Applying Some Perspective In St. Louis

In a recent article published in the 03/05/05 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the article’s author, Sarah Bryan Miller, challenges one of the basic concepts which have successfully driven the increased artistic and financial accomplishment of orchestras since the early 1960’s.  The concept of having musicians set financial goals for the organization via contract negotiations.

Ms. Miller accuses the musician’s negotiator, Leonard Leibowitz, as being one of the contributing parties to the break down of the negotiations over the past several weeks by promoting a philosophical approach which she claims may be damaging to orchestras in the 21st century.  The article reports,

Leibowitz told the Post-Dispatch that symphony orchestras “were not created to make money. They were created to lose money. And they do. They run deficits.”

I’ve talked to Mr. Leibowitz in several past occasions and can attest to the fact that I’ve heard him say the exact same thing.  However, I believe Ms. Miller’s conclusions are based on a misinterpretation of that notion.

When Mr. Leibowitz is talking about the concept that orchestras ” were created to lose money.” that has more to do with the fact that they are nonprofit institutions.   Orchestral institutions are more like government agencies, they aren’t designed to make money but they know how much it costs to successfully fulfill and/or expand their outreach and mission objectives.

During periods of growth, especially in times of unexpected economic change, some organizations may run a deficit, but that fact alone doesn’t indicate any sort of structural defect in the financial structure of an organization. Instead, it indicates a possible flaw in the way it operates financially and the need to reevaluate and implement changes.

The Post-Dispatch article goes on to report,

According to Leibowitz, “We set goals; management’s job is to meet those goals over the term of the agreement. If (Adams’) philosophy is ‘only spend what we have,’ what incentive is there to go out and raise money?”
But the notion of arbitrarily “setting goals” for someone else to meet may not be a reasonable approach at the beginning of the 21st century, which promises to be even tougher for the fine arts than the last one.

Personally, I think it’s a bit premature to declare that the entire 21st century is going to be tougher for the arts than the 20th century.  Furthermore, the notion that either Mr. Leibowitz or the musicians of the SLSO may have arbitrarily set their requests for compensation is completely unsubstantiated.

In an interview published here at Adaptistration with the SLSO musician’s negotiating committee Chair, Jan Gippo, it was revealed that the musicians put a great deal of time, research, and energy into structuring their compensation requests so as not to damage the institution’s financial stability.

Additionally, I have yet to find an orchestra in the U.S. where the musicians or managers put together their negotiation demands arbitrarily.

The Post-Dispatch author, Ms. Miller, seems to misunderstand the fundamental purpose of why collective bargaining agreements exist today; they are the only outlet the musicians have to set contractually obligated artistic and financial organizational goals.  Without that avenue of influence, orchestras would revert back to the days of tyrannical music directors and live lives barely above the level of servitude.  I doubt many people would be happy to see things regress back to those days.

The Post-Dispatch article goes on to draw conclusions on the prudence of Mr. Leibowitz’s philosophy,

Leibowitz’s philosophy is unsustainable. The big patrons are far fewer than they used to be, and they’re either not able or not willing to write checks to cover losses every year. The days of orchestras routinely running multimillion-dollar deficits are over – or will be soon.

The notion that orchestras are in trouble because of simultaneous increase in demands from the musicians for higher compensation and a decrease in big money patrons is simplistic, misguided, and outright wrong.

Although there are certainly too many orchestras in the U.S. who are running big deficits, there are many others who are in good financial shape and even more who have a very tight control on turning around the deficits which exist.  Those managers are doing exactly what they are charged with doing; fixing unexpected problems without sacrificing artistic accomplishment.  There are even some orchestras who are growing in leaps and bounds.

Not all of the points in the Post-Dispatch article are off base.  One of those is the notion that musicians need to begin setting standards for artistic accomplishment other than their base pay.  The article quotes one SLSO musician as saying,

One musician, who didn’t want his name used, observes, “We don’t know how to express artistic development except in pay raises It isn’t just the money. We as musicians need to learn to define artistic excellence in other ways.”

I’ve called this condition “The Money Drug” and have written a few articles over the past year about how musicians can better deal with this inherent problem.  Not surprisingly, one of the solutions is to have very detailed contract language which sets all sorts of specific goals; created equally by musicians and managers.

Unfortunately, the Post-Dispatch article draws one final conclusion which denies the fundamental nature of orchestras,

In a day when classical music is no longer routinely recognized as a common good, musicians, managements and boards of directors need to learn to see themselves as members of the same team, not as enemies. They need to work together, as colleagues. They need to find noncombative ways to resolve their disagreements, because they all – we all – stand to lose so much if they don’t.

Granted, it would be wonderful if musicians and managers could all sit around a bonfire holding hands and singing Kum-Ba-Ya.  But the reality is there’s absolutely nothing wrong with conflict and disagreement.  On the contrary, it’s actually healthier for any organization in the long run.

I remember a conclusion from one of Adaptistration’s past articles which presents a realistic and superior solution to catastrophic failure rather than simply avoiding conflict at all costs:

The old parable “good fences make good neighbors” can be applied in a number of ways to the orchestra industry.  Managers and musicians have to live side by side and work together.  They don’t have to like each other but they have to respect each other and eliminate the opportunities for abuse, apathy, and retaliation.

Even the best of professionals are going to have some fundamental disagreements from time to time.  Throwing issues into the ring of discourse actually allows for both sides to discover options which may not have been evident to either side.

Tomorrow’s article will examine one such case which supports this notion, it will examine a negotiation which degraded to a very contentious level but that contention actually produced a very positive result.  Surprisingly (or not), these board executives and musicians were able to avert disaster with some outside help from an experienced labor negotiator and an accomplished retired orchestra executive.

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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