News Of Phoenix’s Budget Troubles (sort of)

The 4/1/2009 edition of The Arizona Republic published an article by Jahna Berry that reported news about revenue woes at the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra (PSO). Unfortunately, the article is short on details although it does report about some revenue shortages. At the same time, there is mention of some cost cutting measures already enacted by the PSO…

According to the article, the PSO has enacted measures to reduce their budget by 8.3% which include eliminating six staff positions and cutting administrative salaries. There are no details regarding what sort of artistic cuts are being proposed other than the opening sentence.

“Phoenix Symphony musicians could become part time workers under one of the cost-cutting proposals being considered by 60-year-old organization.”

If details about the proposed cuts are accurate, it would be one of the most dramatic in recent years.
If details about the proposed cuts are accurate, it would be one of the most dramatic in recent years.

The article attributes this information to “a labor union” which in and of itself, is a very odd reference. One might assume the reporter is referring to American Federation of Musicians (AFM), which represents the Musicians of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, but since the union isn’t named, there is no definitive answer. In all my years in this business I have yet to encounter a media outlet that failed to refer to the AFM by name. Nevertheless, the author does include quotes from a musician spokesperson and in those instances she makes the AFM connection.

Regardless, if the part time proposal is accurate, it would be one of the most dramatic cuts proposed by a professional orchestra in recent years; including recent events in Columbus, Charleston, and Shreveport. Currently, the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra employs 76 full time, or salaried, musicians so reducing those players to part time status, or per-service, would indicate a proposed reduction in operating expenses in the neighborhood of 30 to 50 percent.

According to a statement from a Musicians of the Phoenix Symphony spokesperson, the organization has managed to operate with balanced budgets over the past five years so the need for such drastic cuts would be highly unusual. In fact, without having access to better details, the $1 million in non-artistic budget reductions seems equally as drastic. Answers may not be forthcoming anytime soon as both parties have agreed to a press blackout while they discuss these issues.

In due course, if the organization is in as bad of condition as the article suggests this may not bode well for the institution’s leaders when one considers the mountain of existing labor problems which one Phoenix reporter described as “legal challenges involve[ing] lawsuits, complaints to federal agencies, charges of wrongful termination, allegations of retaliation, and the charge that the symphony’s top, veteran players are being forced to take demotions or leave the symphony…”

In short, it is tough for an orchestra’s executive, board, and artistic leaders to build the level of credibility needed to generate public support for implementing significant changes in strategic direction when facing legal challenges of that magnitude. Hopefully, this artilce is blowing details out of proportion a bit and the impending meetings between administrators and musician representatives will produce solutions other than the type alluded to in The Arizona Republic.

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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