Another Example Of Good Cultural Reporting

The Dallas Morning News published a piece by Scott Cantrell about the departure of Katherine Akos, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. You know it’s going to be a good piece when the article begins with the line…

It was the classic way of camouflaging bad news: a news release at 5:20 on a Friday afternoon…

Fortunately, the piece doesn’t revel in bringing you bad news for the sake of sensation. Instead, it accurately interprets the type of power spin which emanates from most orchestra press rooms (an issue examined here a few weeks ago) in a way that a seasoned cultural reporter is capable of doing. Additionally, the article fairly examines a profound problem among some American orchestras; in particular, are board members measuring an executive’s success more by effort or achievement.

Scott’s article clearly reports that Ms. Akos was having difficulty meeting the organization’s fundraising goals and office tension was growing. One FWSO staffer, quoted anonymously in Scott’s article (another issue recently examined here at Adaptistration), commented that the tension in the office was “palpable”.

The article is quick to point out the apparent problem was Ms. Akos’ inability to deliver on fundraising goals. Indeed, it was no secret that she was hired as a “fundraising” executive, in the 02/05/2004 edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram FWSO board member William Hallman was quoted saying,

“[Akos] has an amazing breadth of experience in the areas in which we need the most help, particularly in fund raising.”

Indeed, Ms. Akos apparently felt she was up to the challenge as the same article quotes her as saying,

“The key to fund raising is building relationships and communicating passion,” she said. “When you connect with people’s interests, the money follows.”

Ms. Akos’ enthusiasm notwithstanding, the FWSO board had to make a difficult decision with regard to retaining her and adjusting their fundraising goals to match her success rate or look for a new executive; in essence they had to decide whether it was more important to them to reward effort or achievement (another popular Adaptistration topic).

Undoubtedly, the ability of Ann Koonsman, retired FWSO president & CEO, to step in as the interim executive leader so they can have ample time to conduct a thorough search for a full time replacement had a significant impact on their final decision. It isn’t often an orchestra board has that sort of resource at their disposal.

Too many orchestras in a similar position wait until it’s too late before making a necessary change in executive leadership and the result is their organization plunges into financial trouble (often followed up by strained labor relations). Although the decision by the FWSO board to replace their executive certainly wasn’t easy, the organization is now in better shape to stay on track with their original mission of growing the organization to meet its full potential.

Every orchestra board out there can learn something from this situation at Fort Worth. Fortunately, the Fort worth/Dallas area is lucky enough to have a cultural reporter and editorial staff with the foresight to bring these issues into public view.

Postscript: Don’t forget to write to Scott and his editors at the Dallas Morning News if you liked the article.

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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