I Like What I See In Milwaukee

Just in case anyone missed the article in the online version of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Tom Strini buried yesterday in the low traffic path of Labor Day, go give it a read.

Tom wrote a good article which focuses on the future of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra via interviews with the MSO’s new executive director Mark Hanson and their new marketing director Sean McBryde.

Hanson and McBryde take the time to describe the financial hole the MSO is in and how they plan to dig their way out of it.

This has to be one of the first articles I’ve read in a long, long time that really goes into some relevant details about how an orchestra plans to reverse its downward spiral.  Either Tom does a good job at not letting Hanson & McBryde offer ambiguous answers to questions that demand specifics or Hanson & McBryde are smart enough to know that what people want to read about are specifics.  Perhaps it’s a little of column “A” and a little from column “B”.

What’s important to realize though is that the MSO is in some big trouble if they can’t turn around their fortunes.  Equally important to realize is that Hanson & McBryde plan to turn the organization around by expansion and not by cutting away at the orchestra until it’s an “appropriate size” for Milwaukee (otherwise known as that insidious structural deficit argument).

Calling a Spade a Spade
The first thing that struck me in the article is that Hanson has the chutzpah to state that the MSO has actually been the trouble for some time, but they’ve just been sweeping that fact under a rug and away from the public.  The article reports,

“Hanson also said the numbers weren’t really that much worse than in previous seasons, when withdrawals from the symphony’s unrestricted endowment masked large deficits. Previous managements pulled some $3.5 million from that endowment over the years. Hanson has ended that practice.”

Any other manager that subscribes to a structural deficit facade would have said that the community can’t really support an orchestra this size and as a result they should trim down the artistic product accordingly.

But no, instead of taking the easy way out, the MSO leadership has done the smart thing; find more board member level connections to money in Milwaukee.  And the first place they turned to look is their past: former board officers.

Here they found present and former MSO board chairs to put their collective heads together and find avenues to new money but only if the current leaders get their act together and show that the organization deserves it first.

I hope their next step is to continue these relationships as well as bring new members into the flock.  Every community has social and financial sectors that are growing and receding and an orchestra board membership needs to be representative of those changes.  That is, they need to keep the ties to the past as well as forge relationships with the new.

Hanson also seems to realize the fact that just because the orchestra is a medium of great art, that alone isn’t reason enough for people to care. The JSOnline article quotes him as saying,

“Nobody owes us anything, we have to earn it.”

And that’s the reality of existing in a free market society. 

There’s a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk
Hanson seems to be one of the few managers that are publicly saying what I’ve been advocating for nearly a year here at Adaptistration.  And although that’s a giant leap forward compared to Hanson’s peer managers, he will still need to walk that walk.

One positive step I noticed in the article is that Hanson reduced the administrative staff by 17.  I’ve always indicated in this column that on average, most orchestra administrations carry too many middle managers.  The JSOnline article doesn’t specify which positions were cut, but hopefully I’ll be able to find that out later this week.

The article also leaves out any comments or thoughts from MSO musicians or their music director, Andreas Delfs.  Admittedly, I don’t have the space or editorial restrictions here that Tom Strini has at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, so he may have interviewed musicians or not. I simply don’t know.  But either way, their opinions matter and I’ll see about talking to some of them to find out what they think.

Another relevant fact to consider is how long Hanson plans to stay in Milwaukee to get the job done.  His career is one of short tenures and ladder climbing; he hasn’t spent more than three years at either of his previous two positions. 

I’ll also examine some of the ideas MSO marketing director Sean McBryde revealed to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to find a new audience in an article later in the week.

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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