Mission Accomplished?

It has been a little while since we checked in on the situation brewing at the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and since both parties involved in the dispute have recently issued statements; it is high time for an update. If you’re not already familiar with previous events, here is what has happened so far…

Is an orchestra without the orchestra still an orchestra?
Is an orchestra without the orchestra still an orchestra?

The SSO musicians (known as the Orchestra Players United of Shreveport-Bossier or OPUS) went on strike in October, 2008 after negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) reached a dead-lock. The musicians were opposed to the SSO’s proposed 75 percent pay cut for the 24 players comprising the ensemble’s core musicians and the termination of long standing education programs. Since then, the musicians assert that the SSO implemented that contract offer with the threat of terminating those who didn’t sign. Consequently, the SSO cancelled all concert events from the organization’s primary concert series from January, 2009 forward.

On 5/18/2009, OPUS released a statement via spokesperson Dr. Rick Rowell reaffirming their position and addressing a series of events enacted by the SSO that constitute “a violation of professional ethics.” In particular, the SSO decided to schedule three concert events over the course of April and May, 2009. Each of these events did not feature the orchestra musicians and instead presented non orchestral offerings. These events featured the St. Petersburg String Quartet, Five by Design (a vocal quartet presenting symphonic pops programs), and The Classical Mystery Tour (a Beatles tribute band).

According to the musician’s statement, orchestra patrons were deliberately misinformed about the nature of each concert event (emphasis added).

“The promotional material for these concerts was misleading, causing many to believe that the orchestra would be performing with these groups as we had in the past…The SSO has abandoned its own mission statement by presenting non-symphonic offerings and by ignoring their responsibility to the musical education of the area’s youth.” – Dr. Rick Rowell, OPUS Spokesman.

A key component here is the reference to mission statement. Normally, I don’t focus much on mission statements for orchestras as they should be mostly self-evident: play live orchestra music. I’ve never been a proponent of recent trends espousing mission statements loaded with flowery language and enough details to make a doctoral review board swoon. In short, if your mission statement is more than three brief sentences, it is too long.

But the SSO situation is such that the very intent of the organization’s mission statement is being challenged by the musicians. I contacted SSO executive director, Scott Green, for a response to the musician’s statement.

“The board of directors chose to move forward without the striking musicians by presenting three concerts without them during the months of April and May 2009,” stated Green in an email from 5/19/2009. “As long as the musicians choose not to work, the Symphony’s board of directors will continue to serve the community according to [the organization’s mission] statement without them.”

Green also provided a copy of the SSO mission statement which reads as follows:

The Shreveport Symphony Orchestra, a regional orchestra, will continue to enhance the cultural life of the communities it serves by providing high-quality artistic performances and diverse educational opportunities while maintaining high standards of financial and professional integrity.

Interestingly enough, there is no mention that the “artistic performances” must predominantly feature a symphony orchestra. At the same time, the SSO’s own website provides some contradictory information to the mission statement offered by Green. For example, the organization’s volunteer webpage states that the mission is “to provide classical music to Northwest Louisiana communities.” This is a little more specific as it refers to “classical music” as opposed to the more generic “artistic performances.”

Going one step more, over the past several years the organization’s IRS Form 990s state that the SSO’s purpose is “Providing live symphony music with excellence.” Based on these tree sources it seems clear that, at the very least, the SSO’s mission statement is unclear. In fact, the full mission statement isn’t stated anywhere throughout organization’s website.

Nonetheless, responding to questions raised about the April and May concert events presented by the organization, Green referred to an SSO press release dated 4/16/2009 which states:

The Shreveport Symphony would have preferred to present the concerts it had previously scheduled. Unfortunately, the contracted musicians refuse to work. Because of their decision, the Symphony’s Board chose to move forward without the striking musicians and bring three outstanding artistic performances to our community.

Just in case you were skimming or might have otherwise missed the deliberately crafted wording, the very next paragraph goes on to state,

With these concerts, the Shreveport Symphony continues to fulfill its mission to serve the citizens of the Shreveport-Bossier community “…by providing high-quality artistic performances…”

The press release closes with the following statement,

Tonight’s presentation is not about the [SSO] musicians. Instead, it is about the Shreveport-Bossier community, the Shreveport Symphony bringing a first-class musical performance to our area…

There we go again, more word play in the form of “musical performances.”

The SSO can play fast and loose with mission statements all day but in the end, a symphony orchestra is going to have to put on concert events featuring a symphony orchestra. Anything less means the organization is an ensemble other than a symphony orchestra (time for a name change) or a presenter (time to abandon the nonprofit status). Either way, the SSO is apparently forgetting the other part of the mission statement provided by Green which mentions something about providing “diverse educational opportunities,” which is another topic the OPUS statement addresses.

At this point, the SSO board has a few decisions to make at this point:

  1. Is the organization a symphony orchestra or not?
  2. If yes, then what do they plan to do about reinstating the type of live symphonic performances referenced in their IRS Form 990 statement of purpose.
  3. If no, then it is time to shut down operations or step aside and let a new board assess the situation with a fresh perspective (I would encourage them to consider the latter).

Ultimately, a string quartet and two pops acts do not a symphony orchestra make and continuing down that road is tantamount to a cultural bait-and-switch con. In these cases it always comes down to the board and that body needs to lock itself in a room free of outside input and come to a decision. Anything less is a disservice to their community and their responsibilities as the organization’s stewards.

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 “Mission Accomplished?”

  1. Thank you for your comments,Drew. The musicians have indeed been on strike since Oct. 2008 and haven’t played for the Shreveport Symphony since May 2008. The lack of educational and outreach concerts concerns all of us deeply. I was with the orchestra for 40 plus years, graduating from college scholarship student to full time contract player. I also served as personnel manager for 32 years. We are all staying busy with other musical activities and still hope for a resolution to the stalemate. An orchestra is NOT an orchestra without the musicians and there are no musicians now in the Shreveport Symphony (Orchestra).

  2. Their Articles of Incorporation state: “The purposes for which this corporation is formed are as follows: Generally, to further education in and appreciation of music, dancing, opera and allied fine arts and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, particularly to organize a Shreveport Symphony Orchestra, give public performances of programs of music, singing, dancing, opera and allied fine arts, and to organize an educational program designed to interest and instruct the public in music, singing, dancing, opera and allied fine arts.”

    I would say they have abandoned their purpose and need to form a new corporation and reapply for tax exemption, since there is no longer an orchestra nor an educational program.

  3. Thanks, Terry N. My observation as well. The opera and ballet musicians were contracted by one of our own musicians to play all these performances and the musicians have given two free concerts to the public this season, the second one a few weeks ago with the ALTYSO (ArkLaTx Youth Symphony Orchestra) as a commitment to the students we mentor. NO educational concerts in the schools have been played in two years, yet all of the above are still listed on the SS(O) website. It is definitely time for them to take a good look at what it is they are trying to accomplish here in the community and redesign their websitesite and their Mission. From our picket/info lines at the three concerts they presented in April and May, we observed a much smaller crowd than normally would have attended one of our orchestra concerts, less than half, in fact. We are all staying busy with other musical activities at present. The stalemate continues.

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