Things That Make You Go Buh!?! Honolulu

On Friday, 2/5/2010 Hawaii Public Radio aired an interview conducted by Noe Tanigawa to catch up on the current status of the bankrupt Honolulu Symphony Orchestra (HSO). The 29:35 segment featured excerpts from separate conversations with HSO Executive Director Majken Mechling and HSO tympanist and musicians’ representative Steve Dinion. Tanigawa did an excellent job at not only bringing out new details since the HSO filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on 12/18/2009 (more) but she managed to uncover two items of interest supporting why the HSO might be better off filing Chapter 7…

Point #1: Clearly, The Executive Doesn’t Get It.

It didn’t take long for Mechling, a career nonprofit management professional from the healthcare research sector with no previous experience in arts management, to communicate a lack of understanding surrounding a number of fundamental issues related to this field. At approximately 10:20 into the interview, Mechling places her ignorance on display by declaring that the musicians were never full time employees and they only worked 15 hours per week.

[audio:|titles=Mechling asserts musicians are not full time employees]

Let’s ignore how many things are wrong with that statement (along with Mechling’s tone) and move on from the frying pan into the fire when Mechling justified her $175,000 annual salary by saying that if you extrapolate what the musicians earn over a 40 hour work week, they actually earn $115,000 so her salary is more than reasonable.

[audio:|titles=Mechling talks about musician salary]

Tanigawa deserves a great deal of credit at this juncture because she interjects to ask Mechling whether her line of reasoning includes the time musicians spend practicing. Mechling’s response is profoundly shocking as she first stammers that she doesn’t know but then offers up an answer anyway by asserting that their pay doesn’t “accommodate what they do on their own.”

[audio:|titles=Mechling discusses musician practice time]

Shortly after this point, Tanigawa switches to an excerpt from her interview with Dinion, who explains what any manager with more than a year of experience in this business already knows, which is every musician is required to spend time outside rehearsals and concerts practicing assigned music and maintaining their skills (in fact, we just covered that last week; apparently, Mechling doesn’t follow this blog).

[audio:|titles=Dinion explains rehearsal and practice time]

The interview goes downhill from there as Tanigawa continues to draw out more of Mechling’s lack of knowledge surrounding additional labor issues as well as the inherent connections between fundraising and basic business planning as they apply to successful endeavors in this field. Hopefully, members of the HSO executive board were listening to this interview and are becoming aware that the executive they’ve tapped to lead them through the reorganization process may actually postpone, or perhaps even derail, a successful outcome.

Consequently, the reality of finding a capable executive at this point in time to replace Mechling is highly unlikely so it is worth considering that it may be in the institution’s best interests to abandon plans to reorganize in favor of liquidation. Ultimately, this might be the best solution to bringing a professional resident orchestra back to the islands as soon as possible.

Point #2: Showing Some Faith In Your Plan.

According to Mechling, the reorganized HSO can sustain an annual budget somewhere between $3 million to $5 million and that’s where she expects them to emerge when they resume artistic activity.

[audio:|titles=Mechling asserts annual budget should be 3-5 million]

Set aside for a moment the enormous gap in expected revenue development potential or that just about any manager in this business could accomplish what she proposes without much trouble (in fact, you probably don’t even need a CEO so much as a good general manager). Instead, focus on Mechling’s statement that she has donors ready to give money, but only under terms she claims are supported by her proposed business plan.

[audio:|titles=Mechling claims donors ready to give]

In due course, Tanigawa discovers that Mechling believes one of the stumbling blocks in that process is the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and her inability to address the musicians outside of that process.

[audio:|titles=Mechling wants to talk to musicians directly]

Mechling is obviously frustrated with the labor process as dictated by the National Labor Relations Act but pursuing Chapter 11 bankruptcy requires the HSO to work within those parameters. Add to that she feels confident that she has identified the fundamental elements of a successful business plan and that she could attract a large share of musicians if it weren’t for the CBA process.

Clearly, if Mechling has the full confidence of the HSO board and they are certain her approach is the one that will bring about recovery and sustainable success, then why not remove the one component that appears to be standing in the way?

The more we learn, the more it looks like liquidation may be the best solution.

Abandoning Chapter 11 bankruptcy in favor of Chapter 7 will allow the HSO to pay off debts and sever connections to the existing business model thereby leaving the board members, Mechling, and all of those ready-and-willing donors free to form a new organization. In turn, the community, patrons, and all of those musicians subdued by the collective bargaining process will rise up to walk hand in hand into a new future of live classical music for Hawaii.

The best way to bring this vision to fruition is to liquidate and start anew. In short, it is time to show some faith in your plan and put your money where your mouth is.

Those who follow this field might have already noticed that this situation is not entirely unlike recent developments at the New Hampshire Music Festival (NHMF). In that situation, you had plans for radical artistic and operational change set into motion by board leaders and a new executive. Those leaders were so certain of being on the right path that they proceeded to implement those changes without conducting a reasonable amount of patron research nor did they include the existing musicians in the strategic planning process.

The result was an enormous amount of patron and musician blow-back that ultimately resulted in the organization abandoning those plans and removing the board leaders and executive responsible for the proposed changes. It is worth noting that the NHMF musicians were not organized under a collective bargaining agreement and the management did communicate directly with the entire musician membership but that did not have much impact on the outcome.

If nothing else, the HSO board can learn a great deal from that situation.

Final Thoughts

Happily, the Hawaiian people can thank their Public Radio network and Noe Tanigawa for bringing these issues and attitudes to their attention. And since I’m not one to criticize as an armchair quarterback, I’m officially offering my services as a consultant – free of charge – to assist the HSO in moving away from its current path by identifying strategic options that will allow it to move through the reorganization process and emerge in as strong of a position as possible. HSO board leaders can reach me via the contact information at my consulting website.

You can listen to the entire Hawaii Public Radio segment below or visit their website.

[audio:|titles=Full Tanigawa Mechling Dinion interview]

for even more insight, visit the 2/9/2010 post at Butts In The Seats – good stuff.

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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5 thoughts on “Things That Make You Go Buh!?! Honolulu

  1. Wow!! Embarrassing and sad. It is hard to imagine any orchestral musician, having heard this Executive Director’s smug attitude toward their work and worth, following this sort of “leadership”. Hope the HSO takes you up on your generous offer.

  2. Jim Collins says it best and it always applies to Board members:

    People are not your most important asset.
    The right people are.

    This is so worth hearing. It’s totally amazing to hear the contradictions. But, how could it be any different?

    The solution is simple:

    Nothing replaces a dedicated Board that is fully committed to and understands the mission of the organization.

    In so many cases you can trace institutional failures to that root cause time and time again.

    Dedication, understanding, commitment and the ability to develop resources are essential traits for every Board member.

    Having been in Honolulu I can say, first hand, that is it more difficult there to find the right people but it’s not impossible.

  3. Being a former HSO musician (found another job at the start of the 2.5yr lockout), I wish I could say I was shocked by the ED’s comments and attitude. Unfortunately for the current musicians (many still friends of mine), The Board finally found an ED who was totally reflective of their long held attitudes toward the Musicians and the Organization in general.

    As Mr Tiknis pointed out, they’ve needed an infusion of the “right” people on that Board for a long time. The challenge has been, once they’ve been found their membership was either rejected by vote of the existing Board, or if they “slipped through” they were driven off.

    When the current ED’s appointment was announced and I saw the lack of experience in the field and the list of previous positions, I had a sick feeling that this current situation would be the end result.

    I continue to hope for the best for the HSO. You’ll never find a finer bunch of people than those who populate the stage of the Blaisdell and a more incredible community than Honolulu.

  4. Just who is their ED? With those awful communication skills and that profound lack of knowledge of the basics of her organization, how does she keep her job? Are there NO arts management graduates who are qualified to accept that position?

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