Indianapolis’ Forces Of Attraction

I had an intriguing conversation with a colleague over the weekend about the ongoing situation at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO) regarding the pros and cons of attracting a new music director. In particular, we were talking about the article by Kathleen McLaughlin in the 8/15/09 edition of the Indiana Business Journal. The article’s tag line purports “Symphony likely to have abundance of candidates” and it was that point that fueled our discussion. In particular, we were wondering whether or not an abundance of candidates means the right candidate will come knocking…

There are forces that attract and there are forces that repel.
There are forces that attract and there are forces that repel.

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the business that the ISO reports they’ve been overwhelmed with conducting offers since announcing Venzago isn’t returning for the 2009/10 season. In this business, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a conductor looking for a gig but don’t let that fool you into believing a stereotypical supply/demand scenario exists. In the ISO’s case, there’s no doubt that the organization’s budget and artistic quality posses necessary mass to serve as strong forces of attraction to worthwhile music director candidates. But they aren’t the only forces that matter and if physics has anything to say about the matter, there are forces that attract and there are forces that repel.

Not unlike other artists, any worthwhile conductor will expect a certain degree of conditions in order to participate in the search (not to mention accept a job offer). As mentioned above, the ISO’s artistic force is top notch but in the broadest of terms, candidates will also need a certain degree of authority with regard to strategic and detailed artistic decision making. No conductor expects an orchestra to hand over carte blanche they don’t take well to being overly confined. Granted, the artistic decision making process within each orchestra is unique and based on the organization’s evolution but some items have become more general than others.

For example, an orchestra the budget size of the ISO typically has the music director report to the board of directors and not to the CEO. Forget about organizational charts in the traditional sense on this topic, what we’re talking about here is the reality of how governance is practiced inside an orchestral institution, both politically and contractually.

Based on what’s been reported to date, it seems clear that the process the ISO employed regarding winding down Venzago’s tenure broke down due more to a conflict of personality than anything. And as is so often the case when egos dominate a process, the organization inadvertently exposed a potentially critical shortcoming to the public at large. In this instance, CEO Simon Crookall has apparently had no misgivings about making it known that, at the very least, he had issues regarding Venzago’s involvement in fundraising and other non-artistic music director duties. Some of this was examined in the Indiana Business Journal article.

It’s not clear to what extent the ISO’s tight budget drove the failed negotiations with Venzago. Capone [Venzago’s manager], who did not get involved until May, said that in December Crookall offered Venzago a contract similar to the one for the 2008-2009 season, but later said he couldn’t go forward with it because of budget cuts.

Capone said the last offer was a 50-percent cut in the music director’s salary for 2009-2010, and no salary in the second and final year. Instead, Venzago would have earned fees for performances.

Crookall doesn’t dispute the details Capone disclosed, but he said there’s more to the story. He said the ISO’s offer was justified because Venzago’s role as music director would be “severely diminished” as he withdrew from planning future seasons.

He also would have performed just four to six dates in 2010-2011.

“Would you pay for services you’re not getting?” he asked.

As we know from last Friday’s post, Venzago was already being paid much less than music directors at peer organizations as well as several smaller budget orchestras. So from that standpoint, Venzago was already not being paid for what was perhaps seen as undelivered services. The really important part is what happened when negotiations between Crookall and Venzago broke down. Instead of finding a way to give everyone a way out that saved face, the ISO proposed an offer Venzago couldn’t refuse (but not the Godfather type).

It is hard to believe that the ISO’s financial condition is so bad that the roughly $175,000 savings in the 50 percent reduction offer would be a deal-breaker for the institution. More to the point, it is likely that both sides would have been able to come to an agreement for something in-between the initial offer of similar compensation to the 2008/09 season and Crookall’s final offer. Voila, mutually satisfactory agreement that keeps egos in check while simultaneously putting into place a positive artistic leadership transition process.

Instead, even though the ISO has all the artistic gravitas it needs, my colleague observed that through its actions, it opted to deliver a message to worthwhile candidates about all of those other crucial forces of attraction. Which he summed up, albeit bluntly, with the comment “If you wnat to work here, you have to be our bitch; or else”

Whether they really wanted it that way or not, the ball is squarely in Crookall’s and the ISO board’s court.

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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3 thoughts on “Indianapolis’ Forces Of Attraction”

  1. I have been following this story and read earlier in the paper that Leppard answered to the board during his tenure with the ISO. Prior to Crookall joining the orchestra, did Venzago answer to the board? When did the language change within those two contracts so that Venzago was answering to Crookall rather than the board?

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