Rhetoric On The Rise In Jacksonville

After a brief hiatus following the holiday season, the Jacksonville Symphony Association (JSA) and Jacksonville Symphony Players’ Association (JSPA) have resumed their respective public relations campaigns via the nine week long lockout. First up, was an opinion piece published on 1/8/2008 by the Florida Times-Union written by JSA past board chair and current board member, Steven T. Halverson…

In his piece, Halverson presents a brief, one-sided history of the organization followed by a longer section asserting that the JSA has no interest in compromising on outstanding negotiation issues.

“The notion that the parties are ‘only’ separated a bit suggests compromise. That would be a mistake,” wrote Halverson. “The board has taken as much risk as possible in the plan it has developed.”

This portion of Halverson’s piece, along with others, was adapted almost verbatim from an email he wrote on 12/19/2007 following a negotiation session at that time (you can download a copy of that email as a pdf file here). If Halverson is speaking for the entire JSA board in his piece to the
Times-Union, it appears that his fellow board members have little interest in bargaining in good faith as opposed to presenting a take-it-or-leave-it bottom line offer.

Consequently, the JSPA voted down a proposed contract created by those mid-December negotiations which brought the two sides within $60,000 of the JSA’s bottom line mandate and produced the bargaining gap Halverson is referring to in his piece to the Times-Union. The
musician’s decision to turn down the latest offer, despite recommendation from their negotiating committee, sends a clear signal that they are unwilling to accept a collective bargaining agreement crafted under such narrow parameters and believe the current Jacksonville environment is capable of supporting a better strategic plan.

Accordingly, leaders within the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) have become proactive on that issue. On 1/12/2008, the
Times-Union published an op-ed piece written by Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM; a conference within the AFM representing professional orchestra musicians) and a bass player in the North Carolina Symphony.
Instead of playing a game of media tit-for-tat against points presented by the JSA, Ridge writes “I assure you, I could dispute every one of those points” and goes on to focus on all of the positive factors that have taken shape in Jacksonville as well as the orchestra business as a whole.

“No community in America has a greater opportunity to benefit from a strong investment in its orchestra than Jacksonville,” wrote Ridge. “Everything is in place here: a beautiful city, a world-class concert hall, and a dedicated and inspiring group of musicians who have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to serving their community.”

Ridge concludes his letter with a message that suggests the JSA board should reconsider the sort of take-it-or-leave-it message delivered by Halverson as well as the decision to lock the musicians out even though they have stated their willingness to continue negotiations without suspending concerts.

“A solution is in sight, and a great future beckons,” wrote Ridge. “But now is the time for the management to allow these musicians back on stage.”

One voice missing from this discussion is the League of American Orchestras (formerly the American Symphony Orchestra League), commonly referred to as “The League”, a service organization representing U.S. symphony orchestras. In fact, the positive and optimistic language
included in Ridge’s remarks is usually the sort of public relations material promoted regularly by the League. Although it isn’t unusual for the League to refrain from making public statements during lockouts, it is unfortunate that they don’t promote their positive statistics to media outlets covering local work stoppages such as Jacksonville.

At the same time, those statistics might contradict sentiments coming from the JSA and the League is a service organization that depends, in part, on dues from its members (of which the Jacksonville Symphony is part of). Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see how the League would evaluate the current base of support for a professional orchestra in Jacksonville and then compare those results with the national environment.

The JSPA is presenting their sixth benefit concert this evening and ICSOM chair Bruce Ridge will be on hand to join the musicians’ negotiating committee in a talkback panel that will entertain questions from the audience immediately following the performance (click here for details). Although it might be unlikely to arrange on short notice, it would fascinating if a representative from the League would join Ridge to concur, refute, or expand his assessment of Jacksonville’s cultural environment and the ability to support an organization like the one espoused by the musicians.

Although it might not seem difficult to view the lockout and subsequent negotiations as an impasse, that’s not really the case. It is important to keep in mind that, historically, orchestra boards and musicians have stood on the edge of a bargaining precipice on many occasions. However, so long as the members of the organization’s stakeholders ultimately responsible for making the institution’s strategic decisions – the board of directors – considers that their decision making process leading up to events may not have provided every possible option, then there is always a high degree of likelihood for the situation to resolve positively.

In some extreme cases, those making the decisions have been so close to the situation for such an extended period of time that they adapt the governance equivalent of tunnel vision. In this case the best thing for them to do is bring in new blood with fresh perspectives to govern the group at the highest level while taking step back to a supportive role. On the other hand, when burdened with an entrenched and defensive mindset, some boards have been known to put the wellbeing of the institution at risk by consciously plunging it into bankruptcy before fully exploring alternative options.

Postscript: According to JSA Executive Director, Alan Hopper, in a telephone conversation from 12/19/2007 the JSA board has considered shutting down the organization for the remainder of the 2006/07 season and is scheduled to reassess that option once again in mid-January.

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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