Seattle Musicians Look Forward By Looking Back

It seems fitting that on the last day of 2009 we take a look at something retrospective; but in this case, retrospection serves as a foundation for looking ahead. In an article dated 12/28/2009, the Seattle Symphony & Opera Players’ Organization (SSOPO) committee chair published a frank article on behalf of his colleagues that presents the musicians’ ideas for the future…

The article’s author, Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) violist Tim Hale, recaps last season’s accomplishments and projects excitement toward what he defines as a celebratory period in any orchestra’s evolution.

This year of performance success – despite the recession – has set the stage for the Seattle Symphony to undertake the final celebratory year of Gerard Schwarz’ exceptional 26 year tenure and at the same time, trumpet the arrival of its new maestro.

Hale continues by recounting the accomplishments that resulted in productive partnerships between executive, artistic, and board leaders that culminated in the creation of Benaroya Hall. He segues from there into how that momentum has been slowly degraded over several years of administrative instability. In particular, Hale expresses concern about the current state of SSO executive leadership.

The Seattle Symphony management of the ’90s was of the highest octane, partnering with Jerry and Jody Schwarz and Jack and Becky Benaroya to realize the dream that became Benaroya Hall. After opening the new world-class hall with a concert series not since duplicated, and engineering the rise of the orchestra to Group 1 budget status, Deborah Card departed, chosen by the Chicago Symphony as its President…The SSO has not had a marketing director for over a year, nor does it have a general manager. The reasons are unclear. Our most recent Executive Director, although leaving, will be here through June. A consultant substitutes for committed staff leadership, flying in on Mondays and out on Fridays. During this time one wonders how the major Executive Director functions of fund raising and board development will be addressed and executed, if at all.

Hale’s observations are right on the mark with regard to the potential damage resulting from prolonged executive malaise, the most serious of which is board atrophy (a topic we examined at length here and here). Granted, the adage fools rush in where angels fear to tread certainly applies to appointing executive leadership (another of our recent topics), but Hale’s concerns seem to focus on the accumulated impact of inadequate administrative vision and prowess on the SSO’s recent strategic planning process.

If the Seattle Symphony messages survival as its goal, rather than using excitement and passion to seek support for great musicians and inspirational concerts, it will not compete successfully to win the necessary dollars of its community. If the SSO bases its message on the “Great Art” it produces for Seattle and markets it with enthusiasm and skill, it will continue to grow and flourish. The Seattle Symphony will regain its place as the civic jewel it truly can be.

Hale concludes on an upbeat note, writing “Seattle’s broad-based philanthropic community indeed has the power to create the next Minnesota Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony or Los Angeles Philharmonic.” As Hale points out, the organization has sincerely “moved to the next level” during the term of music director, Gerard Schwarz but ultimately, he and his fellow musicians are concerned about the potential for falling victim to another old adage, two steps forward one step back.

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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