It’s The Board, Stupid

The 5/10/2008 edition of the New York Times published an article by Dan Wakin which introduces some valuable clues behind what is really going on behind the veil of spin coming from the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) executive board. Among the quotes from CSO music director Junichi Hirokami, one in particular sheds light on the root of the organization’s recent financial problems…

[Hirokami] said he had tried to solicit funds from companies in
his native Japan. "But they don’t trust our board," he added. "That is
why they hesitate to support our orchestra.

This made me think back to stories which came out of the Boston
Symphony for years during the time when Seiji Ozawa served as music
director. Sources have said that Ozawa regularly solicited a sizable
portion of the organization’s annual donated revenue from sources in
his home country almost entirely on his own. Given the variety and
reliability of sources behind the information I have no reason to
suspect its accuracy; consequently, it serves as a valuable comparison
to the frustrations Hirokami expressed in his comments to the Times.

For Ozawa, it is hard to imagine that his fundraising efforts
would have been as successful if the Boston Symphony did not have a
long standing and well deserved reputation of maintaining one of the
most solid board and foundation trustees in the business. Conversely,
Columbus’ executive board and administrative leadership have been
plagued with a series of individuals over recent history that didn’t
exactly inspire confidence. If Hirokami was a U.S. political enthusiast, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if the Times quoted him saying It’s the board, stupid (or more precisely: It’s the executive board, stupid).

Although the CSO executive board has been pointing to current
financial problems and claiming they are structural in nature, the
legitimate source of their problems is a history of ineffective
leadership and a complete lack of strategic planning (frankly, the
structural deficit position is a cheap excuse based on an economic
theory that by and large isn’t even applicable to the orchestra
business – more on that in another article). Instead of addressing
these deficiencies in a responsible fashion by crafting a strategic
plan that addresses the financial problems via a process guided by
artistic integrity and community responsibility, the CSO executive
board adopted a "quick fix" solution in the form of their proposed
financial plan that removes the burden of necessary fundraising. As a
result, it isn’t difficult to conceptualize the sentiments Hirokami
expressed to the Times connected to what he defined as a lack of
confidence among Japanese donors in the CSO’s executive board.

In a related matter, the Columbus Dispatch editorial board published an opinion piece
in the paper’s 5/11/2008 edition where they conclude that if the
organization goes bankrupt, the individuals at fault are the musicians.

The union has rejected both [of the CSO board’s
negotiation] proposals and offered no meaningful alternative…If they
continue to dig in their heels, they will have no one but themselves to
blame when the symphony is no more.

Apparently, the Dispatch editorial board didn’t bother to read
the Times article, learn the basics of orchestra negotiation history,
or for that matter bother to pay attention to years of mismanagement
and objectionable governance within the executive levels of the CSO.
Instead, they classify the musicians’ $500,000 budget reduction
negotiation proposal as meaningless. It’s akin to scolding a patient
for being diagnosed with a genetic disease and just as shameful.

Evidence demonstrating that the executive board has failed to
implement their duties as stewards has grown to a point where it is
simply impossible to ignore and it is clear that they never intended to
negotiate in good faith and have planned for the impending shut down
months before bargaining sessions even commenced. I invite everyone
back for tomorrow’s article where we’ll examine that smoking gun in

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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