An Interview With Columbus Executive Director Tony Beadle

On January 18, 2008 the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) board of directors released a strategic plan that called for a reduction in expenses by approximately 25 percent. Public reaction from the organization’s musicians, music director, and patrons has been overwhelmingly unfavorable; however, the plan did receive support in the form of an editorial from the Columbus Dispatch. In order to find out more about the plan and where the organization expects to proceed, I spoke with CSO Executive Director, Tony Beadle, via telephone on February 5, 2008…
You can download a .pdf copy of the CSO’s financial plan at their website (a direct link is unavailable as the CSO website is designed entirely in Flash).

Drew McManus: The report doesn’t credit any individual(s) as the author, as such, who actually wrote the report?
Tony Beadle: The president of our board of directors [Robert “Buzz” Trafford] did a major part of the writing and I did most of the remaining work.

Drew McManus: The report has a publication date of November 19, 2008. Why did the organization wait two full months before notifying the musicians and the public about the report?
Tony Beadle: We had a third party organization put together the copy of the plan which is currently being distributed. That date was referring to one of the plan’s versions but I don’t know why that is the date which was used in the final copy.

Drew McManus: The elected CSO musician representatives and music director have publicly expressed dissatisfaction over being excluded from the strategic planning process which led to the proposed financial report. Is this accurate and if so, why did the organization exclude them?
Tony Beadle: We never made a conscious decision to exclude anyone but a lot of stakeholders were excluded from this planning process, not just the musicians. Ideally, the plan would have started out to be more inclusive but financial pressures required it to be written the way it was. I would have preferred to have gone through this process by starting with a daylong facilitated retreat and come out with committees to examine individual strategic issues. But I don’t necessarily think a process like that would change the attitude of the city toward funding the orchestra.

Drew McManus: The financial plan does not mention if CSO spent any time examining the board composition at the four benchmark ensembles. As such, did the CSO board ever take the time to examine if what they describe as structural financial deficits referred to on page 14 in the report were the result of limits among the current board composition as opposed to external forces defined as shifting financial fortunes?
Tony Beadle: Certainly there were sidebar conversations. Could our board be better? Yes, but board composition was not the main determinant in our structural deficit gap. I think it’s the amount the community is willing to give. Anyone can criticize our board but I challenge them to put together any sort of dream team board that can do better than what we’ve done.

Drew McManus: When you accepted this position in April, 2006 did you ever expect that the CSO’s Executive Committee would ask you to develop what is defined on page 18 in the report as a “pro forma for a financially sustainable orchestra?” If not, did you encourage the board to direct the same amount of effort and resources to enhancing board composition or launching a capitalization campaign?
Tony Beadle: The nature of the problem here wasn’t identified when I took the position. We started talking about a structural deficit in early spring, 2007 and I noticed that when you take away our [average annual] bridge gifts there is a $2 million gap in revenue. For the last five years or so the orchestra has survived by bridge campaigns. Those campaigns produced $1 million to $2 million per year and it eventually became customary to go back to these large donors for similar gifts during subsequent bridge campaigns. However, during my first full year, the doors started to close from those bridge campaign donors.

Drew McManus: Why did the most recent bridge campaign mentioned on page 16 in the report not include a transition into a capitalization campaign such as the one implemented by Nashville Symphony, one of the plan’s benchmark ensembles?
Tony Beadle: It boggles the imagination why [the organization] never created an endowment campaign in the past 50 years. I did not agree for the longest time that there wasn’t a way to find the money to fund the structural deficit amount. However, many of the large companies in Columbus we’ve been approaching said the change in the economy was preventing them from providing support to capitalize the organization.

Drew McManus: On page 29 in the financial plan it sates “the ultimate compensation package will be the subject of negotiation with the musicians, it is apparent that the CSO has no choice other than to meaningfully reduce the total orchestra expense.” Does the CSO intend to negotiate only within the financial parameters established in the proposed plan?
Tony Beadle: We would probably be willing to go back and reexamine the nature of what we’ve identified as a structural gap and I think that the door is always open here to go back and re-examine the strategic planning process. In that respect, everything is on the table but what we think the community is telling us is you have to operate at a level you can sustain.

The next part of the interview involved discussing the proposed artistic cuts and reduction in full time musicians. However, in order to examine those issues with the appropriate perspective, it is necessary to examine the CSO’s collective bargaining agreement. In particular regard to these issues, the CSO has one of the most unique master agreements of all International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians ensembles. Tomorrow’s article will examine those components in addition to presenting the rest of the interview.

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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