I received a copy of a letter from Sandra Reitelman, the former Director of Corporate Fundraising for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) from 2004-2006. In her letter, Reitelman characterizes “an incomplete ability to draw audiences and financial support” resulting from specific limitations within the workplace environment as a cornerstone for the ongoing institutional troubles. At the same time, she is careful to say that she is not speaking of “mismanagement of finances, or of board negligence”…
I exchanged a few email messages with Reitelman in order to determine that she is not currently employed by a professional orchestra association. Instead, she describes her professional endeavors as “donating time to several arts organizations in Metropolitan Detroit as a Board Member.”
The following is an unedited copy of her letter.
March 17, 2011
To Supporters of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra,
I have hesitated to write this letter, because I have not known what effect it will have. I do not know if anyone is listening who will or can effect the kind of changes or decisions that will make a difference. But my belief in this orchestra and institution as an important one, both to Metropolitan Detroit, and to the world of classical music, compels me to follow through.
I am a donor, subscriber, and past Director of Corporate Fundraising for the DSO (a position I left after two years, of my own accord, in 2006). My background is in strategic planning. I have some facts to share in consideration of the as-yet unsuccessful efforts to resolve this unconscionable DSO strike and negotiation. I also bring some personal views about the negotiation itself, and about the musical institution I have come to know and to love. In brief summary, this letter highlights the fact that, and demonstrates just a few of the ways and reasons why, the DSO management has not held up its end of the bargain in supporting the orchestra in its fulfillment of the organization’s artistic vision and mission.
I believe strongly that these negotiations should be about finding a way, through compromise and shared goals, to getting and keeping our truly world-class ensemble on the stage, not about winning or losing. But, first and foremost, there must be basic agreement as to the artistic vision and mission of the DSO. It is management’s role to maximize audiences and to optimize relationships with all constituents towards that end, within appropriate budgetary constraints, all driven by the artistic vision and mission.
This said, I want to highlight some of the internal flaws in the institution that have detracted from the ability of the DSO to fulfill its potential, or at least to prevent a reshaping that will badly harm its artistic legacy (we have already lost our entire percussion section, and principal flute). Most of these flaws pre-date the current administration of the DSO. The current CEO, Anne Parsons, has been in place for nearly seven years. These flaws should have been fixed by now. (I remember being relieved when she arrived, because I thought that there might now be a leadership who could or would address these issues. But she did not.) Unless these problems are fully remedied, it will continue to be extremely difficult to maintain the artistic vision and mission of the DSO, with efficient maximization of audiences and relationships with its constituents as a means by which to achieve those goals. If they are, however, the DSO will have a much better chance of success.
The fact is that the orchestra has held up its end of its charter to perform at its highest level, while long-term management has not been able to do all that it is responsible to do to support that orchestra. I do not speak here of mismanagement of finances, or of board negligence. But, I do speak of an incomplete ability to draw audiences and financial support to enable this fine ensemble to maintain its legacy.
- The development staff has faced extraordinarily high turnover, resulting in less than optimal constituency relationships and funding. A well-tuned fundraising department with well-conceived strategies is crucial to building the relationships to support an institution like the DSO. The very real lack of departmental leadership and staff consistency has been a great detriment, and contributed to the extreme decline in the donor base and ongoing staff turnover.
- The internal culture of the administration has been inimical to mutual respect and camaraderie. Levels of inter-departmental teamwork, trust and respect have often been weak and counter-productive. There were some explanations, but, nonetheless, in an environment where constituent relationships are so important, coordination and integration between marketing and development is vital. Teamwork needs to be strong. This culture also contributed to the development staff turnover issue. Some efforts were made to fix this, but the culture was so ingrained that only a dedicated, consistent, and comprehensive effort could ever hope to effect positive change.
- Systems were not in place to provide for the appropriate sharing of data between marketing and development. Again, the optimization of relationships could not take place. While very expensive database systems were there, they were not used fully. There may be explanations for this, but, nonetheless, that was the situation.
- With the building and marketing of “The Max,” I think we lost our way in promoting the orchestra and its programming. There was, and continues to be, confusion about who “the DSO” is and what “The Max” is. The terms “DSO” and “The Max” were used interchangeably, while “Orchestra Hall” was disregarded. It is the orchestra and musicians that are the centerpiece of the institution, in a hall that is acoustically superb.
- I believe that many of the programming and marketing efforts did not properly reflect an understanding of the suburbs beyond Eight Mile Road. While much good thought was given to meeting the needs of urban Detroit, especially in the Education Department, I think there should have been more outreach effort aimed at engaging the suburbs. We need(ed) to get the DSO out to the suburbs more often if the audiences aren’t/weren’t willing to come downtown.
We know about the shrinking of Detroit and the hypothesis that a city of less than a million cannot support an orchestra of this size. But Metropolitan Detroit is obviously far larger. And, that entire region needs to be engaged in attending and supporting the orchestra. If our region can support the kinds of sports franchises we have, we can support a world-class orchestra.
I do understand that perhaps the money isn’t there at this very moment, in some part because all of the right things have not been done. I know that some serious action must be taken. The musicians have agreed to very major cuts in pay and benefits. On the other hand, perhaps a comprehensive donor and audience base can be cultivated in time to save this orchestra, with the employment of appropriate managerial strategies. I passionately believe that it is in absolutely no one’s interest to dismantle one of Detroit’s few gems, cultural or otherwise. We all lose in that case.
Clearly, it is very unusual for a former administrator to speak out publicly about the internal working environment within the administrative offices during a contentious labor dispute. As a result, Reitelman’s letter is a unique occurrence and adds another layer to a multifaceted ordeal. But what sort of message do you think she is attempting to convey? Does it have any bearing on the dispute? I’m curious to know what you think and why.
Postscript: The DSO has been invited to submit an official response to Reitelman’s letter and they have until the end of business today to decide whether or not to take advantage of the offer. If they do, their reply will be published on Monday, 3/28/2011.