Charleston Goes Dark

According to a report from Adam Parker in the 3/29/2010 edition of The Charleston Post and Courier, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has suspended operations for the remainder of the 2009/10 season. The news was announced to musicians following the organization’s Sunday concert and to the public via a press release issued the same day. The Post and Courier article reports CSO board president Ted Legasey as saying the suspension is an effort to avoid bankruptcy…

Currently, the organization is without a full time executive director and the development director position is unfilled. Although it isn’t unheard of for an organization to suspend operations to stave off bankruptcy, it is unusual to simultaneously predict that it will likely return subscription payments for the following season. Yet that is exactly what the Post and Courier reported.

The board on Thursday voted to place in escrow all money collected from season ticket buyers “because the likelihood is we will have to give it back,” [Legasey] said.

What isn’t addressed in the article or the press release is the status of the organization’s collective bargaining agreement and whether or not the musicians might challenge the suspension as a contract infraction.

On a related note, the Americans for the Arts recently announced that nine term Charleston Mayor and recipient of the National Medal of Arts by the White House Joseph P. Riley, Jr. will be delivering the 23rd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy on April 12, 2010. It will be interesting to see what details about the CSO emerge, how he might influence impending events, and if he will address the CSO during his lecture.

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 “Charleston Goes Dark”

  1. So do you have lists of orchestras that have suspended operations for the year, have declared bankruptcy, or have huge deficits? It just seems like this is getting worse and worse. I don’t even like to blog about it, for fear of scaring off potential concert goers here! Having survived one symphony death (SJS) I really hate to think of going through another. But of course it’s always in the back of my mind. (Okay, probably not really the BACK of my mind at this point!)

    Love the words I had to identify: insufficiently dizzies

    That’s appropriate for me! I think I’ll call this issue I have “insufficiently dizzies” from now on. 😉

    • The only other group to suspend operations I can think of in the ICSOM/ROPA classification is Honolulu but I certainly wouldn’t put much (if any) credence to universal applications. I also don’t think the news will scare away concert goers. There are plenty of groups managing the economy just fine but you don’t hear about those becasue it isn’t an extreme, and the news (even in our business) tends to focus on extremes. Most of these extremes are the result of prolonged periods of unstable governance and/or management as opposed to any universal issues.

      The only sincere tragedy would be if the business doesn’t learn from lessons that led to the results in those extreme cases. There is plenty of pressure to go around but regardless of how discouraging it might seem, it can be a good thing if business practices and expectations improve. Additional damage would apply if the business adopts a flawed philosophy of reactive entrenchment and uses stress as a vehicle to advance individual agendas.

    • Well, the one good thing Charleston did was to put the subscription proceeds into escrow but to turn around and say that they’ll likely end up giving it back is, at best, puzzling. As such, any group in trouble that adopts the escrow model, combined with positive messages and confident governance, should be enough to overcome any potential trepidation among ticket buyers.

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