a group of musicians.
Drew McManus: What did you talk about that convinced them to give you the job?

Dan Hart: We talked about my previous work with JoAnn and about my accomplishments at Columbus.
Drew McManus: Such as?

How I expanded our donor base and that ticket sales to our pop
concerts have skyrocketed over the years since I arrived.
Drew McManus: Weren’t low ticket sale revenue one of the problems that led to the current financial problems at Columbus?

Dan Hart: We didn’t discuss that.
Did you talk to the search committee in Buffalo about the
current financial problems in Columbus as well as the donor’s $1.5
million offer with its stipulation that you resign and the resulting
musicians vote accepting the gift under those terms?

I did bring up that situation with the Board Chair, Angelo
Fatta.  I also left a folder with some newspaper articles about the
situation with him.
Drew McManus: Was he concerned about this?

Dan Hart: I don’t know, you’ll have to ask him.
did attempt to arrange and interview with Buffalo Philharmonic board
chairman Angelo Fatta over the past week and a hlaf, but after numerous
telephone and email requests to the orchestra’s PR department, they
were never able to arrange an interview.)

Drew McManus: Did you talk to the Buffalo musician representatives about any of this?

Dan Hart: I left the folder with the newspaper articles.

At that point Dan had to end our interview in order to attend to some personal business.

I left the interview with some mixed thoughts.  I thought that Dan
appeared to be a very nice guy during our talk and I remember that the
players in Columbus I spoke to said that they typically had good
relations with Dan.

I also approve of Dan’s initiative to accept a pay cut as an act of
administrative attrition and responsibility for Columbus’ financial
problems.  But then I remembered that the same Columbus musicians felt
strongly enough about Dan’s responsibility for their financial problems
to endorse a proposal (by a 90% voting margin) that required his

And I also feel like there are issues of misrepresentation surrounding this appointment at Buffalo.

But that’s not really Dan’s fault, because in the end it’s the
decision of the Buffalo Philharmonic’s board to hire their new
executive director.  It’s the board’s responsibility to conduct due
diligence and fully examine all potential candidates.

I would have enjoyed being able to talk to Buffalo Philharmonic
board chairman Angelo Fatta about the decision making process they used
which concluded that Dan was the best candidate for the job.  It would
have gone a long way toward clarifying many of the issues running
around in my mind after the interview:

According to Dan, his tenure at Columbus was marked by
“skyrocketing” ticket sales for pops concerts.  But once of the leading
reasons he said the orchestra was experiencing financial trouble was do
to a severe drop in overall ticket sales.

One donor in Columbus felt strongly enough about Dan’s
responsibility for the orchestra’s financial troubles that he offered
to give a large sum of money, but only if Dan resigned. How much did
the entire search committee in Buffalo know about that?

To me, it looks an awful lot like just another case in this industry
where those with the authority to make decisions are simply rewarding effort over achievement.

Perhaps it helps to look at the scenario this way:

You have a concert violinist who does a wonderful job playing for
numerous orchestras over fifteen years.  Then, suddenly, his playing
becomes riddled with problems and he isn’t up to the necessary artistic
level demanded by such a position.  Do you think very many orchestras
are going to want to hire him to perform with their orchestra?

Who wins in this situation? How would you feel if you were a
staffer, manager, board member, or musician in the Buffalo

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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