A Letter To Terry Teachout

Dear Terry,

I read your Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article from 4/29/2011 and feel that not only are your conclusions unfounded but your perspective on the business of performing arts organizations is becoming dangerously detached from authenticity…

But before I go any further, I have to apologize for posting the following tweet on 4/29/2011 shortly after reading your WSJ article: “I want to believe Teachout isn’t an idiot. But it’s hard to argue otherwise when he tosses out evidence to the contrary.” Clearly, it was not as subtle as it could have been but it does adequately convey my bewilderment with the views included in your article.

The following passage from your piece is perhaps what disturbed me the most.

On April 20, the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy.

That last event sent shudders up and down the spines of every classical-music manager in America. The Philadelphia Orchestra is universally regarded as one of the world’s half-dozen greatest orchestras. If it can get into a hole so deep that bankruptcy is the only option, then no orchestra is safe.

I’m certain everyone is aware that you are a well connected figure within the arts world but I find myself wondering how often you actually talk to arts managers. I communicate with managers from all budget size institutions each and every day. I can’t recall the last time a day passed that I didn’t receive a call, text message, email, or social media message from an orchestra manager and although just about everyone is talking about Philadelphia, very few are experiencing the shudders you attribute.

I believe the word you were actually looking for is “perplexed.”

They’re puzzled by why an organization with debt levels that are not outside the extremes within the business right now, sizeable assets, and such a tremendous international reputation would risk so much for something that is manageable.

Likewise, encouraging stakeholders to turn a blind eye to accountability during periods of economic downturns will only make matters worse. In short, a lynch mob does no good but the mistakes of the past continue to matter a great deal. And if the same decision makers who made one series of bad business choices after another are exempt from oversight and accountability, well, we all witnessed how well that system worked out for the financial sector a few years ago.

I also get the sense that you may not be as familiar with orchestra executives as you believe because if you did, you would understand that one of their greatest challenges is balancing the far leaning political ideology among board members and artists in such a way that it doesn’t have undue influence on strategic planning and labor relations.

If you took the time to conduct a thorough examination of the entire field, you would find a set of common themes throughout every organization that is weathering the current economy: mutual respect, accountability, transparency, and shared vision.

Consequently your one dimensional “blame the unions” rhetoric will only serve to agitate overzealous anti-labor bullies and paranoid conspiracy theorists alike and whet their appetite for the mother of all labor fights. Fortunately, those groups comprise the fringes within any institution but they can quickly hijack the organization if prodded into action, which is precisely what your article manages to accomplish.

I was also bothered by the fact that you failed to mention the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians’ response to the bankruptcy announcement; specifically, that they were not going to go on strike unless the institution enforced an unratified collective bargaining agreement (as was the case at the Detroit Symphony). Yet you went on in your article to wag a limp finger at artist unions as the cause for so much of the trouble throughout the field.

Let’s set aside for a moment that the sort of stereotypical labor leaders with sweeping power the likes of James Ceasar Petrillo are as dead as the dinosaurs. Granted, I have no reason to believe you have studied the history of artist unions in the US alongside the evolution of arts management but you need to know that the “High-culture unions that fight to hang on to an untenable status quo” you describe in your article simply don’t exist.

Instead, the respective artists within each performing arts organization have far more control over deciding their own terms. And there are far more instances than not of artists working with their management to help manage debt and build confidence, like the Metropolitan Opera example you included. But even then, the way you phrased that example is cause for alarm.

In 2006, the Metropolitan Opera persuaded its unions to agree to forgo upfront payments for recordings and broadcasts in return for a revenue-sharing deal.

I added emphasis to the word persuaded because its very nature establishes a negative context: the musicians were obstinate and managers had to convince them to do something they didn’t want to do. This makes me wonder if you have taken the time to speak with any of the actual managers or musicians involved in the direct negotiations. If you did, I believe you would have had an easier time finding the correct words.

Does this mean artist unions don’t contribute to problems within the business? Of course not, there are plenty of faults within their system but they are rarely guilty of the sorts of stereotypical transgressions you’ve ascribed.

I believe you need to learn more about the actual labor environment within the arts field: what works, what doesn’t, and how it really needs to change.

Consequently, I’d like to invite you a presentation I’m giving in Chicago this Saturday, 5/7/2011 as part of the TEDx Michigan Ave event. I’ll be talking about labor relations within the context that you covered in your article. I understand that this is short notice and your schedule is always full but you need to attend this presentation. It is worth rearranging your schedule and flying to Chicago plus it would be my pleasure to be your host for dinner that evening in addition to setting aside a ticket for you to the event.

Your friend and colleague,
Drew McManus

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 “A Letter To Terry Teachout”

  1. Very fine piece, Drew. Far more serious and careful a response than he deserves. What’s dangerous about his regular and aggressive displays of ignorance is that his readership is largely outside of the arts world and many of them are not as aware that he has no idea of what he is talking about and is not taken seriously by people who know the fields. Sad, really.

    • That’s a good observation Andrew and one that contributes even more to the challenges administrators face for everything from board development to development calls. Every minute you have to spend repairing misconceptions to get everyone on a level playing field is time you don’t spend on moving forward.

  2. Drew,

    You’ve written a powerful and articulate response that offers a balanced view of the situation. This is one of the few pieces I’ve read anywhere that does not target artist unions as the primary cause of the problems that confront performing arts organizations.

    Thank you!

  3. Agreed, Phil and Drew. I would only add that my larger point is that Drew is looking at the reality of the situations he is writing about. He is not just tossing around ideological darts or talking off of the top of his head. If he has observations that are critical of artists’ unions or of a specific union or leader, he says so. As he should. Thanks.

    • Andrew and Drew: I agree with both of you that artists’ unions can and have exacerbated some of these situations. What I liked so much about Drew’s letter was that he didn’t generalize or single them out as the sole or major cause. It’s refreshing to see a column on this topic that does not succumb to the easy temptation of union-bashing. The problems are far more complex than that, and Drew has provided some much-needed balance.

  4. Just as happy families are alike and unhappy families are dysfunctional in their own particular way; the same seems to hold true for orchestras.

    Center City Philadelphia has had one of the remarkable urbna revitalizations. Folks are moving back to the downtown, and Chesnut and Walnut street are chock-a-block with shops and restaurants. Why has the orchestra not been able to capitalize on this upswing?

    Why has the city’s largest philanthropy chosen not to support the orchestra? Why have the board of the orchestra and the city’s philanthropic community apparently chosen not to support the orchestra in the way that the major foundations and donors have supported the orchestras in Pittsburgh (a much smaller town) and Cleveland (where the city’s economy is in much worse financial shape)?

    To say that this is a labor/management issue is to over-simplify the case. Teachout is not alone in missing the signals; Alex Ross’ piece in this week’s New Yorker, while more perceptive, also misses the mark.

    Do arts critics have the finanical acument to even opine on these issues?

  5. Andrew M. Manshel raises some additional important questions and observations. However, his saying that Alex Ross’s New Yorker piece (May 9 issue, “Flummoxed: Struggles at City Opera and across the country”) “also misses the mark” without offering any explanation or examples is not particularly useful. I know that Mr. Manshel has made a case for reducing operating costs overall and greater financial transparency by managements (“Too Big to Succeed?: These are frustrating times for U.S. symphonies,” Leisure & Arts column, The Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2010) but this, too, certainly does not answer all questions or apply equally to all U.S. orchestras.

  6. And arts critics come from a wide array of backgrounds. As a whole, their financial acumen certainly does not appear to be demonstrably less than that of the boards or managers of many of the companies now under discussion. Everyone can — and should — always know more, of course.

  7. I stumbled upon this response after reading a recent article in the NYT by Treachout, an article that riled me somewhat. I enjoyed reading your intelligent response to this critic. It seems that anyone can call themselves a critic, and the nature of their work is always subjective of course. I suppose if my current job doesn’t work out then I can get a gig as a critic, since the only real requirements are to be able to write well (not necessarily intelligently). OK, I might need to take a writing course or two…

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