Throwing In The Towel

The recent collapse of Seattle’s Northwest Chamber Orchestra is the latest brick to fall from the orchestral wall of classical music, and that wall is already showing signs of extreme wear and tear…

I haven’t spoken with any of the musician representatives from the NWCO to find out what their plans are for the immediate future but I would be surprised to learn that they don’t have something in the development stages. Although it’s never a good thing when an orchestra suffers complete collapse, this situation is particularly disturbing.

The Seattle Times published an article about the situation which seems to indicate that the organizational demise wasn’t due to simply financial distress so much as a disintegration of board, administrative, and conducting leadership. In particular, the article reports that at the time of filing bankruptcy, the NWCO was carrying an approximately 30% debt ratio (an alleged $180,000ish deficit on a $600,000ish budget).

Although this certainly isn’t a healthy debt ratio, it isn’t exactly critical and the Times article goes on to point out the organization has weathered debt ratios much larger than that. The Times article also points out that the beginning of the end was initiated by the abrupt departure of then executive director, David Pocock.

After that point the article reports that the organization suffered a fatal board split among the executive members, music director Ralf Gothóni resigned, and a full time executive administrator was never identified. A failed gala event appears to have been the final nail in the coffin as the remaining board members simply threw in the towel.

And that’s really at the heart of the matter here. The NWCO isn’t the first organization to suffer a loss of several executive board members in conjunction with subsequent departures among the administrative and conducting leadership.

As a matter of fact as recently as a year ago in Columbus Ohio, the orchestra lost several executive board members, the executive director abruptly left, and the music director was already in his final year with the ensemble. To make matters worse, the executive director left shortly after the public announcement that bad bookkeeping, low ticket sales, and sluggish fundraising had resulted in a “surprise” deficit that was worse than the organization had experienced in quite some time.

But Columbus is still around. The organization has since identified a new music director, they are still without a full time executive director, and the executive board members are still getting settled into their responsibilities. With all of this stress, the organization even managed to improve their website enough that it jumped up 12 positions to finish in the #4 slot of the 2006 Adaptistration Orchestra Website Review.

Even though these two organizations have vastly different annual budget levels, they both demonstrate just how important sheer will plays in the success or failure of an organization.

The decisions faced by board members in Seattle and Columbus weren’t all that different, regardless of how many zeros were at the end of their respective figures. Each board had to make a difficult choice to continue the fight for success or throw in the towel. That’s not to belittle this process, obviously, it’s a wrenching series of events, but in the end it is still a choice.

Board service comes with an inherent set of risk involved, but in the end, that risk is still mitigated by personal decisions among board members surrounding whether or not they will accept that risk. Now that the NWCO will cease to exist in the form it has known for the past 33 years, the remaining stakeholders (musicians, managers, volunteers, and enduring board members) will need to decide whether or not they want to go through the process of picking up the shattered remains of the ensemble and start up the hill again.

Postscript: Of course, this situation playing out in Seattle isn’t unique this season. In Louisville, the orchestra there is playing the very same game as their board president seems determined to willfully send the organization into bankruptcy. Hopefully, the stakeholders in that ensemble will look over their shoulders at Columbus and Seattle and then decide which option is worth choosing.

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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1 thought on “Throwing In The Towel”

  1. As a violinist in the Louisville Orchestra, my heart goes out to the NWCO players. I studied with their concertmaster, Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi, for 3-4 years in the late 80’s, and she is a heck of a violinist. Seattle, how could you let this happen?

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