I arrived at my new job on June 1, 2008, ready to delve into the standard industry-wide issues plaguing Orchestra Iowa: plummeting ticket sales, strained relations with the musicians, immense debt, and no cash to pay bills. Although I had spent several months before my arrival creating a first year outline, that plan literally got washed down the river when two weeks into my tenure, downtown Cedar Rapids, including the Symphony’s office and performance home, was destroyed by massive floods.
Crisis Plan Step #1: Have A Crisis Plan Step #1
The National Guard had downtown barricaded so even if we wanted to make our way through the nine feet of water to the office, we couldn’t. Without computers and servers, email was shut down. Staff communicated via text messaging and quickly found a meeting point where we could begin recovery planning.
When we were able to get back into our offices, it was horrible. Everything on the first floor and basement was covered in black goo that smelled worse than it looked. We had lost everything from musical instruments and production gear to office equipment, files, and systems. Fortunately, we had electronic back-ups but without computers and software to restore (that would take several more weeks), we were operating blindly.
Lesson #2: Communicate
Before the flood waters had receded, I had at least three dozen calls from orchestra members, staff, and board asking if we were cancelling the season. In a vacuum of information, people will fear the worst.
Lesson #3: Know What’s Important
The fact that this happened in our off-season gave us enough time to arrange for alternate venues; borrow needed instruments, office equipment, and production gear; and buy us a few weeks to get back in operation. In the end, not one concert was cancelled because of the flood.
Our biggest loss was the use of our performance home, the Paramount Theatre, and as all replacement venues seated far less, we saw an opportunity to add a second concert to our performance series. Rather than repeat one at the same venue, we moved the second production 25 miles south to Iowa City.
Being forced out of our hall not only opened up a new venue in a new community, it necessitated increasing our performances at schools, libraries, churches, and at non-traditional venues such as the ball park and on the lawn of a National Trust for Historic Preservation Site.
By taking Orchestra Iowa to the people, we increased our annual audience by more than 35% that first year. Although we added a second concert, we eliminated our fifth rehearsal, keeping service counts the same. Ironically, the expense of performing in our two replacement venues was less than what we were paying at the City-owned (and for-profit-management-company-run) Paramount Theatre.
Lesson #4: Work As A Team
The only way we got through this was by working together. I remember meeting with the players’ committee my first day on the job. They kept reiterating what they had told every person who had ever held my position: DON’T MESS WITH THE REHEARSAL SCHEDULE. Post-flood, the first thing we did was change the rehearsal schedule and the musicians were more than accommodating.
I have a few board members who have served for almost ten years, but I have dozens of orchestra musicians whose tenure exceeds 25. There is a lot of passion and dedication in the group, which is why I have always made sure that every committee of the board has a player rep, as that’s where most decisions are made.
Between donors, patrons, volunteers, and staff, we are surrounded by thousands who want us to succeed.
Since the flood, subscriptions have decreased 20% each year, not too far below what other orchestras are seeing. We chose not to let that keep us from producing exciting and important productions. The scope of those may have changed (i.e. more chamber, run-outs, and broadcasts), but overall, we have grown our audiences and that has led to a substantial increase in contributed revenue.
Please do not wait for a disaster to begin thinking about continuity management (www.artsready.org is a good resource). Remember, FEMA is a four-letter word that begins with “F”.
Whether flood, fire, or financial in nature, a crisis forces us to come together and decide what’s important. It is an opportunity, but it won’t happen unless all constituencies are at the table.
Given what other orchestras are going through right now, I feel very fortunate that we only had property and equipment damage. At least it wasn’t the endowment.