Columbus Board Responds To Ratification Vote

On the heels of the unanimous decision by the musicians of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) to reject the board’s last, best, and final negotiation offer Robert Trafford, Columbus Symphony Orchestra Board of Trustees Chair, issued a written response the following day…

Statement from Robert Trafford, Chair, Columbus Symphony Orchestra Board of Trustees

The Columbus Symphony’s Musicians’ Union and the CSO board do
not agree on the fundamental premise of how large a budget the Columbus
market can support and afford for its orchestra. A business plan was
created with input of various sectors of the community and
incorporating financial models used by symphonies in markets similar to

The market demands and the economy dictate that the Symphony
restructure to a $9.5 million (vs. $12 million) annual operating level.
Because the musicians and their representatives reject the fundamental
economic facts, it has been very difficult to reach agreement on how to
adjust musician assignments and salary to meet the targeted budget.

Many of our funders have been very reluctant to assist the CSO
fund operations through the current budget year until the labor issue
can be resolved.

The Executive Committee of the CSO Board will be meeting over
the next several days to evaluate the consequences of the musicians’
decision. We will announce the impact of this decision on the remainder
of the CSO’s season as soon as it can be determined.

This is a painful time for our orchestra family. We are deeply
concerned about what will be lost if the symphony suspends operations,
even temporarily. The funds to go forward will come only when we are
able to address our structural budget issues and provide the community
with confidence that an agreement with our musicians can be

This is a curious response as the basic guidelines of
traditional negotiating specify that the next step is to schedule
additional bargaining sessions to continue discussions. Instead,
Trafford’s statement focuses on veiled threats of shutting down
portions of the remaining 2007/08 season without presenting any
evidence that the organization will be unable to meet its projected
financial obligations.

Difficult negotiations are nothing new to this business and a
common practice is to bring in a third party individual to offer
additional insight and help both parties find undiscovered options.
According to the musicians’ press release,
they proposed this option but the CSO board rejected the idea. There
was no mention of that option in Trafford’s response or an attached
press release from the CSO board (see below).

Much of Trafford’s statement and the board’s press release are
founded on the principle that their proposed financial plan was crafted
with broad-based input, as indicated when Trafford writes "[the
proposed financial plan] was created with input of various sectors of
the community and incorporating financial models used by symphonies in
markets similar to Columbus." However, the plan’s co-author, CSO
Executive Director Tony Beadle, acknowledged
in an interview that a number of stakeholders were excluded during the
process and he would have preferred a more thorough approach.

"There was never a conscious decision to exclude anyone
but a lot of stakeholders were excluded from this planning process, not
just the musicians," said Beadle.

Trafford’s statement projects an image of naiveté by failing to
understand the basic principles of the negotiation process (not to
mention strategic planning process). According to the musicians’ press
release as well as those from Trafford and the CSO board the only offer
presented by the trustees is one which implements all of the provisions
from the proposed financial plan. Consequently, when combined with the
threat of shutting down the remaining season due to the musicians’
rejection of those parameters, the board’s position isn’t so much a
negotiation offer as an ultimatum.

Consequently, the board’s refusal to consider any part of the
musicians’ proposal of a $500,000 reduction in operating expenses for
the 2008/09 season combined with the language of Trafford’s response
demonstrate that naiveté may transform into autocratic inflexibility.
Given the outpouring of vocal support from the organization’s patrons,
donors, and music director for the idea of finding a solution other
than unilaterally implementing the drastic measures contained in the
board’s proposed financial plan, the CSO trustees have an obligation as
the stewards of public trust to return to the negotiation table with a
sincere willingness to bargain in good faith.

Failing that, the CSO stakeholders should consider whether any
purported misgivings among prospective large donors are related to the
current business model or in those entrusted with governing the
institution. Until the CSO board of trustees acknowledges that option
and explores the related issues to the satisfaction of all
stakeholders, any drastic actions cannot be adequately justified.

The CSO board released the following response in conjunction with Trafford’s statement:


Over the last year, the Board of Trustees of the Columbus
Symphony Orchestra developed a strategic plan designed specifically to
address the CSO’s persistent financial shortfalls and create a
financially sound platform for sustaining the symphony on an ongoing
basis. The Board was forced to recognize certain harsh but unavoidable
realities about the CSO’s financial condition. After extensively
analyzing our current costs, our history, and our prospects for future
revenue and donor support, we concluded that continuing to operate the
symphony at our current level of expense, about $12.5 million, would be
fiscally irresponsible.

The history of the last 5 or more years tells us that our two
major sources of income –operating revenues and donor support —
produce about $9.5 million on an annual basis. This means that, even
with increases in ticket sales and consistent and generous support from
corporate and individual donors, we are operating a symphony with a
cost structure that exceeds the established level of community support
by about $3 million annually. This cannot continue.

The long term future of the CSO depends first and foremost upon
our ability to eliminate this $2.5 to $3 million structural gap. In
January, 2008 the Board proposed a plan to achieve this critical goal
by reducing our budget to $9.5 million for 2008-09. We are keenly aware
that this is a sizeable reduction and will indeed be a challenge for
our musicians and our staff. The Board resolved to finally come to
grips with our financial realities so we will we be able to operate
credibly in the future and focus our efforts on our long-term goal,
which is sustainable growth through a vigorous endowment campaign and
participation in community initiatives to fund the arts, like the
recent Thrive in Five.

The fundamental disagreement between the CSO and the union is
this. The CSO believes that our community can and will support the CSO
at a $9.5 million level – an amount that puts it at the top of all the
performing arts organizations in Columbus. We have presented a plan
that permits us to go forward with a 2008-2009 season, and to take
steps to strengthen the CSO – including increasing the compensation of
its musicians – in future years. The union, on the other hand, premises
its position on the express assumption that the level of available
support is significantly greater than $9.5 million. But, in the 3
months since the Board’s plan was announced and in the 3 weeks of
recent intense discussions, the union has not presented any
specifically identifiable source for support beyond the $9.5 million
level, nor has it proposed an alternative to the Board’s plan for
achieving a financially sustainable orchestra. In short, it has offered
no principled basis upon which to base support for a different revenue
assumption. The union’s reference to the revenues of symphonies in
other Midwestern cities – cities that enjoy long-existing endowments
many times as large as the CSO’s endowment – is neither logical nor
helpful to our discussions.

At bottom, the musicians union is asking the CSO to agree to a
Labor Agreement that assumes revenue levels that are clearly contrary
to a studied analysis of what has actually been achievable.

The Board and management of the CSO are deeply committed to
the future for our orchestra. We believe in the importance of a
symphony orchestra to our community. As the musicians well know, we are
prepared to continue discussions with them at any time for the purpose
of trying to secure both the short and long term future of our
community’s symphony orchestra. It is not true, as the union claims,
that either the Board’s offer or the union’s response means discussions
cannot proceed.

The CSO has made clear that it faced not only a long-term
problem, but also a serious projected deficit in the current season.
The CSO has also been clear since releasing its plan in January that
the ability to complete the current season would very likely depend
upon being able to reach an agreement with respect to a contract for
next season. The Executive Committee of the CSO Board will be meeting
over the next several days to evaluate the consequences of the
musicians’ decision. We will announce publicly the impact of this
decision on the remainder of the CSO’s season just as soon as it can be

This is a painful time for our orchestra family and we are
deeply concerned about what will be lost if the symphony suspends
operations, even temporarily. However, the funds to go forward in both
the short and long run will come only when we are able to address our
structural problems and provide the community with confidence that an
agreement with our musicians can be reached within the envelope of our
reasonable expected revenues.

One aspect of this statement that sets a bad tone for future
discussions is attempting to distinguish the CSO musicians as some sort
of separate entity from the union to which they belong when in
actuality, the musicians and the union are one in the same. By
demonstrating that they fail to recognize this point only goes to
reinforce the notion that the CSO board lacks the most basic of
knowledge necessary to effectively govern an orchestral organization.
In order for the above statement to be accurate, a reader would need to
go through and strikeout all instances of the word "union" and replace
with "CSO musicians." In fact, this might be a productive exercise for
the board to conduct in order to better understand how they are
propagating an unproductive "us vs. them" environment.

Although there is certainly plenty of additional material to
review point by point, there is only one inaccuracy worth examining. In
particular, the sentence "It is not true, as the union claims, that
either the Board’s offer or the union’s response means discussions
cannot proceed." does not appear to be based on any official musician
statement. However, if the board will only continue to participate in
bargaining sessions under the condition that the musicians accept the
parameters of their proposed financial plan, then they are guilty of
this fictional charge.

Ultimately, in order for this situation to improve it is
increasingly apparent that both sides need to engage a mutually
agreeable third party mediator to facilitate bargaining sessions and
conduct an independent review of the board’s proposed financial plan.
There are enough questions and concerns from a variety of stakeholders
to justify this reasonable course of action. Ideally, this topic will
be at the forefront of their upcoming meeting agenda.

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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6 thoughts on “Columbus Board Responds To Ratification Vote”

  1. Today’s commentary was very good, and I think reflects an accurate description of the board’s lack of knowledge and intransigence. I think as your next step, you might investigate and report how CAPA and and a few of the other “city leaders” fit into the mix, and how they are influencing the negotiations and the stance taken by the CSO board. Also, you might look into the CSO board’s “fundraising,” and try and find out how much they as individuals have actually given, how much each has individually brought in (a requirement for non-profit board members), and in general, how hard they are really trying to raise money. I have been told that some board members have actively discouraged contributions, waiting for the musicians to capitulate to the contract offer before taking any meaningful fundraising steps. These could be conspiracy theories, but given all of the actions to date, maybe not so far fetched. my best, jay fishman

  2. If I read, or hear the phrase, “Strategic Plan” one more time, I’ll scream! Corporate Speak vs. Unions is the underlying meaning: get rid of the Unions, and you control everything, wages, health plans, numbers of personnel in the orchestra. The folks in charge of fundraising aren’t doing their jobs with a reason. It makes it much easier to make the Musicians’ needs seem “outrageous” in the face of “declining” contributions.

    I can’t get over the deep feeling that this kind of situation is a growing pattern in this
    country. Starve the artists to death, kill creativity, and make everyone a TV Robot.

    I think Margaret’s response is a perfect example of some negative dynamic consequences of abusing a strategic planning process. I know too many managers and musicians who go into super-eye-roll mode every time they hear the term “strategic planning” and although I don’t blame them one bit orchestras do need strategic plans. In fact, I think one of the issues at the heart of Columbus’ problems is a lack of strategic planning and strategic leadership over the past decade. As a result, I wonder how much trepidation among local donors stems from that as opposed to any current financial discourse. thanks for bringing this topic up Margaret.~ Drew McManus

  3. I wonder if the CSO’s executive director is sorry he left the Boston Symphony to come to work in Columbus.

    I would hope that not many people would enjoy working in this sort of environment and that everyone throughout the executive management and board will begin to see the value in working toward a goal other than that which has been previously defined. ~ Drew McManus

  4. This all sounds very familiar – it’s the same garbage that every orchestra under the gun has had to endure. The boards of these orchestras must be using the same high-priced consultants to lay out their strategy. Paint the union as the villain – check. That’s an easy sell, because everybody knows that unions are evil. It also allows the board to attack the other side without directly attacking the musicians, to whom donors and customers may be sympathetic. I’ve seen instances where they’ve made it sound like the “poor musicians” were being victimized by said union, to make it appear that musicians and board/management were on the same side of the fence, and that the only obstacle to “happily ever after” was the union. Sigh.

    I also love it when the board hangs the future of the organization’s ability to raise funds on the musicians willingness to “take one for the team”, i.e., accept the draconian last, best offer. Here’s a novel idea: board members, one of your primary responsibilities is the give or get XXX number of dollars for your orchestra. If you’re not up to the task, get the hell off the board and make room for someone who can. Often times, the boards of these orchestras are run by small-timers trying to look like big shots. They purposely keep the organization small so that they have the means to support it, and therefore control it. They are threatened by the prospect of their little orchestra growing beyond their means, to the point where they might have to open up that little slice of power to people who could buy and sell them any day of the week. Guess who gets to ultimately pay for this power struggle?

    Surely, Columbus can afford its orchestra. However, the folks who run that band have done themselves no favors by trumpeting what a failure the organization is – who wants to get behind a big loser? If you’ve adopted a slice and dice policy of budget balancing, it’s over. Nobody wants to throw money into a black hole. Perception is everything – paint yourselves as winners, commit to it over an extended period of time, and the money will come.

  5. Jay’s comments sound so much like Jacksonville. Margaret, please don’t scream. As for Elvin’s question regarding whether Tony wished he hadn’t left Boston, my question deals with the Columbus Board and were they truly honest with Tony before he took the job.

  6. I like Jay Fishman’s idea about probing deeper into the financial behavior of each board member. Airing some of the hidden layers might help instigate an internal house cleaning of the board.

    Some of the obviously intentional sabotage is hard to prove. But exposure could stir the pot a bit.

    I saw a 990 floating around on one email I got from Michael Drapkin. And the BBB and non-profit ratings are some proof of a financial house in disarray. Trends in the 990 over the past 10 years?

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