Knowing When To Quit

The 6/19/2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal published an article by Janelle Gelfand (the Cincinnati Enquirer music critic) that asks whether or not this is truly the end of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO). Currently, the CSO executive board continues to rebuff calls for mediation, has fired the staff (although executives continue to work with full pay and benefits), cancelled the summer season, and failed to pay the musician’s for the most recent pay period. On the other hand, the organization has no accumulated debt, negligible debt from this season, and as Janelle’s article points out overall attendance was up 11 percent this season and nearly 10 percent of their 55 concerts were sold out. So what’s the problem?…

After spending the better part of the this week participating in the Take a Friend to the Orchestra programs at Grant Park Music Festival and witnessing 12,000+ crowds each night, it is difficult to believe classical music is as bad off as the board in Columbus would like people to think. Simply put, the situation in Columbus isn’t all that bad. In fact, based on the information provided by the CSO’s executive board, their situation is no worse or better than the average ICSOM organization. Instead, all indications point to the conclusion that the CSO’s problems are self-inflicted at best and imagined at worst.

Nearly a year ago, the current executive board privately concluded that they were going to change the way the organization does business by instituting a 25 percent reduction in operating expenses. After several months of explaining their position and the reviewing the process they used to arrive at these decisions, patrons, donors, musicians, volunteers, and even the organization’s music director have railed against nearly every component.

Even with patron groups implementing their own fundraising events and the musicians approaching collective bargaining negotiations with offers of sizeable cuts and requests for mediation, the CSO’s executive leadership has reacted by becoming defensive and adopting an entrenched attitude. However, there is a better solution that would ultimately work in the best interest of the organization without requiring the executive board and management to betray what they believe is a responsibility to govern the institution: they should immediately step down.

There comes a time when those charged with the responsibility to govern a nonprofit organization need to realize that regardless of best intentions and maximum efforts, they may not be the right team in place for the current set of challenges; especially when the alternative is institutional collapse. As such, in order to adequately fulfill their duty as stewards of the public trust, an executive board must consider that when an impasse such as the one is Columbus is reached, the best course of action is to step away from the situation and allow others to assume those responsibilities and look for options that have likely been overlooked.

In short, this is the responsible decision for the executive board and administration at the Columbus Symphony Orchestra to make and the time to make that decision is now.

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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