In Oregon, It’s All Covered In The Contract

There’s a big fuss brewing in Oregon over an the issue of artistic review.  If you’re not familiar with that concept and how it relates to orchestras, it’s the process whereby a tenured musician can lose their job due to artistic reasons (their playing isn’t as good as it should be).

In short, it’s how orchestras rid themselves of players who have, for whatever reason, lost it.  I know most people tend to see any sort of union backed tenure situation as a “job for life” but it doesn’t work like that.  Before the time of union representation, orchestra musicians were fired at will by tyrannical, temperamental conductors and traded between ensembles not unlike the way kids trade baseball cards (hey, I’ll trade you our second chair cellist for your bass clarinetist and two violists!).

The situation was so fraught with abuse that it was one of the fundamental reasons orchestra musicians became unionized in the first place.  Over the decades most orchestras has crafted their own process of artistic review, which is spelled out in great detail within the collective bargaining agreement.

The collective bargaining agreement in place at Oregon is no exception, they have 458 words dedicated to the procedures related to implementing and conducting an artistic review and another 531 words dedicated to dispute resolution which may result from the review process.

Although each orchestra will have some unique language in their respective artistic review clauses, the basic idea is that the artistic review process is initiated by the music director and must list the problems, in detail, with the player in question.  Said player is then provided with a predetermined amount of time to address these artistic issues and improve.  At the end of that period, the music director either accepts any improvements as adequate or recommends removal of the player.

However, before they can just get rid of anyone, a committee of musicians (and sometimes managers) are allowed to examine the artistic review process in order to determine the music director isn’t unfairly targeting a member of the orchestra.  This review committee can effectively overturn a final decision from the music director but it depends on each orchestra’s process. 

Frankly, it’s a good, basic system.  The issues of artistic review are touchy as it is and you can’t expect the musicians to police themselves, so it falls on the shoulders of the music director to initiate any artic review procedure; after all, they are the artistic leader of the organization.  Nevertheless, having a system of checks and balances such as a review committee at the end of the procedure to ensure everything is on the up and up does provide a level playing field for everyone involved.

As with any system, the artistic review process is only as good as the people involved.  Sometimes, conductors ignore problematic musicians because they are adverse to confrontation and thus shirk their responsibility.  I’ve also seen new conductors come into an orchestra and bring numerous players in principal seats up on artistic review only because they want to fill those seats with their friends or colleagues from elsewhere.

It’s situations such as that which take advantage of good intentions, but in the end the system usually works.  I’ve known players who went through an artistic review process only to come out playing stronger than they ever have before.

The situation in Oregon will undoubtedly continue to get some attention in the press but so long as everyone on both sides follow the procedures stipulated in the collective bargaining agreement, then whatever the outcome, it will be based on a fair, balanced procedure.

However, if either side begins to toe the line of “legalese” in order to force their will on the process then you can expect a lose-lose scenario.

Good contract language adhered to by good people result in good relations. Vague contract language manipulated by bad intentions result in bitter apathy.

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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