To Tell Or Not To Tell

In Wednesday’s edition of the Dallas Morning News there was an article about the severe financial troubles of the Richardson Symphony Orchestra.  Unfortunately, there seems to be more than enough orchestras with financial trouble these days, but what caught my attention was that the writer, Kristine Hughes, reported in one of the opening paragraphs:

“[Richardson Symphony] Chairwoman Dalene Buhl and other members said they reluctantly agreed during a meeting Monday to take their plight to the public. They said they had feared current supporters would abandon the symphony if the situation seemed hopeless but at the same time didn’t want it to fold without a fight.”

That little paragraph provides enough food for thought to keep just about anyone busy in conversation for hours. Is honesty always the best policy?  Can donors get scared away under those conditions?

There’s no definite answer to those questions but one point the article didn’t include is the level of personal embarrassment, shame, or depression some board members feel when it becomes public knowledge that they stewardship has produced a financially unstable organization.

Orchestra boards are inherently socio-political environments so how well an orchestra does, financially and artistically, is reflected upon board members (especially executive members and committee chairpersons). It stands to reason then that board members may have to carry around a bit of a Scarlet Letter when the organization isn’t doing well.

More often than not, I think it’s a good idea to be honest with the public; hiding the reality or severity of problems will only lead to more problems.  Ideally, if organizational information was shared with the public with as much frequency and about as many economic facets as for profit companies must provide potential investors, many of the financial problems orchestras are dealing with either wouldn’t exist or be far less severe.

I don’t think Richardson should have to worry about their current donors, if they believe in the orchestra and its mission they won’t jump ship over this news.  And so long as Richardson can present a reasonable plan of action to the public which will allow them to not only to get out of their current problems but to attain long term security, they should be able to raise the funds they need.

It’s the previous paragraph that seems to snarl more orchestras than not in their attempts to recover financially.  One place to keep an eye on is the beleaguered Virginia Symphony, their musicians recently agreed to take a 5.8% reduction in their pay which effectively lowers their base salary to $22,128.

The orchestra’s  press release detailing the concessions doesn’t contain very much information for Virginia’s plan to dig out of their financial hole besides the possibility of increased earned income opportunities with the opening of a new performance venue next season and some outreach initiatives.  Although the orchestra does maintain a higher than average industry earned income percentage, I doubt that alone will solve their economic woes.

Add to that the fact that the one year concessionary contract extension includes language for a return to previous base pay plus a 2.9% increase in 05-06 and what you have is sort of financial tourniquet.  If the surgeon is going to save this patient, they are going to have to act quickly.

The press release goes on to say that due to the concessions the orchestra will be able to end the current season with a balanced budget, but I’m skeptical whether or not that’s the complete story.  All of this makes me wonder if the board at the Virginia Symphony has had the same sort of “To Tell Or Not To Tell” conversation the Richardson Symphony had earlier this week.

If not, I hope they don’t have the discussion after it’s too late and the issue is moot.

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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