Stepping On Some Toes

My overall impression of last week’s American Orchestras Summit was quite positive. All in all, the unique setting and absence of traditional host influence resulted in a noticeably different, and constructive, atmosphere for most discussions. I also appreciated the fact that as a panelist and a member of the audience, the room was well lit so everyone could easily see one another. Accordingly, there was one distinct point during my panel session that produced uncomfortable body language among a large percentage of attendees and I want to explore that topic in greater detail…

The Cleveland Orchestra Miami Residency

In its current form, is the Cleveland Orchestra Miami residency nothing more than cultural poaching?

One of the overriding themes throughout the entire Summit was how orchestras can improve communicating their organization’s intrinsic value to respective communities. For a useful review of specific discussion points, several of the Summit’s blog authors touched on this subject here, here, and here. Consensus clearly formed around the ideas that orchestras need to do more to convey this message and work toward developing activities/partnerships that reinforce and strengthen these positions.

During one of the early Summit session, the Cleveland Orchestra Miami residence was mentioned as a positive example for how orchestras are moving out of traditional comfort zones to develop new artistic activities all of which reinforce the previously stated inherent value issue.

I couldn’t disagree more.

At one point during my panel, I declared in no uncertain terms that if this business truly believes that orchestras possess a high level of value to their community and deserve continuous support, then the current incarnation of Cleveland’s Miami residency works against every aspect of that position. Furthermore, the residency it is tantamount to depriving the Miami community of the dynamic benefits being discussed throughout the Summit regarding the value of a resident full time professional orchestra. In essence, Cleveland’s program is nothing more than cultural poaching.

These assertions had an immediate impact on attendees and from my vantage point, I noticed a great deal of uncomfortable body language.

Nonetheless, let me be very clear by stating that there is nothing inherently wrong with residency and exchange programs. In fact, they do a great deal of good when conducted in communities that also maintain and support a thriving arts community and several full time performing arts organizations. In Cleveland’s case, it is clear that the Miami residency is seen as an income generating activity and was originally pursued as a means of cultivating new revenue streams.

Consequently, if this business hopes to build credibility throughout the cultural consciousness and funders alike with regard to inherent community value, programs like Cleveland’s Miami residency will need to change, and soon. For example, when conducted in communities that have lost a full time professional orchestra, one of the paramount mission goals should be to reestablish that lost presence. To that end, cultivating new board leaders along with necessary seed money needs to be conducted publicly and with absolute transparency.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

At the end of the Summit, attendees were divided into groups for breakout sessions with the task of identifying actionable items resulting from session activity. At that time, I failed to mention anything about Cleveland’s Miami residency but I’m going to offer up the following post-hoc suggestion:

  • Given the Summit’s open tone, it would be useful if the organization could host a set of meeting between envoys from elected musician representatives and a group of board members and executives from a diverse cross section of national orchestras. The purpose of the meetings would be to define a set of recommend principles and guidelines related to long term residency programs, especially those in communities that have lost their full time, professional orchestra.
  • If such an agreement could be constructed, it could then be ratified by representative musicians’ union conferences (ICSOM, ROPA, OCSM, and IGSOBM) as well as orchestra service organizations and individual professional orchestras.
  • In addition to serving as host, the University could also provide unbiased research and facilitation assistance and therefore play a key role shaping the future of the professional orchestra landscape. I can easily imagine such research also serving as a vital foundation for individual orchestras to use for improving their respective outreach and community value efforts.

I freely acknowledge that the ideas above are not exclusively my own and I would be happy to give credit if the individuals involved in the sideline discussions are interested, but my unique position as a consultant and third party stakeholder makes it much easier to present ideas like this without fear of recrimination.

Ultimately, making an idea like this produce meaningful results requires a significant amount of individual and collective responsibility and fortitude. There is no denying that the Cleveland Orchestra Miami residency issue is an uncomfortable topic but one which deserves earnest attention.

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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13 thoughts on “Stepping On Some Toes”

  1. BRAVO!!!!

    Thank you for speaking openly (and correctly) about the Cleveland/Miami situation. There has been so much about that that was improper and of dubious ethics from the start.

    Those who squirmed probably had good reason to.

    • Thank you for the replay hvs but I should point out that I don’t know what or why anyone looked uncomfortable when I mentioned the residency. However, it would be fair to say that the topic is difficult for most in the field to bring up, regardless of their position. As such, having an opportunity in a forum like this will hopefully help generate some momentum for the field to address this in a formal setting.

      Time will tell.

  2. Actually I find it rather encouraging to note that nationally, Orchestra Mangements seem to be about as uncomfortable with this issue as many of us on the Labor side have been for years.

    Thanks, Drew, for your willingness to stand up there and call out the elephant in the room

  3. Ha, I remember when you brought that up, and you could feel in the audience this sense of “Uh oh, tell me he didn’t just bring that up!” My own guess why the Cleveland residency is a touchy subject is because it looks a lot like aggressive competition. It’s like Walmart coming to town and squeezing out the mom & pop store!

    Now I know very little about Miami, only been there for a week, but I wonder if maybe this isn’t the unique balance of orchestral offerings that works for that area. Even without a full-time locally-based orchestra, there are still a lot of options there: New World Symphony certainly seems to have a lot of support in the community based on their ambitious capital plans. Plus, I imagine the University of Miami has a performing arts presenter, and there are probably several per-service or high-quality volunteer ensembles in the area as well. Throw in an annual visit from Cleveland, and maybe that’s what works for Miamians.

    I’m really just thinking out loud here and have little to back this up, but hey, if LA doesn’t mind losing both their pro football teams, maybe Miami is OK without another orchestra.

    • Hi Darren, thanks for leaving another first hand account of the event. After reading your comment, I think you’ve done a good job at differentiating two distinct components of what an orchestra provides to the local community. In the most immediate sense is the concert experience. That element has it’s own set of variables and is influenced by all of the factors you mentioned. At the same time, the other component is the intrinsic value provided by a full time professional ensemble that operates in the community.

      My sense is the Summit focused a great deal on the latter component than the former becasue for decades now, the former has been steadily refined and quantified to the point of providing the highest level of artistic experience to date. The other component is something that has been taken for granted and has not benefited from the same degree of study. yet, this is where orchestras (and all arts groups for that matter) become relevant. The alternative is to evaluate the business purely from an economy of scale perspective that was examined during my panel session.

  4. I’ve heard good things about the summit, as well. I think you are right, Drew, to focus on the different ramifications of a residency depending upon whether the host community has a viable and functioning orchestra of its own, although I still have concerns about any residency that has, as a central component, a goal of tapping host locality funding sources to the detriment of host locality organizations. But that’s a more complicated economic question.
    To respond to Darren’s posit that perhaps Miami has all the orchestra it wants…that’s an attractive idea that would seem to reconcile recent events with supply and demand economics. But I agree that the concert-going experience is only the tip of the iceberg where the presence of a full-time local orchestra is concerned. Yes, the Miami concert-going public may be sated by NWS and the visiting orchestras and yes, TCO does some educational work when they’re in town–but who has filled the void left by the FPO with regard to sustained educational activities throughout South Florida? And where do we expect the next generations of audience members to come from if we are not doing intensive education of both children and young adults? Satisfying concert-goers of today is only, in my opinion, a fraction of the mission of a symphony orchestra. And given our mobile, global society, the failure of one community to engage in sustained cultural education has ramifications for the entire world-wide culture industry. We all need to sit up and take notice when any community falls down in this regard.

    • Thank you for your observations Rochelle, in order to begin a process capable of establishing recommended ethical guidelines (and the related research and analysis of those efforts) one side or the other is going to have to begin making strong public overtures. Consequently, if the musicians’ unions and their player conferences, the League, or a collection of respected high profile orchestra executives don’t speak up, it will never get out of the idea phase.

  5. They really beat us! Since Cleveland came to Miami there is three times more unemployed world-class SFL-based musicians than before. I haven’t played a single classical note since their arrival. Neither can I afford to see them. AFM does nothing to help except raising their dues. WCO is a joke. All State/Fed./Nat. Art Funds are spent outside SFL. If you really feel “uncomfortable” about it maybe it’s time to tell us what we can do to help?

    • I’m not certain which individual you are addressing your question but establishing a set of ethical guidelines via the terms outlined in the article is one option. Otherwise, I would suggest to musicians in the Miami area to demand more from their representative organizations (AFM and its player conferences).

  6. The AFM and ICSOM have for the most part remained silent because they don’t want Cleveland to “pull a Seattle”. The AFM is very bottom line conscious (just ask the former Oklahoma City musicians) and with all due respect to the musicians of the Fl Phil, the CO pays more in work dues.

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