Some Thoughts On The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra

Since it was announced that the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra (NMSO) board voted to file for Chapter 7 (liquidation) bankruptcy earlier this month, it came as a surprise to some but not so much to others. But before we get too far along in this piece, let me start off by flipping the full disclosure switch…

In 2005, I did some contract work for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Players Association and my fee and travel reimbursement was paid by a donor who was not a member of the musicians. And to be clear, the contract was with the Players Association and not with the American Federation of Musicians.

Now that we have that out of the way, I hope you’ll forgive me for indulging in a bit of editorial commentary. Although it was very disappointing to learn about the bankruptcy news, it wasn’t a surprise; the organization has suffered under the weight of bad business decisions and too many instances of worthwhile decision makers working amongst (against?) ineffective colleagues for quite some time. The economic downturn merely stripped away what was left of the thin veneer of stability that covered a long history of internal problems.

As I thought about what I wanted to write for this piece, a colleague (you know who you are) sent along a link to an article written by Robert Swaney from 4/20/2011 titled Orchestras…It Can’t Be You…Right? that covers just about everything I was thinking about.

I feel for the NMSO and other struggling orchestras big and small, but really, when are they going to stop blaming their problems exclusively on external factors? I’ll admit, there are certainly uncontrollable outside factors that can have an effect, but what about the factors that you can control?… Communities don’t force orchestras to repeatedly develop unsustainable operating budgets. Communities don’t insist that underperforming staff leadership be allowed to stay so that they can “keep on trying”. Communities don’t encourage their orchestras to financially ‘over-leverage’ their best patrons so that the loss of a handful of major donors spells doom for the organization. No, these decisions are driven by orchestra leadership, specifically at the board and executive staff levels.

In 2004, I published an article titled Why Albuquerque Is Just As Important As Chicago and it is every bit as valid now as it was then. So even though the situation in Albuquerque is decidedly distressing, it is far from representative of the entire field. I’m glad to say that based on my own direct knowledge, most orchestral organizations don’t have as long or as deep of a dysfunctional history as the NMSO endured.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a host of lessons to be learned but since this business isn’t known for conducting postmortems in an honest and transparent environment, don’t hold your breath for a comprehensive report or public discussion any time soon.

In the meantime, the ABQJournal reports that the musicians and chorus are giving a farewell concert on Saturday, 4/30/2011 to say thank you to the NMSO’s supporters. Information about the event is on the NMSO Players’ Association website.

If there is any silver lining in all of this, the potential for forming a new orchestra free of the traditional dysfunction, is front and center. Creative Albuquerque published an open letter to their community on 4/25/2011 exploring that idea. And I’d like to add my own silver lining by offering the following:

If any donor or group of donors purchases the lion’s share of NMSO assets and forms an agreement with the existing players association (à la Honolulu) to form a new professional orchestra in Albuquerque, I’ll provide The Venture Platform free of charge for the initial annual billing cycle so the organization can get a website up in running in a matter of days and have email marketing functionality from square one.

It’s high time this field had some folks willing to stand up and help out in a meaningful way and not just drone on about how tough things are during conferences they charge you to attend or “help out” by way of quid pro quo. Simply put, we all deserve better. In fact, the same offer goes for Honolulu and Syracuse. Simply get in touch with me and let’s chat out the details.

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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0 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra”

  1. Bravo, Drew. We really need to erase the competing paths of self-congratulation, and “It’s utterly hopeless!,” that characterize the business. I have some small expertise in PR, repertoire planning and publications, and I’d be happy to help them in any way.

  2. Drew, in some of your comments about the NMSO you mention that they have a base pay of about 15k. Actually, it should also be noted that is only for a core group of about 30 players (the soloists and other section leaders.) The tuttis make about 5-6k per year. And yet the orchestra still went bankrupt.

      • I spoke with a colleague in the orchestra who gave me into about the pay per service and the number of services offered. I calculated yearly salaries on that basis.

        The orchestra has 74 positions in three levels:
        29 received $26,189 /yr
        27 received $18,554 /yr
        18 received $7842 /yr

        The Executive Director, by contrast, makes $114,000 per year.

        That musician’s income would be in theory according to the pay scale. The realities might have varied. Some immediate questions are raised. Why did the orchestra go bankrupt when the average salary was at poverty levels? And how do you build an orchestra’s quality when 18 of the players are only paid $7842 per year? Doesn’t such low pay actually doom an orchestra to extinction? Why do classical musicians accept such conditions? Why do they not become more involved in social and political change?

      • Why did the orchestra go bankrupt when the average salary was at poverty levels?

        I’m sticking with my observations in the article, institutional collapse was primarily the result of prolonged mismanagement.

        And how do you build an orchestra’s quality when 18 of the players are only paid $7842 per year?

        This is a trickier question. There’s simply no way to expect every professional orchestra to play a living wage to 80+ musicians. There will be a line between those which can and can not support the living wage but that doesn’t mean anything below the line will automatically produce inferior quality.

        I’ve worked with plenty of clients who are doing a great job maximizing potential in their community but their annual budget is still around $1mm. In those cases, they spend what they can and focus on building up the organization from the inside out; starting with a very small group of core musicians that earn as close to a living wage as possible (i.e. a string quartet etc.). They then build from there.

        What’s important is that the field as a whole rejects the “over-supply” notion and intentionally paying musicians less than is available under the threat of replacement or bankruptcy. That will do far more to damage quality than most other practices.

  3. I understand what you’re saying about poor management. The short story is that they tried to raise the wages of the NMSO so it could reach toward higher standards, but they couldn’t raise the funds and the orchestra went bankrupt. That said, there’s a larger picture to be considered. I’m from New Mexico. I’ve watched the orchestra since the late 60s and it has always struggled and has never been able to reach genuinely professional standards because it has never had the money. Are we to think it has had 50 years of continuous bad management?

    Or is the larger issues that our funding system by (and for) the wealthy doesn’t work? Any European region with 1.8 million people like NM would have a 52 week season orchestra and a year round opera house with its own separate orchestra. The musicians would have middle-class salaries, health insurance, pensions, and excellent job security.

    In recent years the orchestras in San Diego, Miami, Kansas City, Albuquerque, Syracuse, Tulsa, San Antonio, New Orleans, Denver, San Jose, Colorado Springs, Honolulu, and Philadelphia have gone bankrupt. There sure seems to be a lot of poor management out there. Or is the larger issue that no amount of adaptstration is going to solve the problems caused by our neo-feudalistic funding system?

    Let’s look at another example. Germany has 80 fulltime, year-round opera houses while the United States with four times the population doesn’t have any. (Even the Met only has a seven month season.) We only have a handful of real opera houses, and they have only partial seasons. In terms of opera performances per year Chicago is in only the 62nd position, San Francisco 63rd, Houston 101st, Washington 121st, and Santa Fe 172nd. The few other companies that exist in America have even shorter seasons. They usually do not have houses and perform in poorly-suited rental facilities with pickup orchestras and singers. This applies even to cities with metropolitan populations in the millions like Atlanta in the 272nd position, Kansas City at 275th, Baltimore at 322nd, and Phoenix at 338th. They are far outranked by even cities like Pforzheim, Germany which only has 119,000 citizens but occupies the 87th position and thus outranks even our nation’s capital, Washington D.C, by 34 positions. (These and many more valuable statistics are available at Operabase.) So that’s due to bad management?

    At some point, arts administrators need to begin advocating for a comprehensive public funding system like ALL other developed countries already have – and have long had. Sure it will be a long struggle, but you have to start somewhere, and the arts managers could have a significant and influential voice. In the meantime, we can only view adaptive management strategies as stop gap measures.

    (An my wife, Abbie Conant, your fellow Interlochen low brass player sends her greetings!)

  4. Hi–As an audience member for the NMSO I would like to make a comment. The NMSO ticket office (central office) was open 8-5 M-F. Hardly convenient to go get tickets if you work (and hence can afford to buy tickets). Yes, you could get them “on line” and pay an extra processing fee. But why couldn’t the ticket office have been open from 10-6 instead of 8-5, allowing working people to “get there” more conveniently? Why not be closed Sunday and Monday and open Tuesday through Saturday? Everyone complains about not enough audience members. It seems to me that it should be as easy as possible to obtain tickets, without a lot of hassle or extra expense. I always had the strong feeling that the main office was open as convenient to the employees with no thought being given to the paying public.

  5. We live in a sports crazed culture of morons and they would say that’s just what we would expect to hear from people who like to listen to symphonies–What’s pathetic to me and hurts the most is they always have money for yet another stadium or overglorified coach but no money to support the arts. This state has truly regressed and that’s what happens with too much emphasis on the games.

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