There’s Never A Good Time To Downsize An Orchestra By 25%

A recent opinion piece from the editorial staff of the Louisville Courier-Journal endorsed the Louisville Orchestra board position of cutting the orchestra down to the size of a part time ensemble. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the Courier-Journal’s editorial staff has espoused an absolutely wrong position..

To begin with, the editorial actually contradicts itself. At one point, it states,

The community has a stake in all of this, and we have a right to inform the players, and the board (which is taking a hard line, too), that compromise is vital.”

Nevertheless, in the very next paragraph they endorse the board sponsored measure of cutting the orchestra down to size comparable to Grand Rapids, MI or Fort Wayne, IN.

” A full-time orchestra of 71 players doesn’t seem to be one of the things we can afford. But a smaller, leaner one is practical, and now is the time for that change to be made.”

Although it is certainly within the paper’s prerogative to endorse whatever position they wish, it would be better if they could reasonably demonstrate why they support a particular course of action.

In the Courier-Journal editorial, they claim that the orchestra’s financial problems are endemic, even so, they don’t offer a single bit of evidence they have actually conducted any research into the Louisville Orchestra’s financial history or examined any hard facts. Instead, they point out a few recent events with regard to negotiation offers made by the orchestra’s board and praise the orchestra’s outgoing executive director for having done “an impressive job in less than two years [there]”.

Frankly, that’s a sloppy way to offer commentary on a situation that is critical to Louisville’s future success and status among its peers. Sadly, the only thing this editorial proves is there may be a little substance behind the wretched stereotype that southerners are a bunch of oligarchical, undereducated, cultureless hillbillies.

Ever since the onset of public hostility between the Louisville Orchestra board and their musicians, the Courier-Journal editorial staff has demonstrated they favor the board’s position. Furthermore, they are apparently willing to sacrifice the paper’s journalistic credibility by allowing board president Joe Pusateri to publish his viewpoints under the headline “Orchestra president outlines problems issues with musicians” and with the byline and credentials of “Special to the Courier-Journal”.

To add insult to injury, the editorial staff released their first opinion piece about this issue on the very same day they published Joe Pusateri’s “Special to the Courier-Journal”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their opinion firmly supported all of Joe Pusateri’s positions.

This flagrant abuse of the Courier-Journal’s position allowed one side in an ongoing labor dispute to present their position without any journalistic oversight. Allowing Joe Pusateri to publish his own piece instead of assigning a reporter to ask questions, follow-up on points, and investigate claims demonstrates a sincere lack of journalistic due diligence. Furthermore, to publish an opinion piece on the very same day which advocated the positions outlined by Joe Pusateri should be enough for any competing media outlet to investigate a possible conflict of interest among the relationship between the paper’s editorial staff and/or owners and Joe Pusateri.

Thankfully, based on the amount of feedback I’ve observed at online discussion boards which examine this issue in addition to the voluminous amount of email and comments submitted to Adaptistration, I believe the people of Louisville don’t share the same opinions as the Courier-Journal editorial staff.

They understand that a professional level orchestra isn’t merely a tool used to build city status like some sort of box waiting to be checked off on a to-do list. They also understand that sort of mentality will gladly accept the lowest common denominator in those equations: “we don’t need a full time orchestra, we only need something just above a community ensemble, that way we can still say we’re cultured”.

History has proven time and time again that the influence of the collective population is one of the strongest incentives for civic, business, and journalistic leaders to credibly fulfill their duty and not cut corners or look for the easy way out. Louisville is no different, the keys to resolving this mess lay firmly in the hands of the Greater Louisville citizens. The more they make their voices heard, the quicker they can put this disaster behind them and move in a positive direction.

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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5 thoughts on “There’s Never A Good Time To Downsize An Orchestra By 25%”

  1. It has been my experience that the articles you are referring to in the Courier-Journal do sway public opinion. We discussed the LO situation in the music appreciation class I taught soon after the stories were breaking in January/February. One student in particular held a strong view in favor of the board’s (Pusateri’s) positions. When asked where she developed that view, her response was the Courier-Journal. In this case, the CJ was able to persuade a reader, who knew very little, if nothing, about the LO to side with Pusateri.

    If the CJ were able to persuade half of Louisville’s population to side with Pusateri, we should all rejoice. Unfortunately, other debates on the future of the city (which have nothing to do with the arts) are blinding people to a broader dilemma: If funding for the arts, and close attention to the orchestra, takes a back burner to a new basketball arena, the city will shrink beyond recognition.

    The greater debate is whether Louisville cares about immediate gratification with either a new arena or a smaller orchestra, or a long-term investment in a “sector” that historically is longer lasting (Bach or Beethoven ring a bell?).

    I wish that the arguments over the LO were making headlines everyday. I wish the debates were “raging” and Louisvillians would beg the mayor to divert some “arena money” to build a sustainable future for the Louisville Orchestra.

  2. Why not organize an email campaign to the newspaper protesting the one-sided reportage and editorializing? If the citizens of Louisville “know” what a serious orchestra should consist of, then, they should enter into the public discussion.

    But, the characterization:

    “.. there may be a little substance behind the wretched stereotype that southerners are a bunch of oligarchical, undereducated, cultureless hillbillies..”

    although perhaps emotionally justified, is only a small part of the problem, if true. What is more true is the patriarchal nature of southern leadership, in general, and the passivity
    of the supposedly cultured to tend to their cultural institutions with any kind of engagement with the missions of those arts organizations, other than occasional protests about content, e.g., “too modern,” “too pornographic,” etc.

    It still comes back to the partial truth, that they are musically illiterate,and that returns us to my particular obsession: no music in public schools, no classical music on local radios, little exposure to classical music in any other public venue or mass media.

    However, sometimes it is the unfairness of a process which galvanizes people and wakes them out of their collective “sleep” to change things.
    What Louisville needs, right now, is a respected member of the community to stand up and speak out.
    Surely, such a person exists, there?

  3. One thing that has been lacking from the discussion of the orchestra’s financial crisis is what level of funding a city like Louisville can reasonably be expected to support. As I point out here:

    Louisville actually is near the bottom in orchestra budgets for cities its size. Regional peer cities spend far more on their orchestras. So I don’t believe Louisville is over-extended. Especially in light of Louisville’s claim to be an above average arts city, I don’t believe shrinking the budget to alleviate a short term crisis is going to resolve anything positively.

  4. So what’s next? I know how easy it is for outside observers to pontificate freely about someone else’s orchestra and community. There are probably several key players (from both camps) who are working non-stop to bring dignity and equity back into the picture. These sort of folks are always there, and usually under the radar. I wish them the best.

    The most offensive aspect of the situation is the sleazy rhetoric which allows the administration and the board to announce a financial crisis seemingly provoked by the outrageous demands of the musicians. This rhetoric is effective on the general public (which we respect for its power, not necessarily for its intelligence) because we all somehow think artists are martyrs rather than real people who have a job.

    They go to work like everybody else, only they are far more qualified than most by training and commitment to produce an excellent product. It just doesn’t make sense to tell these men and women that they should expect to labor harder for just the same or less, because they represent “art” and “entertainment.” What if they sold Velveeta cheese instead? If they did a good job they could ask for a raise, but is Velveeta cheese a necessity?

    Folks, we NEED our orchestras. They are a true necessity – something that adds value to life in the best way possible. How can it be acceptable for an administration and board to surprise the musicians and the community with the prospect of bankruptcy? That kind of financial peril is no accident or surprise, and it is pathetic for the administration to imply or state that the musicians are somehow responsible for creating that peril. In fact, Joe Pusateri and Co. are freaking out to such a degree – don’t you at least wonder how they let things get so bad?

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