All About Potential Part 2

Continuing where we left off from Part 1, today’s installment will examine the final three ensembles which have in them the ability to do great things by the 2013/2014 season as well as a few which came close but ultimately not close enough…

#5 - New Mexico Symphony Orchestra
#5 - New Mexico Symphony Orchestra

After more than a decade of null growth while the community and neighboring cultural institutions prospered, the New Mexico Symphony is finally in a position to realize their true potential. Throughout the past decade and a half, this organization has been a case example of how lopsided institutional growth can actually hinder overall progress.

For example, administrative expenditures more than doubled during the above time period but artistic expenditures related directly to musicians actually decreased. At one point a few years back, the musicians were actually paid less than they were 12 years prior. With the removal of certain executive administrators and an influx of inspired board leadership and a dedicated music director, the organization is finally poised to begin the task of capitalizing on the growth that is a hallmark for so many South-West communities (provided they select the right incoming executive administrators).

Between everyone from Kiplinger’s Personal Finance to The Wall Street Journal singing Albuquerque’s praise as a wonderful place to live and work as well as local business and government coffers stuffed with revenue from the recent oil and natural gas boom, the state is in a good place to begin developing a much higher caliber of cultural enrichment from private, corporate, and government sources.

As such, if the new executive and board leadership can bring the sleepy little outfit out of a long standing “who, us?” mentality then it wouldn’t be surprising to see the organization paralleling the growth suggested for Las Vegas in yesterday’s article: a CPI adjusted $39,000 base musician salary ($30,000 in today’s dollars) for 52 salaried musicians along with a respectable health care package.

#6 - St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
#6 - St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

St. Louis is a tale of dichotomy: a decade of poor financial management followed by a successful economic stabilization campaign, closer labor/management relationships marred by misplaced trust resulting in a work stoppage, and an extended period of hyper artistic growth followed up by an unexpected period of malaise only to once again be followed up by a sincere promise of a better artistic future.

The real keys to growth for the organization will hinge on a few non-artistic components including some much needed urban development around their hall, a major renovation for the hall, and an expanded recapitalization campaign. Artistically, the group is going to need to improve morale during concerts by once again playing for full houses. Given past resourcefulness, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them figure out a way to make the ensemble a staple in live concert broadcasts via radio and internet outlets.

In short, if the organization can find the right combination of executive and board leadership, they just might be able to recapture the institutional mojo they have been known for. Once they get that spirit back and make the correct political connections to develop their surrounding area, then there’s likely no limit to what they can accomplish. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see the origination leap frog past their immediate peers to a level where they can support a CPI adjusted $118,000 base musician salary ($90,000 in today’s dollars) for 95 salaried musicians.

#7 - Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
#7 - Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

The final ensemble on this list almost didn’t make it but I think that if some necessary components can fall into place, this group can finally be in a position to reach the potential that seems to always be just out of reach.

As a city, Milwaukee is one of the best kept secrets in the country. They are experiencing a period of unprecedented revival and once the major interstate highway project into town is completed, life will pour into a city that has been steadily preparing for it over the past several years. Furthermore, the community has demonstrated some sincere fundraising prowess as demonstrated by the stunning Santiago Calatrava designed Milwaukee Art Museum.

The real trick is that the organization doesn’t have much time before the initial stages of revitalization sweeping up much of the city pass them by. A failed attempt to build a concert hall followed up by a series of severe financial emergencies within the past decade has destabilized the organization enough that they aren’t spending much time looking at the big picture.

Additionally, the organization will need to fill some key administrative and artistic positions in order to have a reasonable shot at initiating a growth cycle. They need to find a way to attract some very talented, experienced people as this group doesn’t have the time to suffer through leaders who require on-the-job training (after all, there is really only one young wonder in the business and he just signed marriage papers with L.A.). Likewise, current board leaders will need to lead by example sooner rather than later in order to capitalize on the city’s current renaissance.

Finally, the organization will need to get back up on the horse and take another stab at implementing a capital campaign to build a dedicated orchestra hall. In this respect, learning from the process used by Nashville could go a long way toward becoming self sufficient. Along the way, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them expand on some of their better known niche recording projects in order to attract some heavy philanthropic money.

Overall, it is entirely within the realm of reason to see Milwaukee own and operate their own 1800+ seat venue and support a CPI adjusted $99,000 base musician salary ($75,000 in today’s dollars) for 88 salaried musicians over the course of a 45 week season.

remaining-statesThree other orchestras came close to making this list but for one reason or another fell short. At the same time, a few of them are still in a position to do great things if the right set of circumstances fall into place.

Artistically, the Atlanta Symphony has done very well under the dual artistic leadership of Robert Spano (music director) and Donald Runnicles (principal guest conductor). Furthermore, the organization has enjoyed a steady period of economic growth over the past decade but the only thing preventing them from being included on the list is a capital campaign that has become embroiled in a quandary of overconfidence on local and state funding.

Nearly two years behind schedule, if the organization doesn’t pull that necessary funding out of other sources, the group is in serious jeopardy of having to redesign the entire project (or worse, scrap it altogether). Although that would be a terrible set-back for the ensemble it certainly won’t prevent them from continuing to develop, it just won’t be the same rate of progress they might otherwise achieve if the project were in better shape. It was difficult to select between Atlanta and Milwaukee but Milwaukee’s distance from their unfruitful concert hall efforts helped give them a narrow edge. Nevertheless, by this time next year, Atlanta may be back on track and my concerns will end up being misplaced.

Several years ago when the Utah Symphony merged with the Utah Opera, there were bold promises from the newly formed organization that combining the two ensembles would produce a sort of synergy that would help catapult the new entity to heights beyond what either group would have been capable of separately. Unfortunately, those dreams have gone unrealized, in fact, the organization went into such a steep economic decline that they ended up hiring a series of high priced consultants to come in and help the ensemble pull out of their severe deficit spiral.

All things being equal, there isn’t any reason the merged organization shouldn’t be enjoying more success and for that matter even if the two groups separated at the end of this season they would still be in a position to make serious gains by taking advantage of an untapped market. An acoustically superior concert hall and a local population known for its level of dedication and interest in the arts should be fertile ground for extraordinary institutional success. Instead, the organization’s executive managers have focused on efforts to make their concert hall seem virtually full (instead of actually full) while simultaneously fighting off weeks of negative press.

As the old adage goes, “the south will rise again” and that could have been the case with the Richmond (VA) Symphony. After decades of economic stagnation and corporate flight, big business has returned and the city has embarked on a period of extensive urban renewal while building booms in the suburbs have nearly doubled the greater metropolitan population with well educated, affluent residents.

In a move to capitalize on this influx of energy, the Richmond Symphony partnered with a local performing arts foundation to build a new dedicated performing arts complex which included plans for a dedicated concert venue. Unfortunately, the program was badly mismanaged from the start and even though the ship was clearly sinking, the RSO’s executive and board leadership insisted on going down with the ship instead of breaking ties before it was too late. As a result, the organization has no proper concert venue and retains the same executive leadership who were at the helm throughout the performing arts complex fiasco. The good news is that the potential is still there and if the organization acts quickly by instigating a massive transfusion of board and executive leadership, this organization could feasibly get back on track toward becoming a benchmark for success.

It would be exciting for the entire business to see any of the above organizations (as well as any not listed above) make these sorts of gains with regard to reaching potential. If even one of them can succeed they would set a wonderful example but if all of them succeeded it would trigger a fundamental shift in the way this business operates.

Nevertheless, in order for organizations to break free of what appears to be some sort of industry wide diminished philosophy, it will take a group of courageous and shrewd managers and board members capable of seeing past the roadblocks. After all, cartoonist Charles M. Schulz once wrote “There is no greater burden than great potential” and in this business, among the frenzy of right-sizing and structural deficits, it seems that potential is too heavy of a burden for many to bear.

I’m not entirely certain when or where it happened but overall, this business seems to think that identifying potential only involves glancing side to side. As a result, too many of us have simply forgotten that in order to find potential you are supposed to look up.

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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3 thoughts on “All About Potential Part 2”

  1. I doubt anyone would disagree that the Atlanta Symphony has been making steady progress over the past decade, especially at a time when other ensembles have run into major roadblocks. At the same time, the thrust of the article is the degree and position to realize a certain level of potential over the next several years as opposed to comparing the progress from several prior years (that might be an excellent topic for a future article). In fact, if you compared Atlanta today and where it was seven years ago to the ensembles on the list, you’ll likely discover that Atlanta has made far better gains (with the exception of Nashville). Unfortunately, that’s not the direction this article examines, regardless, it’s good to see some local Atlanta residents taking so much pride in their institution.

  2. To the reader who uses the moniker XyloGuy: you have sent in a number of comments recently and I would be happy to approve them but unless you provide a working email address and/or a method to verify your identity (which will not be posted publicly) there’s only so many comments I’m able to post.

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