In Columbus, They’re Playing Like There’s No Tomorrow

In a press release from February 26, 2008 the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Musicians voted to allow a live recording of an upcoming masterworks concert featuring Symphony No. 5 and the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Peter Tchaikovsky for Denon, which intends to release it on compact disc. According to the PR, the musicians voted to accept a reduction in payments that would allow the organization to produce the recording "for a tenth of what a normal studio recording of the same program would cost" at the personal request of Music Director Junichi Hirokami. And from the player’s perspective it may be one of the CSO’s last hurrahs…

According to Douglas Fisher, CSO bassoonist and President of the
Central Ohio Federation of Musicians, the Musician’s Union the
musicians are concerned that the CSO board’s proposed financial plan
will irreparably erode on the CSO’s artistic accomplishments.

Although the Musicians will be paid far
less than usual for this recording, we want to memorialize the artistic
summit achieved by the CSO, which has taken decades to reach, before it
may be destroyed next season by controlling members of the CSO Board
and Executive Director Tony Beadle, who are publicly advocating the
firing of 22 Musicians at the end of this summer", said Fisher.

If you take the time to read the CSO’s proposed financial plan (available from the orchestra’s website),
it looks as if supporters might have more to fear than just immediate
reductions in the level of artistic output. Although the CSO’s proposed
financial plan predicts that a 25 percent budget reduction will result
in a financially stable organization it fails to acknowledge the
following dynamic consequences from such aggressive cuts:

  • Lack of growth = lack of momentum.
    It is one
    thing to suggest a reduction in the operating budget when accompanied
    by an eye on recovery but it is another matter to do so without any
    plans past implementation. In the case of the CSO’s proposed financial
    plan, there are few indicators as to what the organization plans to do
    from a strategic sense if the cuts are enacted. There are some vague
    references to starting an endowment drive as well as (curiously)
    building a new venue for the orchestra (shades of Miami immediately
    come to mind) but there is no mention of restoring and cuts. Malaise is
    not an orchestral organization’s friend and just like most sharks, an
    orchestra needs to move forward or sink.
  • Donors/supporters/ticket buyers/potential board members gravitate toward excitement.
    At
    best, the CSO will experience what they have defined as fiscal
    stability in the proposed plan for a few seasons. Historically,
    organizations that have enacted similar plans have discovered that much
    of the promised initial financial support dries up after a few years
    because those supporters inevitably move away from the organization to
    be closer to groups that are delivering a consistently improving
    product. More to the point, although the proposed financial plan
    declares that "expanding artistic excellence is at the heart of every
    symphony orchestra’s core mission" and "top-quality artistic output" is
    a critical component in reaching that goal, the CSO’s music director
    has publicly declared that the proposed downsizing would be
    "catastrophic."
  • Nonprofits compete.
    The proposed financial plan
    trumpets that the CSO is currently the "flagship performing arts
    organization in Columbus." However, if the proposed cuts are enacted,
    this not only moves the CSO out of the number one position, but it
    sends a clear message to other nonprofit performing arts organizations
    that the CSO’s traditional donor base is up for grabs. In fact, it
    would be surprising if the previous points didn’t conspire to
    accelerate this consequence, meaning the other performing arts
    organizations in town which are experiencing a natural growth cycle
    will use this momentum to woo away current and prospective CSO donors
    and board members.

The cumulative result from these events is that the
organization will come full circle to the point where the financial
pressures it sought to relieve are right back within a few seasons. It
doesn’t take much to see the sort of cyclical pattern instigated by a
plan that calls for severe cuts with no details for recovery.
Consequently, if the CSO board is expecting local donors to support the
plan primarily on the stability it promises, they may be disappointed.

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 “In Columbus, They’re Playing Like There’s No Tomorrow”

  1. Drew, it’s good that you recognize something many boards and managers don’t conceive: that there is no such thing as stasis. Attempts to lower the financial standard of an organization only seem to self-perpetuate. Forward is really the only way to go, and any restructuring plan has to have a growth plan attached in order to have a chance of preventing this downward spiral.

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