Columbus Travels Around The Blogosphere

All of the recent Chicken Little oriented news reported in the Columbus Dispatch has prompted a considerable response throughout the cultural blogosphere. Some of it has been somewhat plaintive while other posts have been red-hot over how the situation is unfolding. In a related issue, although the Dispatch published an editorial in support of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) board’s proposed financial plan, they have not pursued what is normal procedure for most newspapers by publishing an op-ed piece shortly thereafter although several have been submitted from official sources in opposition to the proposed financial plan. As such, here’s a breakdown of who is writing what…

Current Blog Posts

  • As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Milwaukee violist Robert Levine over at Abu Bratsche
    posted a no-hold-barred review of he perceives as outright orchestral homicide in the first degree.

  • Head a few hours west of Robert, and you’ll run into Minneapolis Orchestra violist Sam Bergman who posted an entry to his blog at Inside The Classics where he presents a very compelling argument via an example with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
  • Keep going west until you run out of land and you’ll at end up at Daily Observations, authored by Oregon Symphony violist Charles Noble (blogs and violists must have some unnatural attraction). Charles posted a letter written by CSO principal clarinet David Thomas (who authors the blog Buzzing Reed).
  • A few short hours south-west of Columbus, and you’ll
    discover two comment threads to recent blog posts by Janelle Gelfand
    (not a violist), Cincinnati Enquirer music critic. The first, and more
    passionate, comment thread mentions the Columbus situation beginning here and the other thread focuses entirely on Columbus.

Elsewhere On The Web

Beyond blogs, you can find more info through social networking groups and traditional websites, including:

  • Proud Supporters Of The Columbus Symphony who maintain a Facebook group and companion blog.
  • The official Columbus Symphony Orchestra website where you can download a copy of the board’s proposed financial plan.
  • Columbus Symphony Orchestra Musicians’ Association website,
    which posts links to related news and official statements from the
    musicians. In particular, there is a great deal of information not
    included in Columbus Dispatch articles.

  • Two new independent websites are beginning to post
    additional information about ongoing issues related to the Columbus
    Symphony. You can find them at and

Op-Ed Articles

Currently, there are three op-ed articles that take issue with the Columbus Dispatch editorial position.
Authored by official sources partial toward the musicians’ perspective
they are published below and are unedited. At the time of publication,
any other official endorsement of the CSO board’s proposed financial
plan beyond the Dispatch editorial has yet to be identified, if anyone
is aware of one, please send along a link to the original source.

Op-Ed article #1

Despite the assertions made in the Columbus Dispatch
editorial "Out of Tune" (January 28), the egregious proposal to
decimate the Columbus Symphony would sentence this cherished cultural
institution to its demise and would most certainly lead to "a failed
and shuttered orchestra."

No business model that suggests that a board can solve
financial difficulties by offering an inferior product to its consumers
will ever be successful.

The question for Columbus should not be "can we continue to
afford to support our orchestra", but rather "how can we afford not
to?" Too often lost in the discussion of orchestras in America is the
simple fact that the arts are good business. The non-profit culture
industry provides over 5.7 million jobs and accounts for over $166
billion in economic activity every year, including over $330 million in
Greater Columbus alone!

Across the country, exciting things are happening for symphony
orchestras. They are growing, they are thriving. Although we often hear
a negative portrayal of the health of orchestras, in reality attendance
is up, downloads are rising faster than for any other musical genre,
operas are filling movie theaters, and the New York Times is
proclaiming that this could be "the Golden Age for Classical Music."

Why should Columbus be left out of this renaissance? The
Columbus Symphony is recognized as one of this nations’ finest. The
orchestra enriches the cultural life of the community, serves as an
enticement for business, and promotes Columbus’ thriving reputation.

Investing in this orchestra is not "another bailout", it is
indeed an investment with many tangible returns. There should be no
doubt that the greater the investment, the greater those returns will

As the Wall Street Journal published recently, "Contrary to
rumors, symphony orchestras have a bright future." The Columbus
Symphony should be growing in order to continue its exemplary service
to the citizens of Ohio.

It is simply a failure of leadership that has led to this
draconian proposal from the board, and indeed it is that very failure
of leadership that results in the "diminished confidence" of those who
might otherwise contribute to the orchestra. Why then should trust be
placed in this radical recipe for failure when it was designed by those
who are responsible for creating this atmosphere of "diminished

The musicians of the Columbus Symphony offer a message of hope
for this beautiful city. Their commitment to community service is
inspirational, and support is already pouring in from musicians and
leaders all over the world. The citizens and political leaders of
Columbus must ask why this board, while charged with serving their
community, is promoting such a negative view of the future of the arts
in your city?

This great orchestra deserves leadership that will inspire the
community to believe it can achieve great things, and inspire every
individual to achieve something greater than themselves. Instead, their
only "plan" is to destroy the investment that Columbus has made in this
Symphony for 56 years.

The citizens of Columbus deserve better from the stewards of their community.

Rest assured that in these coming months, business leaders and
artists throughout the nation will be watching Columbus. They will hope
to see a demonstration of confidence in the future of this city. The
musicians of the Columbus Symphony, and indeed musicians across the
country, will be offering positive messages of hope and investment. I
ask the board of the Columbus Symphony, as well as all community
leaders, to hear their positive harmony and to reject the negative
rhetoric of those who would suggest that your city cannot achieve all
that it deserves.

Bruce Ridge
Chair, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM)

Op-Ed article #2

Although the recent report issued by the Columbus
Symphony Orchestra Board is subtitled, "The Path to Financial Stability
and Future Growth," even a cursory reading demonstrates that the actual
"Path" is one leading to the destruction of a great orchestra.

report and conclusion that the season should be shortened by twelve
(12) weeks, causing a severe loss of income for the Musicians, and the
firing of twenty-two musicians of an already small group of
fifty-three, can only lead to the loss of the best players who would of
necessity, seek other employment in orchestras that provide at least
the current level of their compensation. It is of course the best
musicians who have the best chance to find employment with other
orchestras. Moreover, with such a short season and the specter of more
firings in the future, the number and quality of new recruits would
likewise be greatly reduced. The idea of downgrading the "product" as
the way to increase revenue is absurd – none of these Board members
would do such a thing to their own products or services.

has shown that orchestras which have tried that approach soon went out
of business altogether. They include the orchestras of San Jose,
Savannah, Oakland, and most recently, the Florida Philharmonic in Ft.
Lauderdale. In each case the musicians were required to take severe
reductions in wages and benefits in order to "save" the symphony and in
each case the orchestra shut down permanently.

It is also
startling to read that raising additional contributed revenue – which
is the primary function of any Board – is only an "interim solution."
If "sustainability" is the goal, how is that attained by failing to
sustain the artistic excellence of the orchestra? Using the San Diego
and Nashville orchestras as the models to be emulated is more than
curious. By their own description those orchestras were ultimately
"saved" by the efforts of their Boards to find "additional contributed
revenue." They are now both flourishing with orchestras much larger and
more expensive than the Columbus Symphony.

Blaming the
musicians for the Board’s failure is a classic case of blaming the
victim. The report describes the sacrifices the musicians have made in
the past, which allegedly would have given the Board time to correct
the financial problems. Because those sacrifices were considered to be
temporary, the labor contract contained a "recovery" of these losses in
the final year of the agreement. The willingness of the musicians to
accept reductions in the early years of the agreement, was to provide
the Board with time to fix things. Now the report attacks the
"recovery" of these losses before the concessions as "backloading," as
if there were huge increases in the final year. Apparently, the Board
follows the philosophy of "no good deed goes unpunished."

report also describes the Board’s failure to raise more revenue as a
"structural deficit." That notion, already recognized in the symphonic
industry, is actually a confession by the Board that they are unable,
or unwilling, to seek and obtain new and increased sources of
contributions by claiming that no opportunities for fundraising are
available in the entire community. The enormous growth of this city
over the last few years belies this theory completely.

by carefully choosing other orchestras to compare to, one can prove
virtually any proposition. For instance, why not compare the CSO to the
orchestras of Cleveland and Cincinnati? They are both Ohio-based
symphonies and their musicians enjoy full 52 week seasons, as well as
substantially higher wages and benefits.

The inescapable
conclusion is that this report is nothing more than a biased,
uninformed argument by which the Board blames all of their failures on
others, especially the musicians who provide the Columbus community
with the best of the world’s music, serving the economic interests, and
educating the children to appreciate this marvelous art form.

Leonard Leibowitz
Counsel [and representing the Columbus Symphony Orchestra Musicians in the current negotiations]

Op-Ed article #3

Dear Editor:

In the editorial, "Out of Tune," you endorse the claim that an
elimination of over 25% of the Columbus Symphony’s performances and a
reduction in the Symphony’s size to a level that is 58% of its current
size is what is needed to secure a bright future for the Symphony.

To implement such measures would be to try to alleviate a
symptom – the budget deficit – without addressing the problem that has
created the situation. When one compares the financial situation of the
Columbus Symphony to that of other orchestras, it becomes apparent that
management has failed to initiate and implement successful marketing
and fundraising plans, which are central components of any growing

And, as your editorial sates, the Symphony’s endowment is not
large compared to other orchestras in major cities. This is a failure
of management to raise funds for the endowment.

Your editorial concludes that the musicians, audiences, and
the Columbus arts community should pay the price for management’s
ineffectiveness. However, the elimination of musicians’ jobs and
performances will not solve the problems that management faces. It will
only allow management to continue to generate revenue poorly, knowing
that it can layoff musicians and further deteriorate the schedule as
its inability to manage effectively remains.

The Columbus Symphony musicians are some of the hardest
working, most talented, and dedicated musicians in the world. Their
salaries are average at best, given the size of Columbus, which is the
15th largest city in the US; yet musicians in at least 20 orchestras in
other cities have higher salaries.

The problem is not and has never been the musicians or their
salaries. They are what bring life to the Symphony and the reason it
enjoys a first-rate reputation. The more that the conversation is
framed in terms of labor cost reductions, the more it strays from a
discussion of the actual causes of the Symphony’s budget problems.

Sincerely and fraternally,

Thomas F. Lee
President, American Federation of Musicians

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 “Columbus Travels Around The Blogosphere”

  1. This all sounds so much like the recent Jacksonville Symphony situation, that I wonder is there is some underlying pattern of intent with Boards across the country to trash orchestras. It’s hard not to feel that either they are aping each other, or there is some communication going back and forth among the Boards of these symphony organizations. The fact is, that, Boards and the people who contribute to orchestras are not the kind of people who will be hurt very much by the current financial “meltdown.” There is still plenty of wealth in this country, but it seems, more and more, that just because one is rich doesn’t mean he/she is cultured. There is no excuse for an orchestra failing except for the will of their Board leadership (sic).

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