Learning From Past Mistakes

John Stoehr, Charleston (S.C.) City Paper Arts Editor and co-author of the blog Flyover, published a piece at his City Paper blog entitled JSO Board Needs to Do Its Damn Job. Although the piece is loaded with fantastic content, perhaps the best part is when John articulates the obvious parallels between the financial model/strategic direction proposed by the Jacksonville Symphony Board and the demise of the former Savannah Symphony…

“I was living as a cultural journalist in Savannah during the time of the [Savannah Symphony’s] demise. I saw firsthand what happened, but only understood what happened with the passing of time. And what I came to understand in Savannah is what I sense is happening in Jacksonville. That is, an attitude, a dangerous and perhaps ubiquitous attitude, among board members and key positions in the JSO’s administration toward the orchestra’s musicians.”

I couldn’t agree more. Ultimately, and as John points out, the board’s decision to cancel concerts when the musicians were perfectly willing to continue engage in “play and talk” negotiating sessions lends itself toward suspicion toward their motives.

How can the JSO board claim to negotiate in good faith when they were prepared to cancel concerts and lockout the musicians after barely three months of active bargaining, especially when most other professional orchestras take at least that much time or longer during amicable negotiation sessions. Ideally, everyone involved in the organization will provide all opportunities for the stakeholders to find a solution that saves face as best as could be expected under these circumstances. Perhaps more importantly, the talks over this weekend will result in the JSO board emerging from the events with a renewed attitude toward their responsibilities as the organization’s stewards and guardians of the public trust.

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 “Learning From Past Mistakes

  1. This is a most enlightening and informative article, and I thank you for sharing it. In this article the author quotes a JSO administrator:

    “Van Vleck said musicians were asking for too much. He told reporters that if JSO musicians wanted to keep the orchestra going, they’d need to concede.

    “I really do respect our musicians,” he told the Florida Times-Union, “but there’s something about a 37-week year and 20 hours a week that doesn’t seem too onerous.” ”

    And continues with this statement in response to Mr. Van Vleck’s:

    This “onerous” comment suggests he doesn’t understand the lives of professional musicians and doesn’t understand nonprofits. Worse, he doesn’t fundamentally value what musicians do. It’s an attitude that can, once it becomes rooted, damage an orchestra or undermine the value of having one at all.”

    The author’s response is by far the most well-articulated response to that statement and should be remembered by all of us when faced with contractural quagmires.

    Having worked as both an orchestral musician and an administrator, I do understand the conundrum, that being that many “business people” do find themselves focusing on the bottom line. It has become clear, however, that the focus on the bottom line – that being the financial aspects involved in the operation of an orchestra – seems to go hand in hand with the sad fact that many of today’s board members lack a true understanding of the professional musician’s lot: not only does it take countless hours to prepare an orchestral audition, but much of the professional musician’s “job” – keeping his technical facility at the highest level possible – happens outside of the twenty-hour “in the workplace” week.

    Maybe those who select board members – and administrators – should create a real interview process wherein the potential board member – or administrator – is asked questions that lead to his understanding of a professional musicians’ life and work ethic.

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