Some Additional Thoughts About New Jersey

Following yesterday’s discussion on WNYC about the New Jersey Symphony’s decision to sell their collection of rare string instruments, one thought comes to mind…

….specifically, the Winston Churchill quote “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” [Author’s Note: thanks to the Adaptistration reader who pointed out the correct attribution in the comments below]

It is safe to say that the process the NJSO used to acquire the instrument collection from Herbert Axelrod is widely acknowledged as having been flawed. Even the NJSO’s internal investigation into the acquisition process determined there were “…significant flaws in the way the [acquisition] process was conducted…”

Ultimately, the NJSO’s lack of understanding about how the rare string instrument trade operates (as well as the individuals who control that trade) led the organization to assume a much higher level of risk during the acquisition process than was necessary.

To date, the information released by the NJSO regarding how they plan to sell the instruments indicates that they intend to rely upon the services of Stewart Pollens, a retired conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although Mr. Pollens certainly has a strong reputation among the rare string instrument world, he has not assumed a similar position among the influential brokers responsible for building the rare string instrument trade. Moreover, it is the influential brokers who buyers routinely turn to when they seek advice on which instruments to purchase.

As such, given the uncertainties regarding the authenticity of some of the instruments in the NJSO’s collection, the opinions from the influential brokers will be paramount in how the value for each instrument is determined. It should come as no surprise that those opinions will likely include an intense appraisal and authentication process which may well produce considered values well below the NJSO’s expectations.

Likewise, it is worth considering that since the rare string instrument trade is populated mostly by investment buyers, it is a business governed more by profitability than the inherent (and subjective) value of art. If potential buyers don’t feel the instruments in the NJSO collection will provide them with the same rate of return as compared to an instrument with a less turbulent pedigree, then they’ll simply avoid the NJSO instruments.

In the end, it would be surprising if the NJSO is successful in selling more than a handful of their instruments without getting caught up in the issues associated with the intense appraisal and authentication process implemented by the rare string instrument trade’s influential brokers. Consequently, the NJSO may once again fall victim to many of the same forces which produced such a flawed acquisition process.

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 “Some Additional Thoughts About New Jersey”

  1. Drew wrote “one thought comes to mind . . . specifically, the Winston Churchill quote ‘Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.'”

    Or to misattribute it. While Churchill no doubt quoted that gem, it came from George Santayana (The Life of Reason, 1905), who also gave us the familiar “Fanatacism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.”

  2. My orchestra colleagues and I were jealous of the success everyone (but you) were anticipating for the NJSO when they announced this instrument purchase. At the time, I thought your initial articles pointing out the problems were full of it.

    “How innovative and how special this is going to make the NJSO feel and sound” everyone but you seemed to say, yet look at New Jersey now. Instead of jealously, my colleagues and I now feel sorry for this orchestra and are glad it didn’t happen here.

    But at least there is something the musicians in my orchestra have learned from this (and hopefully our managers): when you are the only one to publicly question an orchestra’s course of action, even when everyone else says it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, it is something worth listening to. Thanks for having the guts to write what you did.

  3. I think the problems regarding the string acquisition have unfairly distorted the reputation of the NJSO as a musical ensemble.

    I have attended occasional concerts for many years, and it has become an exceptionally good orchestra during the past 5 to 10 years, especially since Neeme Jarvi became its musical director. And it’s playing in one of the best halls in the country, the NJ Performing Arts Center.

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