The BIG Question In Milwaukee

A few weeks ago I published an article which pondered the question of how orchestras could simultaneously cut an artistic budget while simultaneously guaranteeing an equal level of artistic accomplishment.  Since that article, I’ve had a number of emails from very anxious musicians and patrons (not to mention a few managers) expecting an answer.

In that article I was referring to the Milwaukee Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Since Philadelphia is currently embroiled in a bitter negotiation and observing a media blackout I asked Milwaukee Symphony executive director, Mark Hanson, what he plans to do.

I sent Mark an email asking the $1 million question:

you mentioned [in a previous interview] that although the MSO needs to cut artistic expenses by $1 million you will be able to maintain the current level of artistic quality while simultaneously attracting the high level of players that have come to the MSO in recent years.  Would you explain how that would happen if the artistic budget is cut by $1 million, including reductions in musician pay?

This was Mark’s response:

As a result of declining revenue and rising costs over several years, the MSO ended the 2003-04 season with a $3 million operating deficit and an accumulated deficit of $10 million.  These numbers represent an unsustainable and potentially treacherous situation for the organization the survival of the MSO is in the balance.  My job as President & Executive Director is to restore financial and institutional strength.  Without this accomplishment, commitment to artistic and organizational excellence can be no more than a slogan. 
The magnitude of our financial problems requires that we implement a multi-pronged solution that includes both revenue and expense components, as well as a shared willingness to think and act in new ways.  Over the past six months, we have reduced administrative expenses by $1 million, launched a new concert series entitled “Classical Connections” and developed new marketing and fundraising campaigns.  Since April, the MSO has raised $2.7 million in new funding (including annual campaign and recapitalization gifts) in response to these new approaches and our three-year financial plan.  As an additional and necessary step, we are beginning to explore ways with the orchestra to realize an additional $1 million net improvement to the bottom line.  We believe that a collaborative process will lead to the most creative and least painful compromise solutions.   For instance, we are discovering in rural parts of Wisconsin an appetite for Milwaukee Symphony performances that has recently been under-valued by the MSO.  A collaborative group is best positioned to discover and discuss these types of opportunities that will help us to achieve our financial goals. 
As a donor myself, I share musician concerns about the potential impact of the MSO’s current financial situation on our ability to maintain a first-class orchestra in Milwaukee.  However, my wife and I have contributed $8,000 ($3,000 in March and $5,000 in October) to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra because we believe in this institution and the people who are working tirelessly to confront these challenges and inspire increased community participation and support.  I am confident that a creative and cooperative approach will strengthen the institution without compromising its artistic integrity.

Does this answer the original question in your mind? Is artistic quality safe and secure in Milwaukee?

I do have to take a moment and clarify one bit of blatant management spin from Mark’s response:

“$1 million net improvement to the bottom line” = $1 million cut in artistic expenses, which includes musician compensation (remember when “taxes” became “contributions”?)

This situation brings up some fundamental issues that other orchestras currently embroiled in contract negotiations are wrestling with. 

Mark mentioned his personal donation (which amounts to 4% of his annual salary, Mark was very open and honest about sharing that fact) as proof of his commitment to the organization.  But he may not be aware that the musicians helped subsidize budget problems by accepting a 5.6% reduction in planned compensation increases during the 02-03 season. 

Concessions like that are only accepted as a sign of good faith on the part of musicians to provide the board and managers with extra time and financial flexibility to solve current problems.

Now the musicians are being asked to make another sacrifice merely two years later and on top of that they are being asked to do the work of their managers (but without the extra pay); they have to participate in finding solutions to economic problems and new sources of revenue.

And we keep coming back to the original question.  Is it possible to make these artistic cuts and maintain artistic integrity?  Is making the musicians participate in finding these solutions after they’ve already provided concessions the right thing to do?

My thanks to Mark for taking the time out of his day to send in a response, it does a wonderful job at describing some recent developments in their situation and declaring that his position, as executive director, is to “restore financial and institutional strength”.  But I’m unclear if his interpretation of that position also includes an equal commitment to maintaining artistic integrity. 

If push comes to shove what is the answer?  Is the simple answerer of “find more money” just not possible?  Are they selling out artistic integrity for the promise of contributions and financial assistance at lower than previous levels?

Will “revenue flows and sound management of budgets become the end instead of the means” as was examined yesterday?

What do you think?  Did Mark’s statement surrounding the ultimate question of maintaining artistic integrity while cutting artistic budgets get answered in your mind?  Did it create more questions?  Is it all a lost cause? Are there solutions being overlooked?

Send me an email and tell me what you think.

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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