Slatkin Speaks (sorta)

The 12/3/2010 edition of the Detroit Free Press published an article by Mark Stryker that reports Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) music director, Leonard Slatkin, referenced the two month old strike in a piece he wrote for his website, Slatkin starts out by writing “Weather forecast. Stormy with little chance of sun. Temperatures remain chilly throughout the month. Expect a break in the clouds if the pressure lets up.”…

Slatkin goes on to write that he has spent most of the time since the strike commenced talking to DSO board members.

“The strike dragged into its second month and I continued to keep quiet. But this did not mean that I did nothing. Very few days went by while I was in Detroit, when I did not speak with board members, urging them to help find a way out of this. Most said they missed the orchestra but needed to hold firm. The indication was that when a settlement was reached, purse strings might open once again.

And that is the crux of the issue. The players want a guarantee and the board cannot give it. The good news is that General Motors showed a two billion dollar surplus this past quarter, but that is only for 3 months. It is sustained growth, over a year or more, which will get the economics back in play for the orchestra.

I have tried very hard, and feel that the success will come, but not until the orchestra is back on stage. At that time, I will be entrusted with the most difficult job a music director must confront: healing the wound.”

Slatkin’s narrative indicates that most of the DSO board seems to be firmly entrenched and, for now, unwilling to consider options that don’t lock the organization into long term strategic commitments.

In a way, it’s an ironic perspective.

Is the DSO drowning in irony?

Boards correctly perceive collective bargaining agreements as long term commitments. The DSO board is pushing back against a long term commitment they don’t feel can be fulfilled yet the solution currently proposed is another long term solution that locks the organization into what the musicians define as an equally damaging course of action.

It’s no mistake that Slatkin points out General Motors’ recent gains and that if this growth continues (presumably throughout the entire automobile industry) that the DSO and the entire community will be in a better place to forecast their future.

As such, I want to take a moment to reiterate what I’ve been saying for some time now regarding the DSO situation: both sides would be wise to consider options that focus on managing debt for a few more seasons until the local economy stabilizes; this way, they’ll be in a better place to make any long term decisions.

What does the DSO have to lose? They go deeper into debt and might consider bankruptcy? So what, the entrenched positions Slatkin identifies are nothing more than a first class ticket for the insolvency express anyway. Hopefully, the DSO board and musicians will figure this out sooner than later.

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 “Slatkin Speaks (sorta)”

  1. What you’re talking about is a short term contract. A sort of bail out for the board. True, the economic climate in Detroit is worse than most. But the real crux of the economic issues in the DSO stem back to mismanagement of funds by it’s board of directors and an equally misguided artistic direction from it’s management that they are toting as the answer to regaining financial stability.
    I redirect you to the Peter Timothy Ponta letter on the musician’s webpage which in no uncertain terms discloses the precise mismanagement of funds to which I refer.
    “july 5, 2000 — gifts and pledges to date: $92, 905, 202 — which somehow resulted in a $54 million mortgage on a building and no debt elimination” (paraphrasing).
    So I ask you, what guarantee is there for the musicians that after a short term contract is expired there will be fiscal and artistic responsibility obtained by the board and management leaders? Of course the musicians want to settle on a long term vision for their historic organization. And it should be painfully obvious that they simply need new management and new Board leadership to do so. Calling all music lovers with integrity…

    • Certainly, a thorough review of board performance and potential as well as a similar review of executive performance and whether or not the current assets are best suited for the tasks at hand are part of the overall process to determine long term strategic direction.

      The relationship between all stakeholders during a period of crisis management, regardless of who is in place within those stakeholder groups, is something that has to be cultivated. Anything less relationships founded on mutual trust and respect all but guarantees institutional distress.

      If either side has lost confidence in the other then taking action to bring about perceived positive change in that area should be a concerted priority.

      For example, if the DSO musicians believe that the root of their problems is executive and/or board shortcomings and that there is no hope of drawing out untapped potential or changing attitudes, then shouldn’t that group of stakeholders make a change in leadership a clearly stated priority?

      On the other side of the coin, if the board and/or executive leadership believe the collective DSO musician expectations are unrealistic, then shouldn’t they make it their priority to remove those demands from consideration?

      Do you see either side engaging in this behavior?

      • I totally agree. Except that I think there are very few orchestras in which musicians have any say in reviewing management or the board. The board technically hires the management, and the management technically hires the musicians (even though I’m glad they don’t really have a say in who’s on stage). I imagine that the management and board’s dedication to the strategic planning of the orchestra is only painfully obvious at a time of change such as a contract negotiation. And judging by the articles on the DSO musician’s website it seems that in this case, the musicians have lost confidence in the public face that their board and management are showing. I can only speculate that the reason they have not taken a more direct approach at revising their board/management has to do with the legality of doing so during a strike. Or perhaps they don’t want to lose certain members of the board/management who they believe support them in their vision of the future. Your guess is as good as mine. But either way, the musicians must be proactive in lining up their supporters who have the capability to influence those in the community who could step forward to take on these roles in a positive direction.

      • I think you’ve misinterpreted what I was saying. I’m not suggesting that musicians should have any sort of review with actionable consequences of board members or executives. The influence each stakeholder group has on the other is a combination of political persuasion and direct control.

        I also have to point out a pet peeve of mine and this isn’t directed at any specific reader comment but if you are going to reference something such as the articles at the DSO musicians website, be specific. There are a number of articles there haphazardly distributed throughout the site. Please provide reference: title, author, date, and a reference link.

        But back to your your comment, the DSO musicians can easily determine a collective position on their current board and executive leadership by conducting a no confidence vote after a thorough review and discussion period. If they arrive at a vote of no confidence they can deliver that to the board’s executive committee and if that body fails to take action the musicians find suitable, they can either accept the decision or go public. There’s nothing new or unusual about that process and it has happened in orchestras of all budget size for decades. Anything short of that is speculation and/or individual opinion.

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