Post Traumatic Collapse Disorder?

As we all know, last September was the onset of the stock market slump which ultimately led to the current economic downturn. Endowments shrank, pension funds dwindled, and at all but a few right-minded organizations, panic driven decision making guided 2009/10 season planning. Well, that season is upon us and for what it is worth, we can brace for impact…

Fortunately, you don't need to allow post traumatic collapse disorder ruin your career.
Fortunately, you don't need to allow post traumatic collapse disorder ruin your career.

But don’t expect the landscape to be littered with institutional collapse in the form of grand crashes punctuated by gargantuan fireballs. Quite the opposite. Outside of a few exceptions, you’ll feel some tremors and hear muffled sounds in the distance but that’s about it. The panic driven planning for 2009/10 all but guarantees that outcome.

Why? Because too many organizations planned for this season without incorporating enough flexibility into their operations. Think of it like a season-long self fulfilling prophecy, “things will be bad so we had better plan for the worst.”

Okay, to a point I’ll certainly advocate a better-safe-than-sorry approach but the really smart managers, even those who might also be excessively cautious, realize that they need to be on the lookout for signs that things might not be as bad as anticipated. They’ll also be wary of “good news” reports coming from peer groups that cut so much out of their budget and set their goals so low, it is all but impossible to miss.

Consequently, the one word that should be on every manager’s mind this season is flexibility. Not flexibility as it typically applies to labor concess…er…relations but flexibility with regard to making last minute improvements to artistic and other mission based program activities.

The Bottom Line

If your season consists of C-grade soloists and masterworks concerts stuffed full of whatever you have in the library that doesn’t require extra players or additional rehearsals then it is safe to say that you’ve cut back on artistic programming as much as you can (if not too much already). It is easy to stay isolated behind a wall of economic paranoia and reduced operational activity but good managers will remain vigilant against this sort of apathy and work to bring about opportunities to get back on track.

On the upside, if revenue performance surpasses expectations then there’s plenty of room to beef up artistic and mission based program activity in the midst of the season. Just because it isn’t in the season brochure doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Will that require more work and last minute operational activity? Sure, but it’s worth it.

In order to help promote that sort of flexibility, a few things will need to take place:

  1. Increased institutional transparency. Yes, we talk about this all the time but it is needed now more than ever. Everyone is going to have to open up the books for candid examination. If things are doing better than expected, can some of that revenue be redirected toward restored programmatic activity during the 2009/10 season?
  2. It will be a hectic season for guest artists. Soloists and other guest artists (especially those who were cut on short notice) need to be willing to work on very short notice (and a flexible fee schedule) in anticipation of improved revenue performance at some orchestras.
  3. Anticipate a longer than normal planning process for 2010/11. Unless your orchestra is in a good enough financial position to institute traditional levels of artistic planning, plan for making some decisions later than normal.
  4. Increase communication. Tear down as many silos as possible between departments and use increased transparency to help everyone be more efficient; the more key employees know about revenue performance, the better.

If your business plan consists of “let’s wait and see what happens” without also putting into place frequent review periods accompanied by firm revenue performance benchmarks, then you’re kidding yourself and everyone around you. You should expect 2010/11 to be pretty much the same as 2009/10. Fortunately, you don’t need to allow post traumatic collapse disorder ruin your career, remain vigilant and take advantage of every opportunity to reinstate what was lost.

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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4 thoughts on “Post Traumatic Collapse Disorder?”

  1. This is good advice, up to a point. There’s nothing wrong with staying the course with a financially conservative season, and absolutely nothing wrong with having a larger than anticipated surplus (or smaller deficit) at the end of the season. Ultimately, quality is in the performance, not in the works programmed, so focus on that. And changing programs in mid-season is gambling with your audience’s expectations. For every person you might please with a bigger piece, there might be someone disappointed at what was cut — assuming they even got the word in advance.

    • We share some common ground Christopher, I also disagree with some of your notions; especially those about improving programming mid season. Perhaps you’re looking at the issue one dimensionally, meaning what’s to say you can’t add performances? So long as all the numbers add up, the players are available, and audience demand is in place why not restore performances that were cut? For groups with a good single ticket selling system already in place (which they should have been developing over the past decade), they already have the necessary revenue performance platform in place.

      Claiming quality is in the performance and supersedes programming is simply an irrelevant conclusion. Of course quality matters; likewise, the musicians will perform whatever is programmed to as high of standards as the organization provides (lest they suffer the consequences of an artistic review procedure). But to assert that quality is in the performance and not influenced by programming denies box office realities, not to mention a few hundred years of compositional evolution.

  2. My comments about quality were in part in response to your implying that music “from libraries”, requiring fewer additional musicians, is somehow inferior. And, though I didn’t say it as clearly as I might, I meant that the “programming”, the specific selection of works, not the works themselves, isn’t as important as the performance.

    Finally, adding concerts (particularly classical concerts) mid-season, as any seasoned manager knows, is folly, and a recipe for losing money. Without the leg-up that subscriptions sales provide, such one-offs are extremely difficult to promote and sell well.

    • I’m sorry you misinterpreted my comments about programming. It certainly isn’t that music already in an orchestra’s library that requires fewer players is inferior, it is the process administrators use to determine programming based more on spreadsheets than artistic mission goals that is typically inferior (here’s a good example of creative programming in today’s environment).

      Otherwise, we find ourselves in agreement yet again. Yes, a seasoned manager knows that adding concerts mid-season is folly and a recipe for losing money. And that’s the case because a seasoned administrator, by which I assume you likely mean someone with 10 or more years of experience, that hasn’t managed to adapt to the rapidly changing world of nonprofit performing arts management is apt to know that their woefully inadequate and outdated methods are entirely incapable of overcoming this otherwise straightforward task.

      Any capable manager (age is irrelevant) likely has the marketing and outreach resources in place to add one or two subscription based or a special one-off concert events. These managers have established strong relationships with new media outlets, have mature social media platforms in place to build and measure interest, a very low performance ratio for single ticket sales, a strong core ticket buying base that has reliably participated in previous take-a-friend initiatives, etc. As a result, they are in a much better position to restore any cuts mid-season than their antediluvian peers.

      Thank you for bringing this up Christopher, I couldn’t have come up with a better example that will help orchestra stakeholders identify whether or not their administrators possess the necessary skills to meet today’s challenges.

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