When An Academic Exercise Becomes Reality

During the beginning of November, 2006 I had the pleasure of conducting a mock negotiation exercise with the MBA students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Bolz Center for Arts Administration program. That exercise had the future arts administrator’s playing the role of orchestra musicians who were presented with a bargaining proposal from management that called for a 35 percent reduction in expenditures. Although the details of that exercise are fascinating to explore, the real meat came in the form of how some of the students interpreted the scenario…

Adaptistration People 136In particular, some of the students didn’t believe that an organization could be in such disarray that the board would decide that the only solution was to immediately reduce expenditures by 35 percent. Simply put, they felt the parameters for the exercise were unrealistic. However, approximately one year later this business is seeing similar scenarios unfold throughout several mid-budget professional orchestras.

For example, earlier this month the Columbus Symphony Orchestra presented a financial plan that calls for a reduction in expenditures by approximately 25 percent. With that organization’s collective bargaining negotiations commencing toward the end of the season, they will have to engage in a scenario that is not unlike the mock exercise experienced by the University of Wisconsin-Madison MBA students.

What might be interesting to note is that the students who assumed the role of the musician’s negotiating committee decided that the best counter-offer to a heavy-handed take-it-or-leave-it offer was not to negotiate under the financial terms dictated by management. Instead, they challenged management’s competence and the board’s ability to adequately maximize contributed revenue streams. As such, they informed management that the organization was being mismanaged and unless the board abandoned closed parameter bargaining, they were going to break away and form their own orchestra.

Keep in mind, the majority of these MBA candidates were not trained in music performance oriented undergraduate courses. Furthermore, the purpose for attending an Arts Administration program like the one at Bolz Center for Arts Administration is to become the best performing arts/nonprofit managers they can be. As such, these students – individuals who couldn’t possibly posses the sort of negative stereotypical musician attributes that most in the business would define as “artist temperaments” or any sort of unrealistic sense of entitlement – decided that any financial plan containing drastic reductions in expenditures was merely a demonstration of poor stewardship and failed to adequately take full advantage of reasonable potential.

Personally, I think it would be a fascinating exercise to sit down with those same students and examine recent events at the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Florida Orchestra, and Columbus Symphony in some form of public workshop (perhaps some sort of open access, real-time streaming?). In the meantime, you can read all about the mock negotiation session from 2006 in the following articles:

UW-Madison Mock Negotiation Reflections Part 1
UW-Madison Mock Negotiation Reflections Part 2
Mock Negotiations: Contrasts & Comparisons

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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