What The Richardson Symphony Should Have Done

The Sunday, 7/10/2010 edition of the Dallas Morning News published an article by music critic Scott Cantrell that calls the labor dispute between the Richardson Symphony Orchestra (RSO) and its musicians a “showdown.” That description certainly adds to the western flavor of events, nonetheless, the RSO could have employed a much better solution that would have avoided all of this conflict…

Wuda Cuda Shuda

Simply put, the RSO board could have voted to dissolve the institution, file Chapter 7 bankruptcy, liquidate all assets, and start an organization anew. According to public statements and media reports, the RSO has had financial trouble for some time, is carrying a 14 percent deficit, and has no cash reserves or lines of credit so it wouldn’t be difficult to justify liquidation bankruptcy.

Furthermore, this would have allowed them to form the new organization any way they wished; meaning, with or without a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by a labor union. Add to that the opportunity to replace maestro Brusilow with someone less, shall we say, unfiltered and they would have been in a much stronger position to build the organization they desired.

Granted, they would have inevitably encountered some resistance from the American Federation of Musicians if they attempted to form a new orchestra outside the auspices of a collective bargaining agreement but that would have been a molehill compared to the current mountain of conflict they’ve developed so far.

Given the amount of right-to-work vs. organized labor rhetoric coming out of the RSO, it seems clear that’s the battle they want to fight. From the RSO leadership’s perspective, this isn’t apparently about live orchestral music any more, it’s a political issue. If the goal was to continue providing concerts to the community and supplying a demand, it would be cheaper, easier, and ultimately more productive to shut down the troubled group in favor of starting anew.

That might be considered by some as a reasonable solution but whether or not the RSO considered it, or will consider it, is unknown. At the same time, all of this brings to mind one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes: “Man is the Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute.”

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 “What The Richardson Symphony Should Have Done”

  1. I don’t know, Drew; that seems like a very optimistic take on bankruptcy proceedings and starting a new, non-union orchestra. I am certainly no expert on bankruptcies, but Ch. 11 for corporations typically takes years to conduct. The airlines’ experience is much more typical than the “shotgun” process that GM went through. Furthermore, it seems to me that the musicians’ union would immediately be demanding that any new organization be unionized at the least and more likely demand that the previous CBA be the basis for a new contract. The path the RSO chose certainly won’t be easy, but I just wonder if bankruptcy would be the cakewalk you portray.

    Separately, you suggest that the RSO Board is more interested in politics than music, but I would suggest that it’s exactly because orchestra managers have been too polite in past negotiations that many organizations are burdened with CBA’s they cannot afford. Sure, you’d like to avoid strikes, but not to the detriment of everything else, especially the longterm health of the organization.

    • Hi Darren, I apologize if I came across as making liquidation bankruptcy seem like a cakewalk, it certainly isn’t. However, compared to the direction the organization is currently headed, it would certainly be the lesser of two evils and allow the board members the greatest amount of flexibility to put the organization they desire into place.

      I don’t know if I see your second point from the same perspective. If orchestra managers were browbeaten to the degree I think you’re suggesting, then there would be a substantially higher number of similar crises taking place right now. Instead, even in groups where cuts have been made, the vast majority have recovery plans. To me, this indicates a stronger sense of overall confidence that things will not only improve but eventually return to traditional growth levels.

      Now, there have certainly been boards that approved contracts they didn’t have any intent to keep but I feel those are in the minority and have more to do with individual board leaders taking advantage of the governance structure by making it a predecessor’s problem. All in all, a disappointing thing to see whenever it occurs.

    • I forgot to mention one item about the potential union demands for a subsequent orchestra to be organized under a CBA. I would agree with that but that assumes any new ensemble would have a budget large enough to warrant a collective bargaining agreement to begin with. Based on what the RSO has presented so far, I get the sense that wouldn’t be the case.

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