Peter Dobrin Couldn’t Be More Right

Philadelphia Inquirer music critic, Peter Dobrin, deserves the recognition for being the only mainstream media journalist to hit the bull’s-eye when it comes to this nonsense in Baltimore. His article in Sunday’s Inquirer isn’t about glass ceilings, famous firsts, sexism, elitism, or any other “-ism”. Instead, it’s about what really matters…

Peter’s article focuses on the core of what is most important at Baltimore right now; the relationship between musicians, managers, and board members. It’s this relationship which will ultimately dictate how well the orchestra accomplishes its artistic and community goals.

Historically, the relationship between musicians and managers has been defined by sides; managers and board members on one and musicians on the other. This pattern of behavior developed out of need from both sides decades ago and has been reinforced by the legal definition of where the decision making authority within a nonprofit organization rests.

In an orchestra, it is the board that retains the legal authority to hire the executive administrator and the music director as well as accept the terms of the collective bargaining agreement with the musicians. They have virtually no restrictions dictating how they must go about that process, furthermore, they have no legal obligation to form search committees, solicit musician or patron in put, or seek out advice or counsel from anyone when appointing the organization’s administrative and artistic leaders.

Because of those legal parameters, musicians have historically been excluded from most decision making processes entirely and allowed only marginal inclusion in other areas. Nevertheless, there’s been a strong movement over the past decade among some managers to include musicians in more facets of the organization. The reasoning was that since they are such integral members of the organization they should have increased input on setting organizational goals and participating in the implementation process.

Peter summed this up in his article nicely by saying the musicians have been encouraged to become empowered,

“Empower people and they act empowered. Surprise!”

That’s where things in Baltimore began to come apart. During a recent contract negotiation, the BSO musicians accepted a considerable reduction in pay on the promise that they would have improved avenues of participation with regard to the music director search process and issues related to musician tenure review.

This offer was accepted by the board and both parties heralded a new era of mutual trust, good faith, and joint participation with the goal of transforming their historical patterns of behavior.

In preparation for their participation, the elected musician representatives spent hundreds of hours researching potential candidates and defining what their collective sentiment was toward hiring a new music director. They entered the partnership feeling empowered and ready to contribute toward finding new solutions. Unfortunately, it became very clear during the early stages of the search process that the musician component and those representing the board and executive management began to arrive at very different conclusions regarding a number of critical issues.

As the process continued to degrade a motion that the search committee retain the services of a mutually agreed upon facilitator to help with the process was rejected by the BSO board in June of 2005. Based on the motion to bring in a facilitator, the board disbands the search committee a few weeks later and informs all constituents that they would hold a meeting with the goal of electing a final candidate.

On Tuesday, 7/19/05, the executive board of the BSO did exactly that, they cast a vote and elected a new music director even though the musicians were pleading for an extension to the search process. After the musician’s final appeal, James Glicker gave a short speech which castigated the musicians for feeling excluded from the process and for their taking action to correct what they perceived as mistreatment. He concluded that the board should elect the proposed music director candidate presented that day “If for no other reason [than]…to teach the musicians a lesson.”

The musicians responded by publicly saying they were very disappointed in the search process and how a few members of the executive board and management treated them throughout the ordeal but they were naturally willing to perform at their utmost with any candidate the board selected.

This brings us back to Peter Dobrin’s poignant comment, “Empower people and they act empowered. Surprise!”

Based on the actions by the James Glicker and Phillip English, BSO board chair, they firmly believe in using the old model of governance and are not afraid to enforce that decision with the legal rights still guaranteed under Federal laws mandating how nonprofit organizations operate.

To help illustrate this point, it pays to examine a concluding line from a letter written by James Glicker to BSO patrons in June of 2005 about the search process,

“The mark of a great team is its ability to put aside personal differences and to respect leadership when decisions are made.”

Apparently, this was foreshadowing the actions taken by the executive board and the words offered by Mr. Glicker before the vote in 7/19/05. It reinforces the notion offered by many musicians and their union representatives that regardless of how much talk from those bestowed with the legal authority within a nonprofit on matters of inclusion you hear, you can’t rely on them to honor their word if any inclusionary process arrives at a result which is contrary to their personal wishes.

It becomes apparent that the music director search process in Baltimore was no different than the number of music director searches they, and other orchestras, have always conducted; a few key officers of the board and the executive administrator made their decisions based on their own opinions regardless of any contrary opinions from other stake holding constituents.

Peter Dobrin credits much of the inclusive action taken by orchestra boards across the country for helping to avoid some potentially crippling work stoppages. But he also points out the dangers associated if any one constituency fails to follow through on their end of the deal. Peter concludes his article with the following statements,

“[An important issue left unresolved is] finding a way for musicians and management to shed their old roles as opponents so orchestras in America can finally arrive at true institutional cohesiveness.

Let’s hope Baltimore hasn’t set the clock back.”

I would go so far as to say that the clock Peter’s referring to hasn’t really begun to move forward yet in any appreciable amount. If anything, Baltimore hasn’t really set back the clock so much as thrown up a new roadblock preventing it from moving forward.

In the end, all of the attractive ideals attached to the language of inclusion between managers, board members, and musicians is a wonderful dream. But it will always remain a dream until the only constituency entrusted with the legal authority to govern the orchestra will be willing to share that authority in a legally binding fashion with the other constituencies; the board.

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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2 thoughts on “Peter Dobrin Couldn’t Be More Right

  1. Sometime in the early 1950s I got my degree as Batchlor or Arts in Theater Arts, Motion Picture Major, from UCLA, and went out to make moo’oom pictures.

    I found something discouraging: almost without exception, film production units in government and industry were headed by, and mainly staffed by, people who knew very little about motion pictures and what they were capable of.

    For the most part, audiovisual units were staffed by people who had started out as still photographers, copy writers, gofers, et al. When the organizations set up audiovisual units, they hired from within and promoted those people to jobs for which they were not qualified. This left well-trained motion picture practitioners free to join their father in laws’ button factories or real estate offices.

    Is the same thing happening in the orchestra field? I hear of the existence of courses set up to train men and women to manage symphony orchestras. Yet, it seems to my ill-informed mind, that any management opening that occurs is filled “from within,” usually by a business man who “has met a payroll and knows how to cope with unions.”

    If true, sad.

  2. I too agree that Peter Dobrin “gets it”. I would, however, take issue with the following: Dobrin writes “Boards and managements argue that it is their responsibility to hire a music director. They pay the bills and assume the risk…” In fact, in a non-profit like a symphony orchestra the greatest risk of bad decision making is borne by the employees. Unlike a for profit board, non-profit board members are not exposed financially if the organization fails to perform – they are neither compensated for their board service nor are any shares at risk. The only “risk” non-profit board mambers assume is to their reputations.

    Because of the cozy network that exists among orchestra managers via the ASOL, we frequenlty see poor managers jumping from orchestra to orchestra affording them an effective buffer from “risk”.

    Musicians, and to some extent staffers, on the other hand, assume the risk of loss of income and loss of career if financial performance lags or fails. Take a look at the former stakeholders of the Florida Philharmanic or Sacramento Symphony today and tell me honestly who ended up absorbing the “risk”.

    Steve Proser
    Utah Symphony

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