Accountability: A Referendum On You

Last week was a abuzz with Philadelphia Orchestra Association (POA) bankruptcy news at the Philadelphia Inquirer. It published op-ed articles on 5/18/2011 about the POA’s bankruptcy decision from board chair Richard B. Worley and musician spokesperson and cellist John Koen. On 5/19/2011 classical music critic Peter Dobrin posted a commentary piece that cast reservations on the POA’s recent “Listen With Your Heart” campaign but perhaps the largest cause for concern came on 5/22/2011…

In that article, Dobrin reports that the POA’s decision to file for bankruptcy has opened the door for the Annenberg Foundation to potentially retract its monumental $50 million gift. According to the article, the Annenberg Foundation is not indicating whether or not its board will deliberate and vote on whether or not enact the recall clause.

At the same time, the article does report that POA president Allison Vulgamore indicated that she contacted the foundation as early as last fall to ” discuss the orchestra’s situation generally with [Annenberg Foundation executive director Leonard Aube].” There is no mention whether about how or even if the POA considered losing the $50 million gift when calculating risks associated with filing bankruptcy.

Worley’s op-ed article certainly doesn’t provide any indication that the board considered these sorts of dynamic consequences. At the same time, it doesn’t contain many details at all and instead focuses on the most simplistic operational overview that is devoid of accountability.

In my TEDx Talk about Labor Relations and the Arts, I covered the topic of accountability and how the lack of appropriate self regulation measures can become a severe stumbling block toward change and progress.

It’s difficult to get over the idea that sometimes accountability means a referendum on you but sometimes, that’s the way the process unfolds. But I prefer to look at accountability as the driving force that maintains a commitment to ethics and values.

On 5/8/2011, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article by Peter Dobrin that presented an unfiltered view of Vulgamore’s performance since arriving in Philadelphia to manage the organization. Questions of accountability and transparency abound.

Allison Vulgamore’s two-year contract as president is up in January. Is she the best face for the organization as it enters its seeking-friends phase? In several instances, she has not excelled. Donors and board members complain that she has made appointments for meetings and then canceled, never to be heard from again… Materials for the 2011-12 season were sent out with incorrect pricing, angering subscribers. Vulgamore has been generous in assessing blame on the orchestra for past failings, but she has been in the job for 16 months, and at some point, if there’s a mess, she owns it, along with the board.

Lastly, Koen’s op-ed article expresses frustration over what is being perceived by musicians as an attempt to use bankruptcy more for negotiation leverage than sincere financial impasse.

[The musicians] believe the management chose bankruptcy to escape provisions of our contract that it doesn’t like, and that it did so heedless of the cost to the orchestra’s reputation. The board and management are seeking to renege on their obligations, including pension obligations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as questions surrounding the bankruptcy decision making process grow, so will pressure to find a way back from the decision that doesn’t simultaneously set into motion a self fulfilling prophecy of profound institutional crisis.

Philadelphia Inquirer Resources:

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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