Some Thoughts On Honolulu

If you haven’t been keeping up with the situation developing at the Honolulu Symphony, the organization is in the midst of a cash flow predicament. As a result, they have not been able to meet payroll since Friday, December 14. My Inside The Arts blogging neighbor, Joe Patti, wrote about this issue in grater detail on December 18 but I wanted to add a few thoughts to his prudent observations…

Regardless of the details
behind the cash crunch (it could be Godzilla’s fault for all intensive
purposes) the organization is actually in the best possible shape to
effectively deal with the situation. For example:

  • They have a new Executive Director, Tom Gulick. This means
    they have someone at the administrative helm who hasn’t had his
    enthusiasm or spirit eroded away by previous institutional problems.
  • They have a new board chair, Jeff Minter. The organization
    has someone in a key leadership position who hasn’t expended a great
    deal of personal and political capital dealing with previous problems.
  • They have a new Music Director, Andreas Delfs. With a significantly
    higher amount of artistic clout than the organization’s previous music
    director, Delfs will need to begin pressing the flesh and be available
    to appear at key donor meetings to share his artistic vision with
    donors in order to facilitate successful stopgap funding efforts. If
    the organization plans to go out without effectively using Delfs during
    those key meetings, then they are squandering their resources.
  • They have a group of musicians who, even without being paid, are publicly supporting all three institutional leaders.

You simply can’t ask for a better institutional
environment to deal with the current round of problems facing the
organization. This is the point in time where the institutional leaders
are going to have to embrace risk and put their personal and
professional careers on the line to dispatch the cash post-haste. One
way or another, the Honolulu Symphony will make a bit of orchestral
history by rising to the challenge of securing funding capable of
keeping the group on track or not. I’m betting on the former.

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 Thoughts On Honolulu

  1. There are a few parallels between the current Jacksonville situation and what led to the situation in Honolulu.

    The roots of Honolulu’s current situation go back 15 years to an attempt by its management and board to “live within their means”.

    In an attempt to stave off deficits, the board violated an existing CBA by unilaterally cutting a popular 6 week summer season that was comprised of concerts at the Waikiki Shell as well as Community Concerts and a “Mahalo Mozart” series. This action was followed a year later by a contract negotiation that ended with a 2.5 year(!!) lock-out.

    Both these actions violated the public trust in the institution. By canceling and failing to deliver on pre-sold concerts, the board violated the trust that must exist between an orchestra and its community. Pre-lockout houses were near full and a “big” deficit was $150k (most years were in the black). Post-lockout houses are often only 1/2 full and deficits are in the $1M neighborhood. The season, that used to be 42 weeks long pre-lockout, has taken 12 years to work its way back to 30 weeks.

    If the management of the Jacksonville Symphony wants to look into a crystal ball and see their future, they need look no farther than Honolulu. It is a case study of the result that imprudent cost cutting, which adversely impact the artistic product and the community perception, has on an orchestra.

    While it is true a board is charged with the fiscal responsibility of an institution, it cannot forget that it also is charged with maintaining the artistic integrity of an organization as well as maintaining the trust of an orchestra’s subscribers, supporters and community. Once that trust has been lost, it can take decades to recover.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the “Former HSO Musician.” The orchestra board created an atmosphere of distrust, and the connection between the audience and orchestra was severed by cutting the Waikiki Shell concerts; however, this was only the beginning -and only a small part- of what is currently wrong with HSO’s situation.

    The orchestra is fundamentally flawed in almost every way. The lack of fundraising-ability is astounding. Yes, we can blame the city/state governments all we want for not following through with their promises; however, waiting for handouts is not what a responsible organization would call “fiscal responsibility.”

    The orchestra itself leaves much to be desired. It is clearly on the lower, if not lowest, end of America’s musical spectrum. Hopefully, Delfs will help counter this by demanding higher levels of professionalism from the musicians. Perhaps he will consider “cleaning house.” Furthermore, the orchestra has a revolving-door of musicians, with the most qualified musicians leaving after one or two years for higher quality orchestras. I wonder if there is any attempt by the management to keep the quality musicians from leaving; it certainly does not seem to be the case. In essence, the quality of the orchestra needs some tweaking.

    I certainly hope for the musicians’ sake that they will eventually be paid for their services. For this to happen, all involved (government, donors, audience, management, musicians) will need to do their part to show more competence. Without that all-around effort, it is ludicrous to think that the HSO can continue to exist. Wishing and hoping will not produce any results.

  3. Barrett said: “We’ve given cuts and taken freezes for years and lost ground to other orchestras and we can’t give anymore. Now it’s time for the community to step up to the plate if they want to continue to have an orchestra. Small contributors, large contributors, the city, the state — everybody needs to do their bit.”…(From “Starbulletin” Honolulu)

    In my modest opinion I belive it’s a total mistake to say that on a newspaper.The orchestra which is a part of the comunity has already decided to continue to exists by taking the responsability to perform
    whitout getting payd.
    The comunity “has” to step on plate and it’s not a matter of a decision. For example it’s not a matter of a comunity’s decision to have or not a public transportation sistem in theyr city even that most of the people don’t use cause they have a car. It’s not a matter of a comunity’s decision for example to decided to have or not museums and pubblic libraryes in they town. A simphony orchestra whith 50/60 live performers should be considered as important as those examples. If the comunity is not able to understand that, Barret should’nt ask them if they want or not to continue to have an orchestra. The Orchestra exists over there since the beginning of the century. It has passed throw 2 World War , depression etc etc…no matter what the comunity thinks about them right now.
    I also have a series of questions:
    Honolulu is one most rich city of the world.
    Bilionaries live there.I’ve just learned, for example that Ophra Winfrey one of the most rich and popular woman of the world just bought an house over there. Why the managment of the simphony is not able to get the attention of people like that?
    I also understand all the problems related of not having for a long period the Hall to perform,occupied by the Broadway show The Lion’s King.Hawaii is not only Oha’u Island why they didn’t use this time they were out of theyr Hall to go performing in the neighbours islands? I’m sure that they have a Hall in the Big Island where the orchestra could have set up a short concerts season.
    Moreover, are there any spaces in Hononlulu where the orchestra can perform such outdoor Theatre, maybe closed to the waikiki areas where tourists and rich people live?
    I don’t know Maestro Delfs but I’m sure that he is a great Musician. I also know that one of the world most famous conductor Seji Ozawa lives there. Why not asking his artistical collaboration in order to have him as a “testimonial” to get donors attetion in this difficult time?
    Last question. I’m just wondering if in this difficult time where the orchestra is not getting payed on Christmas time,the people who work in the Staff or in the Managment of the simphony are payed no matter what , cause it would be very unfare!

  4. Euroclassical asks a question that has come up many times in the discussions about the Honolulu Symphony:
    “I’m just wondering if in this difficult time where the orchestra is not getting payed on Christmas time,the people who work in the Staff or in the Managment of the simphony are payed no matter what , cause it would be very unfare!”

    The answer: The HSO admin staff has not been paid since mid-November so, yes, they have been volunteering their services along with the musicians.

  5. Thank you very much.I’ve apprecciated the “partial” answer of Former HSO insider. Still I have made more than one question about the Honolulu Simphony situation which I would love to
    talk about. I’ve heard that things over there are getting better, musicans start getting theyr checks ,which is a great new! I hope for them also that the exsting problems are going in the same direction.
    Thank you

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