Peering Into Milwaukee’s Future

The current round of negotiations certainly has everyone’s attention in the here and now, but how will the outcome of these settlements influence orchestra’s negotiations in the following years?

There are several orchestras slated to begin contract negotiations next year that are in very similar financial straits to the orchestras currently negotiating.  Take for example, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

At the beginning of September, I published a couple of articles about some recent events at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (article #1 and article #2).  They examined some of the new attitudes among the incoming executive management and their approach to rebuilding their audience and overcoming their financial problems.

And although the MSO has a detailed three year in place to achieve those goals, they still have a few big hurdles to get over, mainly a contract negotiation next year.

To find out some details of how the three year financial plan will influence the upcoming talks I spoke with MSO president and executive director, Mark Hanson.  During my telephone conversation with Mark he stressed that nothing was more important to their three year plan than to address their deficit and pay it down.

One aspect of that plan is to reduce administrative and artistic expenses by $1 million, respectively. Mark said,

“We have already reduced administrative expenses by $1 million and we will have to reduce artistic expenses by $1 million next year even if we meet our revenue goals, it’s simply part of the plan. 

Right now, we’re examining where those cuts will come from while also allowing us to maintain our artistic commitment and financial stability.  If we fall behind our revenue targets over the next three years, this plan will force us to make difficult decisions.

Five members of the orchestra players committee have been involved in helping us design the three year plan and they are still involved in the follow up processes.”

I asked Mark to provide some examples of where the MSO plans to cut some of the artistic expenses to help reach the $1 million goal.  Mark said,

“Right now, we’re only focusing on non-musician salary issues and my hope for the future is that we will minimize the impact of any cuts on the orchestra.”

One aspect about the MSO I’ve noticed over the past few years is the large number of players that have gone on to some to the absolute top positions in the country, most notably, their former tubist Alan Baer recently won one of the top seats in the industry as the principal tubist with the New York Philharmonic.

I pointed out that observation to Mark and asked him if he thought the MSO would continue to be able to attract that level of musician to their ranks if the orchestra has to take another pay cut, which would be their second in five years.  Mark said,

“The MSO will remain as one of the top orchestra in the country to serve our region and I believe we will be able to attract and retain the best musicians and administrators over the next three years.”

I asked that same question to two musicians from the MSO, bassist and orchestra committee chairman Roger Ruggeri and principal violist Robert Levine.  Roger said,

“There will certainly be a risk that we won’t be able to draw quality players if non-performance income becomes their paramount concern.”

Robert echoed Roger’s statements and added,

“All other things being equal, it could certainly have a negative effect, both on recruitment and retention.”

As the future negotiation chairman, Roger Ruggeri said that the players have been made aware of the proposed $1 million artistic cuts via a newsletter written specifically for the players but there have not been any official discussions or meetings about the issue.

But there is one positive aspect the players may consider regarding Mark Hanson’s good faith when it comes time to negotiate; they aren’t negotiating right now.  Robert Levine said,

“Perhaps the clearest example [of Mark’s intentions] was something that he didn’t do, which was to try to re-negotiate the last year of the current labor agreement (which is this season).  A lot of managers, walking into the situation here, would have done that in short order, given that the labor agreement represents about 50% of our total costs and given that they could blame the “miscalculation” (i.e. “we thought we could afford it but we were wrong”) on the last manager.

If his thinking was that he and the board would have more credibility with the musicians if the contract was honored, then I believe he was correct. It was also the right thing to do ethically, and Milwaukee is one of those old-fashioned places where a contract is not simply the starting place for further negotiations.”

So there’s plenty of positive and negative going into the round of upcoming negotiations at Milwaukee.  How the season progresses and both sides conduct themselves will undoubtedly play a large role in determining their future.

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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