Former DSO Director Goes Public With Concerns

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.



Sandra Reitelman

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.

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.

Related Posts

0 thoughts on “Former DSO Director Goes Public With Concerns”

  1. I, too, want to know what others think about what I have to say here. I know that what I have done and said is rather bold, and unusual. But I think that the questions and issues I raise are important, for Detroit and elsewhere. I certainly hope they will be considered in the ongoing dispute. Be assured that my intent is only good.

    • Thank you for your letter–it is helpful, because I think that one of the unsatisfactory elements in this struggle is that mangement has made poor choices which have affected the financial status of the organization, and yet instead of addressing their poor choices, they seek to dramatically re-shape the organization. And in that re-shaping, the DSO will likely be changed as our great musicians leave. If it is partly management’s fault that the DSO is in this mess, then why should they be allowed to capitalize upon their mistakes and implement a convenient re-structuring of a world class organization? I see little desire on their part to compromise with the musicians; and yet the musicians are hardly responsible for the state of DSO affairs.

  2. As an arts administration student and an orchestral musician I read this letter with great interest. Ms. Reitelman lays out some very clear details of exactly what is not functioning effectively within the DSO’s institutional culture, as only someone who has operated within that culture in the past could. The shortcomings described do not seem to come from incompetence, but rather from people doing their job within a pre-existing framework while failing to consider the “big picture” implications of the DSO’s organizational and marketing model.

    Addressing the issues brought up in this letter would probably require bringing in new leadership at the top level, which would be a risky process in itself but would no doubt improve the effectiveness of the organization. Such a change will in my opinion have to happen sooner or later. Since rehearsal and concert presentation themselves can’t be made more efficient, it is inevitable that the DSO is going to have to look to the administrative side to find new ways of improving benefit over cost. This letter lays out with remarkable clarity some good places for them to start.

    • Michael,
      You are correct. It is not about incompetence. It is about an institutional framework (often referred to as a silo structure) and institutional pressures that resulted in competitiveness and distrust. That framework has led to high turnover and incomplete collaboration…hopefully less now than before. The question is…where and when does the buck stop? And, is it, at some point, too little too late?

  3. Ms. Reitelman eloquently confirms some suspicions and rumors regarding the unfortunate dysfunction of the DSO administration. These are flaws that must be corrected for the institution to survive as the community desires. Even if they were fixed, the dispute will not be resolved until the board of directors takes control of the negotiations – because as of now there are no negotiations. The “leadership” of the DSO is on a suicide bombing mission to bring the League of American Orchestra’s “new model” to Detroit. They are intent on destroying the DSO as we knew it. Look at the DSO’s board leadership, CEO and consultants – a veritable who’s who of the LAO.

    What the DSO says about “outreach” and “engaging the community” sounds good – until you realize the ulterior motive. Until you realize that there is at best a very loose definition of outreach, no formal implementation plan, no budget projections – and no stated terms of employment for musicians outside the orchestra that might be utilized for “outreach opportunities” that are not be performed by orchestra musicians. Of course they will say the orchestra musicians have first right of refusal. But management has sole scheduling authority, and they can make it impossible for the orchestra to cover every “outreach opportunity” they might dream up – some probably for that express reason. Management would be free to hire whomever it wanted at whatever rate of compensation and promote them as “DSO musicians” for just about anything. It is not far from there to these same employees ending up on stage in the orchestra. This is why they refuse to negotiate. THIS IS THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF A WORLD CLASS ORCHESTRA IN DETROIT.

    I appreciate Ms. Reitelman’s candor and willingness to speak out. A very credible voice in an incredible situation.

    • Doug, in all fairness what are you referring to when you write

      The “leadership” of the DSO is on a suicide bombing mission to bring the League of American Orchestra’s “new model” to Detroit. They are intent on destroying the DSO as we knew it. Look at the DSO’s board leadership, CEO and consultants – a veritable who’s who of the LAO.

      Is there something quantifiable you can reference, do you have any specific references to support that sort of conclusive statement, or is it more accurate to say those are simply your observations?

  4. As each day passes, more and more of the musicians are jumping ship. There is no telling just what will be left of the orchestra if and when this dispute ends. Time is of the utmost and may in some cases even be too late. I appreciate her letter and the sentiment behind it.

  5. Sandi,
    Much of what you write was true in 2006, but not today. There have been substantial changes in DSO operations, which address every single issue you pointed out. It seems unfair — and highly counter-productive — to assume that nothing has changed since 2006.

    • Thanks for the comment Tom but in the same idea of fairness that I expressed in my reply to Doug’s comment, what do you base your assessments on? Do you currently work for or have you worked for the DSO, is your knowledge firsthand or secondhand, etc. I’m sure reader’s would appreciate the added detail.

      FYI, I attempted to contact you with this inquiry via the email address you provided with your comment but that address was either incorrectly entered or it is a false address.

      • I have been a vendor (graphic design and publisher of their program guide, Performance magazine) for the DSO for more than 18 years. I have been working with staff and management on a daily basis in recent months.

      • Thank you Tom but given the sensitivity of these issues and the fact that the email address you’ve provided for both comments is a false address, I would appreciate it if you could contact me directly so that I can verify your identity. Please know that your email address won’t be published or made public. My email address is located in the right sidebar of this page and the left sidebar of the blog’s homepage.

        Update – thanks for verifying Tom.

  6. Ms. Reitelman’s letter offered information about various elements of dysfunction she perceived while working as a part of DSO’s management. She does not appear to have any personal motive except to prevent the demise of the DSO. She makes no attacks on anyone associated with management. She even offers some general suggestions about how the two parties might move forward to a settlement, involving compromises from both management and the musicians. For these reasons, I think her letter needs to be taken seriously. If her perceptions are accurate, concerns that many have had about management’s ability to do their job effectively appear to be justified. That does not mean that management is “wrong” and the musicians are “right.” However, it does raise serious questions about how much of the current financial crisis was self-induced. It also adds credibility to the musicians’ complaint about management’s failure to operate effectively, particularly during negotiations. Negotiations cannot be productive unless both parties are operating with a certain level of competence as well as good faith. If management is incompetent, negotiations become difficult, or the process breaks down entirely. Of course, this is speculation on my part, because it’s impossible to prove any of these perceptions. But negotiations are inherently political, and in politics, perceptions are very important.

  7. Trust and camaraderie at the DSO –

    Wow! This letter from Sandra Reitelman, the former Director of Corporate Fundraising for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra certainly brings a new twist to the orchestra’s current labor dispute.

    I too, wonder about Reitelman’s motives by speaking out now, with such criticism directed at the orchestra staff and not the board.

    The second point in her letter is important: “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.”

    I think it is very important to note here that the board of directors are the financial linchpins of a nonprofit symphony orchestra organization. The board ultimately hires/fires staff members and is therefore in charge of the organization’s culture. A cohesive and positive organizational culture is critical for a symphony’s success via marketing, fund raising, and audience development(as Reitelman suggests).

    I am going to be interested to see the repercussions through the musicians’ and management/board response to this letter!

    Thank you Drew, for posting this and starting the conversation.

    • At the risk of making a bad pun I have to ask “didn’t the entire repercussion section leave for other jobs?”

      Sorry, I just couldn’t pass that one up (that was for Jon – you know which one you are).

      In all seriousness, Reitelman’s letter certainly addresses a number of issues involved in labor disputes that reach back into the systemic board and office culture. Whether or not those issues are addressed in sufficient detail vary greatly from one situation to the next but it certainly isn’t unusual for those efforts to evolve into a sort of referendum on the current leadership.

      The real problem is obtaining a reliable and independent review. Unfortunately, this rarely occurs and as a result, both sides in the dispute take it upon themselves to engage in the process directly. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the results are less than ideal; or for that matter, helpful.

  8. Quite apart from the issues raised by this remarkable letter, I continue to be astonished at the negative assumptions made (unchallenged, as far as I can see) about the role of orchestral outreach / community work: the idea that it is beneath top-class orchestral musicians, that it represents a dilution of artistic value, that the motivation behind it can only ever be cynical. I think I even read one person involved with this dispute describe it as “demeaning” for a professional orchestral player. Anyone else as astonished by this prehistoric (and, when you consider the future of our art in the 21st century, dangerous) mindset as I am?

    A UK orchestral colleague of mine who specialises in community music visited a major community music project in Detroit about 2-3 years ago. The work there is inspirational, apparently – but when the leaders of ths organisation were asked about possible co-operation with the DSO, their perceptions of the Orchestra were extremely negative: “they’re not interested in what we do” was the gist of one comment.

    I can’t swear to this or give more details; this is only a second-hand anecdote. But I can’t help sensing a sort of trend here, and one that may have some bearing on any future for the DSO in a city like Detroit.

    • HalldorB,

      My sense as the partner of a DSO Musician, and someone who has seen the various agreements being discussed, is that the musicians would be much more receptive to the outreach/community proposals of management if:

      A) management would be more specific about what the musicians will be asked to do. The proposed contracts are extremely vague, and

      B) Management would put forth a business plan that shows how this outreach would help improve the financial picture of the organization.

    • I don’t think anybody is negative about true orchestral outreach. The musicians of the DSO certainly do their share. What I am negative about is what management is calling “outreach” as a guise for making money and starting the process of eliminating the union.

      Teaching, coaching and small ensemble playing are all extremely important, but these “non-orchestral” activities are not outreach in line with the core mission of the DSO. They are already being more appropriately provided by other organizations and people – like Ms. Owens who has replied earlier. For the DSO to take on these activities amounts to nothing more than exploiting the “brand” that exists because of the work of the DSO musicians and use it to run a revenue-generating referral service. “Have DSO musicians play for your next wedding, party, corporate event….” is not outreach.

      Management has not provided any financial projections that support it or plans for implementing it. Performances by the full orchestra that connect with the target audience are a lot more visible, productive and fundable than musicians going around onesie-twosie to generate a couple bucks under the guise of outreach.

  9. Drew,

    Management has steadfastly refused to negotiate or submit to arbitration the proposed work rule that would allow them to contract non union musicians for whatever they want to call outreach if orchestra musicians can’t / won’t do it.

    They have declared that they are done negotiating. They will not agree to binding arbitration. They are depleting the endowment as they have no earned income stream. There has been no apparent effort to reduce administrative expenses, even though the season has been canceled. This is not the way any prudent management team runs a business that is in a crisis like the DSO – unless it’s goal is bankruptcy, which has been discussed.

    I suppose you could call these my observations – this is as quantifiable as I can get based on what little information the DSO truly releases.

  10. In response to Tom Putters comments…I can vouch for the fact that Tom Putters worked and works for the DSO. We worked together. (hi, Tom). I would like to hear from Tom the specific changes he has seen. Perhaps they have not yet had their full effect in the marketplace. If so, then that presents all the more reason to be hopeful on behalf of the institution.

    I want it clear that my intent is to point out that there are problems that have existed that help explain where things are today. Things, that with clear and continued effort, could result in a positive outcome.

    I also believe that outreach is critical, and I do know that outreach is a very, very important part of the DSO management’s plan. But, I also believe it is reasonable for the musicians to have a big say in what that is, and in how it is to be executed. I find it hard to believe that chamber music runouts could possibly be easy or cheap to manage, beside the fact that orchestral music at high levels is what DSO musicians play.

    I also agree with David’s comments about a plan for community programming.

    • Greetings Sandi.

      I’m probably not the best person to provide all the specific changes and I’d rather not just quickly throw together some words. So, for the time-being, trust me that there have been huge changes involving teamwork, marketing, fundraising, technology, etc. I know it is hard to believe that this place could operate even somewhat efficiently and effectively… but it is. Not perfect yet, but improving greatly.

      Regards from someone stuck in the middle,

  11. Sandra Reitelman wrote,

    “The fact is that the orchestra has held up its end of its charter to perform at its highest level,”…


    I’m a musician in a major US symphony orchestra who, several years ago heard creeping into the conversation shortly before contract negotiations, words to the effect that everyone “upstairs” had done their part to sacrifice for the institution – what then was our sacrifice going to be in return?

    This stuck me at the time as an odd form of guilt-inducing and unnecessarily off-putting way to resolve our institution’s financial shortcomings by implying that our performance responsibilities had anything to do with the financial situation of our esteemed institution.

    After all, we were playing at our highest level in many a year by every account that I heard or read from the critics, both in town and overseas while on international tours.

    Hadn’t we had several CBA’s in a row that both sides walked away from equally happy (or equally unhappy as the saying goes)? Hadn’t we lived up to those agreements, all of which were conceived and implemented with the orchestra’s highest performing standards and sound financial management as it’s underpinning?

    This “shared sacrifice” concept seemed contrived to fit a political agenda – much in the same way we see it on steroids at the DSO and more importantly as it is being revealed and played out in the general body politik (does anyone really need a review all of the examples?).

    So generally speaking I can’t say that I disagree with Ms. Reitelman’s observation about how the musicians have lived up to their performance-based responsibilities.

    Has the DSO declined artistically? No, quite the contrary – even in the face of sacrifices in the form of set backs that they have made financially over several CBA’s. The musicians set their own high standard with each and every note that they are responsible for in every work that they perform.

    In short, I suppose that I do not agree with the already agreed-to framing of the issue whether it apply to the DSO or elsewhere.

    This letter of Ms. Reitelman seems quite perceptive, full of facts yet nuance, and believable on it’s face (unless credible information directly from management comes to light).

    It only seems to support my contention that taking financial crises out on highly skilled labor (think surgeons and the like) is just passing the buck by some form of incompetence within the stucture or implementaion of management’s policies.

    The board and management are just as responsible for their performance as are the DSO musicians. The management seems to have forgotten who works for whom.

    The musicians ARE the DSO.

    • Hello Drew. I want to try and answer a question you asked earlier in this thread. The LAO model Doug mentioned is called “The Campaign for a New Direction”. this is an ongoing fundraising operation that has as its goal a transformation of the symphony orchestra into more of a musical referral service. Long form presentations(full orchestra concerts) are only a small part of what this new artistic entity will be doing. Traditionally trained musicians aren’t enough for this mission. These new musicians will be judged not on just their musical talents. You can read about all of this in Symphony Magazine( LAO trade journal). I hope this sheds some light.

    • Ben, your last sentence hits the key point. “The musicians ARE the DSO.” The definition in the musical sense as opposed to theatrical sense of the word “orchestra” is “group of musicians”. The general impression that the DSO management has given is that the organization is the orchestra and the musicians are just “players” (the term in multiple press releases).

  12. I think this letter points out some very common issues in almost any nonprofit organization, particularly orchestras. I’ll throw out a few points.

    First: High turnover in development? Pick up any issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy; turnover in development jobs is nothing new. I would like to ask Ms. Reitelman to quantify “high turnover,” because it is rampant everywhere. A senior development staff person today is under five years on the job! Does high turnover in development have a negative impact on fundraising? Yes, but it depends… It’s not like development staff walk out of a job and take donors with them. Most top donors are stewarded by executive leadership and trustees. A new development staff person does not usually “take over” major donor relationships immediately, at least not until tenure and trust are established. Certainly, high turnover has an impact on efficiency. In that sense, I would agree that a strong development team can raise more money by being more conversant with the donor base and more responsive to the needs of the orchestra. Is the turnover in Detroit extreme to the point of financial detriment? I think we need more information.

    Second point: Organizational culture does impact effectiveness and productivity, but no organization is perfect. There will always be people who clash through personality differences, those who thrive on power struggles. There are strong and weak team players, those who collaborate and negotiate well, and those who rebel constantly and look for things to criticize. These things happen, especially in any organization the size of the DSO. Organizational culture changes with people. You don’t miraculously become a permanently fabulous place to work. There are periods of great peace and productivity, and periods of challenge and strife. Internal culture requires monitoring and sometimes intervention from leadership. I’m not sure that Ms. Reitelman is questioning DSO leadership. We don’t really know enough. My opinion: there’s always room for improvement, organizations are made of human beings.

    Third point: I’m relieved to hear that big orchestras like the DSO struggle with data management, too! I would like to know who originally thought it a good idea to keep separate marketing and development databases in arts organizations. They should be shot. I agree with Ms. Reitelman that it’s more important than ever for arts organizations to be able to monitor and develop “whole patron” relationships with all possible information in one place. It’s also one of the easiest problems to fix. Do I think that this problem is a major barrier to the DSO’s ability to develop greater patronage? It makes the work harder, less efficient, but not impossible.

    Fourth point: It’s not uncommon for a new venue to steal the limelight from its tenant(s) for a period of time until the community’s “honeymoon” with the beautiful building ends. Capital projects are sexy to a community, until such time that donors realize that it takes a lot of money just to operate the hall, let alone support the continued artistic excellence produced in that hall. In the case of Detroit, there are banks calling in huge loans that were taken out to complete The Max. This last point is perhaps the only one in Ms. Reitelman’s letter that I think has great importance in the current complex DSO situation. If not enough money was raised to finish The Max without incurring this debt, you have an argument that there may not be enough support in this community to sustain a world-class tenant indefinitely in that hall. Detroit remains one of the hardest hit metropolitan cities in the USA. The Max, the DSO, and these huge loan problems certainly seems to me like a huge factor on the financial side of the arguments.

    I appreciated reading the letter. I think that what the DSO is dealing with involves a multitude of factors. Except for The Max, I’m not sure that the ones mentioned here were the most significant. Is management not doing enough to build support for the orchestra? As an arts administrator, the nature of this business has always suggested to me that we could ALWAYS do better, and do more. I think the bigger question is really “Is there enough support in Detroit to sustain a world-class orchestra in a world-class hall at a level competitive with other cities of its size?”

    • Mr. Streby, 60 million dollars was raised in order to finance the Renovation and expansion of Orchestra Hall. The board chose to to invest these monies in the market, and they negotiated an interest -only loan with a balloon payment in order to get the actual work done. Their argument is that it looked like a good plan at the time. You know the rest of the story.

    • I appreciate your insight and comments, and want ton respond to each of the points. I do not know about the turnover to other nonprofits, but I do know that the department was a revolving door. At the time I left, other than one extremely long-term Executive Assistant and the CFO to whom the department reported, had the greatest longevity, having been at the DSO for two years. The turnover was both a cause, even if small, and a symptom. What I refer to is suboptimization, not iineptitude. I refer to the fact that the pressures and needs of the business do require fine-tuning. There is little room for inefficiency.

      I agree with your comments about organizational culture, and the fact that people and their styles differ. But, I must add that there was a very negative culture at the DSO. I worked for many years in the advertising and marketing business as a consultant, where, over the years I came in contact with numerous corporate cultures, none like the DSO. And, as I have said, it existed before I got there and after I left. Was it different than at other orchestras? I don’t know. But it was counterproductive, in the least because it resulted in unhappiness and turnover. I am only questioning leadership to the extent in that it was unable to produce positive change, at least during the time I was there.

      With all that is being demanded of the administrative staffs of orchestras, from the musicians, from the donors, it should be a given that we fully strive for efficiency and optimization of our organizations.

      Do I think that the lack of system coordination caused the financial problems? Of course not. But, again, we are speaking of inefficiency for staffs that are already too far. And, in a culture where coordination and integration is suboptimal, the lack of systems talking to each other is one more weight. I do not know when and if this problem was addressed at the DSO.

      My understanding was initially that the building was under-capitalized. But I later learned that the money had been raised, but invested in a declining market. I have not heard this verified.

      You are right to boil the question down to whether or not Detroit can afford a world-class orchestra. I would like to ask whether Detroit can afford not to have a world-class orchestra. I keep hearing that the city is less than a million, now at just over 700,000. But the 9 county region, according to the US census bureau is over 5 million, down only slightly from 2000. And, while 38% of the city’s residents are at or below poverty, the suburbs remain among the most affluent in the US.

      I note that you did not refer to the significant decline in the donor base. Management has offered up that this has been a function of lessened investment in obtaining those donors. I am not certain that I agree that it ever makes sense to stop cultivating and investing in building the donor base. I would like to get your take on that.

      in my comments to offer ardent hope that there can be a solution to the current nightmare. All of the issues I raised, excluding the biggest one, which is about whether or not Detroit can afford a world-class
      orchestra, are fixable, in one way or another. Efficiency can be improved, the culture can be fixed, donors can be recultivated. But none of this can happen without an orchestra on the stage. The orchestra has willingly accepted significant pay cuts, and some significant changes in their work rules. As I understand it, the biggest obstacles now are over the community outreach programs and how that is to be managed, and the pay level in year 3. With all of the newfound success I have been hearing about in fundraising at the DSO, it stands to reason that there should be common ground.

      • First, I apologize for any misrepresentation of facts in reference to the performance hall and the loans. I have not followed these details as religiously as Mr. McManus and several others.

        Sandi, I’m really not able to comment on specific managerial or financial issues that may or may not be contributing to this sad situation in Detroit, without the appropriate reference data. You asked me to comment on the decline in the donor base but you provide no specific reference point or source of data. Since when? Before the economic crash of 2008? Over the past 10 years? I can comment on the national decline of support for the arts in the last few years – it’s very serious, no secret there. I believe that the downward trend nationally is only magnified exponentially in Detroit.

        But at this point, at least in my view, the labor dispute appears to be less about economics – thus, there’s been less mud flinging as the final number became clearer. Now, the sticking point is about final language or the “definition” of the musicians’ responsibilities in community outreach. Language is every bit as important as the economic backbone of a CBA. You nor anyone outside the DSO can really analyze how this sticking point will play out.

      • I don’t know if I would characterize the final sticking point as the outreach language. Instead, it appears that the terms related to whether or not therre is a recovery in economic terms at the conclusion of the contract term is one of the stronger issues. But your point about the lack of reliable info is very real and an honest problem.

  13. I took my family to the DSO children’s symphony for years. To let Thomas Wilkins get away was a HUGE mistake. Moreover, it seems as if the DSO has gone down hill under Parson’s leadership.

    And yes, turnover does matter. Staff do matter. Trust matters. The DSO administration is a toxic mess. There is not consistency or moral when turnover is as high as it is in the DSO administration. Leadership (Parsons and Board) blames staff for their inability to raise adequate funds, but takes credit for major gifts and new grants, no matter the staff input or involvement. A recipe for decline and we see it before our eyes.

    These problems may not be unique to the DSO but leadership is lacking when these problems are as chronic as they are.

  14. I lived in the Detroit suburbs 1988-1996 and enjoyed many DSO concerts. I am observing this conflict from afar. In my career in the auto industry I have been through many labor conflicts. This one in the music industry is no different. Placing the desire for power and control as the primary issue by either side makes negotiation useless. In this conflict it appears that those holding the purse strings have no interest in art or music. Establishing their position as “Big People” pulling the strings behind the curtains is the first concern.

  15. Bravo, Sandi, for your excellent performance as someone who is “compelled” by your noble beliefs to speak out for good. Wow. In the midst of a public relations war, you issue an incendiary letter full of your personal, unsubstantiated, and old perceptions of the DSO administration that just happen to coincide with the musicians’ ongoing criticisms of the administration? What a manipulation.

    You seem to put up a pretense of innocence and virtue that you are “only trying to help,” while you essentially walk into the battle swinging a club. That kind of disingenuousness raises my ire. If you are going to judge Ms. Parsons and her staff at this point in time, you really must be intelligent and responsible enough to have cold, hard facts and current information. Not only do you not have these, you make pronouncements in your letter as if you do. How can that be anything but harmful and irresponsible at this time?

    The DSO staff put their hearts into their work every day, and have for years, to keep up a world-class orchestra in a crumbling city. I’m sure there are problems. All organizations run by humans have them. Your kind of antagonistic comments aren’t likely to help. Ms. Parsons is in there going to mat for what she believes, and experts have told her, will save the organization. I personally know other people who have worked for the DSO in the past five years and they are good, smart, honest people who care deeply about music and their work. How dare you impugne them this way with your squishy consultant-speak? Is now really the time to dither about the effect of the marketing department’s interchange of “the Max” and “the DSO?” And without any hard data, is it really more than sport to do so?

    To another point: are the musicians really without fault? Without problems and embarrassments? Musicians everywhere offer uninspired performances, have petty disputes, refuse to retire when long past their prime, and other offenses. I’m not sure how you get to the definitive statement that the orchestra has “held up its end of the charter….” If the audiences are not engaged, can you really blame the development office, or does the blame at least partly lie with the musicians who aren’t able to electrify the audiences enough to make them care? Maybe these musicians aren’t really as good as you and they say? It may be heresy in our field to criticize “artists,” but if the audience isn’t engaged, then perhaps we need some different musicians.

    You can’t have it both ways. Either the musicians are the “heart of the orchestra” and have to take some responsibility for how it is embraced in its community, or they are just passive hired guns and the administration should take the responsibility, including being able to get rid of the boring, weak, and crabby ones, and fill the roster with a vital and captivating new group.

    I don’t blame you, Sandi, for having an opinion. I blame you for presenting it so declaratively without backing it up, and therefore for being manipulative and making things worse at an already bad time for all involved.

    • My letter speaks for itself. But I do want to clarify that I do not wish to impugn the staff of the DSO. This is not about individuals and their talent, dedication or drive. I do know the hard work, drive and talent of many of the staff. While I left nearly five years ago, I have remained close to the institution and to people in it, am aware of its going ons, and while you seem to feel otherwise, it matters to me, as it clearly matters to you. Five years is not that long, by the way…..

    • As a non-musician and “working stiff” in an accounting firm, I’d like to chime in with a comment or two from another perspective.

      It is unfair and disrespectful to assume that the administration can “get rid of” any of the musicians. Under what authority do the administration judge the ability of a musician? I have read about the unbelievable auditioning process an orchestra musician undergoes to win a job. I am assuming that there are committees delegated to keeping the artistic integrity of the musicians intact.

      Based on facts, it seems clear that management is to blame for financial troubles, not the musicians.

      Let’s look at some “facts” chronologically:

      – DSO raises roughly 60 million to fund construction of the concert hall.

      – Rather than paying for the hall, administration decides to invest the moneys into a failing economy.

      – 2008: The unrestricted endowment amount drops to a staggering 20 million. Roughly 30 positions in management are eliminated. Massive layoffs and an inability to raise money tend to make me believe that Sandi’s presumptions regarding a negative work place are true.

      – Now: DSO owes 54 million for the hall built in 2003 and is risking foreclosure.

      – DSO demands pay cuts from musicians to ensure survival. Musicians on strike – sacrificing thousands of dollars in pay. Anne Parsons – still getting paid… alot.

      – The musicians eventually give in to the huge pay cuts with binding arbitration, administration refuses with no good explanation. If management truly wants more outreach opportunities for the orchestra why do they refuse to specify the details of such “services” in the contract? Seems fishy at best… how much more do the musicians need to sacrifice? What has the administration sacrificed in this agreement?

      You imply in your comments that the musicians’ inability to engage the audience is a problem. Even if true, which I somehow doubt, I do not see a correlation between that and management’s misstep with the original 60 million. And at the end of the day, you aren’t going to attract a high-caliber musician with such huge pay cuts. This is a simple fact. If you want the best, you pay the best. Do you think Kobe Bryant would continue playing for the Lakers if faced with a 30% pay cut? I’m guessing he would move on to a different team… how would this effect the Lakers as a team? This is the reality of the DSO right now.

      I agree that there are probably many good people willed people working in management, but the fact is, money is not being raised, workers are being fired. It is managements job to raise money, create jobs, and to expand the orchestra. A musician’s job is to play their instrument at a high level. The musicians do this.

      Perhaps you can “back up” your own ideas and shed more light on Ms. Parson’s master plan to save the organization. I would appreciate some “cold, hard facts and current information” about the so-called experts who have advised her on saving the organization. Ultimately, the people responsible for the DSO’s financial well-being have failed the musicians and community of a world-class orchestra. I would be interested in hearing what the same group claim to be the orchestra’s saving grace.

      At the end of the day, this is not the Detroit Symphony Organization, it is the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Much like a great sports team, the players are the single most important facet to the group. They deserve a level of respect and appreciation for what they do, and expect the best because they are one of the best.

      • Mark C, thanks for your perceptive comments. I just want to make a correction about how the $60 million was spent. Orchestra Hall was built in 1919 to provide a permanent home for the Detroit Symphony. The orchestra left the hall in 1939, eventually returning to Orchestra Hall after it was saved from demolition in the 1980’s by a group of DSO musicians, and restored to become once again the home of the DSO.

        In 2001 construction started on the addition to the Hall, and additional work was done in the Hall itself: new HVAC (except for the stage, which has none, and is where we actually work), seating, lighting, and other work, but the vast bulk of the money was spent on the addition- the Max M. Fisher Music Center, which provides needed extra lobby space, elevators, rest rooms for patrons, changing rooms for the musicians, conductor and soloists, etc., including the duplication of staff office space that already existed in the Orchestra Place building next door to Orchestra Hall that was built the DSO in the mid 1990’s. The addition (‘the max’) also includes the ‘Music Box’, an education wing, practice rooms, a donor lounge, a full catering kitchen, a rehearsal room (which the orchestra didn’t need, and is used primarily for the civic student ensembles), and more. Clearly, the addition to the hall was an ambitious project, and one can certainly debate the merits of a symphony orchestra undertaking such a large and expensive project given the historical ups and downs of the Detroit and Michigan economy.

        The Detroit Symphony survived the 1990’s in Orchestra Hall without all the amenities ‘the max’ provides, nice though they may be, with frequent sold out performances, international tours, recordings, and trips to Carnegie Hall. The addition to Orchestra Hall may be nice, if overly and unnecessarily large, but its construction and the way it was financed has crippled the organization and put its existence in peril.

      • Thanks for the corrections Brian – it is interesting to see where the renovations were made. My main concerns lay in how the finances were handled. From the outside, it seems clear that the best course of action is to eliminate debt when at all possible. Is it true that the money raised for the renovation was invested rather than spent to pay the bills? Such a decision would have to come from someone pretty high up, and my guess is that someone is to blame…

        Unfortunately, given the financial scenario, it seems evident that the musicians will have to take some cuts in salary. I cannot criticize the musicians for fighting the pay cuts – I would not go out without a fight if my employer demanded a 30% cut of my salary! (especially if the financial trouble was due to their incompetence) I can only hope that the strike ends soon. Until the management and musicians can work together again, the hole just gets deeper and deeper…

        Good luck Brian, and best to you and all of your colleagues.

    • Laura I. stated:

      “Maybe these musicians aren’t really as good as you and they say?”

      This is exactly the kind of idealogical, tone-deaf response that the musicians read between the lines when they are told that they are somehow responsible for the financial mess that now exists. It shows an indifference if not disdain for the orchestra that, in effect, provide management employment. As long as this kind of attitude prevails during negotiations, there cannot be bargaining in good faith going on from DSO’s management.

      The difference between skill sets on stage during a rehearsal or performance and the planning and performance of management stand in stark contrast. It doesn’t matter how hard you “try”, it’s the results that matter. Musicians of the DSO know this because they have lived it every day of their long and distinguished playing careers.

      The musicians have done much more than their part to help (even though they cannot be held professionally responsible for the mess they find themselves in), many of them fleeing to other orchestras after having won auditions on the audition circuit (what does that tell you about their skills again?).

  16. I hesitate to reply to comments from someone who won’t give their full name, (Laura I) as it’s all to easy to assign blame or challenge the performance of a group (in this case the musicians of the dso) while hiding your identity, but in my opinion as a member of the Detroit Symphony for 22 years, the orchestra performances last year were, on the whole, the best that the orchestra has ever achieved.

    The quality of the orchestra has improved, from an already top level status, consistently over the last 20 years and our level of performance is recognized internationally for its excellence. And despite the loss of some musicians we continue to maintain that standard as we perform our self-produced concerts. The audiences at our concerts in Florida last year were certainly ‘electrified’, and at our DSO Musicians concert performance of the Saint Saens Organ Symphony in January the applause lasted for well over four minutes, the longest applause of any concert I have ever experienced in my 34 year career. Our recent performance of Scheherazade was also one of the best performances by the orchestra I’ve experienced.

    As far as Sandi Reitelman’s letter is concerned, I haven’t seen anything of substance in the years since she left the dso to contradict what she has said. The development department still experienced constant turnover, four V.P.’s of development in the last few years, and many changes in the staff as well. Her comments about the branding of the organization with the building of the addition to Orchestra Hall are on the mark as well. There were extensive discussions during the strategic planning process on whether we were a building (the max) or a symphony orchestra!.

    The DSO name and the importance of historic Orchestra Hall were essentially abandoned for years after ‘the max’ was built. I find the nickname ‘the max’ as the identity of Orchestra Hall and even the Detroit Symphony to be juvenile and demeaning to the orchestra, organization and the Hall. We struggle to change the misperceptions about the identity and developed a branding strategy during our planning process to overcome the dilution of the DSO and Orchestra Hall as the essential elements of the organization but the damage was done. Confusion remains in the press and the public about who and what we are and where we perform.

    In my opinion, the board is willing to trade a world class orchestra for the addition to Orchestra Hall that was poorly financed, duplicated office space that already existed in the Orchestra Place office building the dso built a few years before, and was therefore larger than it needed to be; and for another example of waste, the Music Box (the small performance space in the addition) is too small to use for any productive concerts, and the original bleacher seating was replaced at a cost of $750,000 because that seating set-up required overly extensive and expensive stagehand time and manpower. The Music Box is overwhelmingly used as a banquet hall.

    The exodus of musicians to other orchestras is unprecedented in the history of the Detroit Symphony. Attempts by the dso management to portray the turnover in the orchestra in the last few years as normal is disingenuous at best. And the number of musicians actively auditioning for other orchestras is also unprecedented. This is not the sign of an organization that believes in any dedication to maintaining a world class status.

    Although there are many on the staff who work hard and do their best, the lack of continuity in many departments, and the lack of institutional memory and knowledge of the history and traditions of the orchestra do not bode well for the success of the organization. Attempting to radically reshape the musicians’ job from primarily performing symphony concerts to an unproven ‘new model’ without providing musician input to the process is the furthest thing imaginable from the ‘collaborative’ spirit that was espoused in the recent strategic planning process.

  17. It has been enlightening to read the various opinions and responses to the initial message, some more informative than others. I tend to deal in outcomes, and the outcome here is a disaster. The management has treated the musicians not as equal participants in an enterprise, but as interchangeable parts. Whatever faulty financial decisions occurred, we have to deal with the situation as it is. The decision to make the DSO the first example of an LAO experiment is leading nowhere. If the musicians had been an equal part of the process from the beginning, with a vote in decisions, I doubt that their agenda would have been to keep on with deficits until the orchestra ran out of money. But we will never know.

  18. I appreciate the insight given in these posts, and I concur as well with Carl Najor. My husband and I attended DSO concerts before our daughter arrived, but we became very steady patrons and donors with the Young People’s concerts under Thom Wilkins’ direction, and then graduated to the evening concert series once she reached middle school age. Maestro Wilkins was probably one of the best ambassadors for the DSO, and the attendance at these YP concerts was overflowing while he was at the podium. He was so approachable at these concerts and visible in his community. Our daughter attended Orchestra Hall on an elementary school field trip as well (with Wilkins again behind the baton), with the auditorium filled to the gills. This kind of outreach brought future patrons to the Hall, a very smart way to reach the community. The annual concerts in the Metroparks is another wonderful venue, and having attended them for several years, it’s clear that Wilkins is a definite draw with his ability to connect with the audiences. For these to be lost would be a great loss not only to the community, but to the future of the orchestra as well. (Perhaps he saw the writing on the wall and so left as resident conductor before things got to where they are now.)

    To hear of the unwise handling of funds in regards to the building of ‘the Max’ is disheartening. Bigger is not always better and it appears that greed rather than wisdom ruled in that case, the same problem behind the whole economic crisis. Certainly the musicians should not have to pay for these mistakes. If Laura I’s approach and attitude are representative of the administration’s, we are in very sad shape.

    Being one who is in no way involved “behind the scenes,” all I have to contribute is my view as a patron and donor, so I don’t know that it will make a difference. But I’m hoping that harmony will eventually rule off the stage as it has always done on the stage.

Leave a Comment