Why Indeed

In case you missed it, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article by Peter Dobrin on 8/1/2011 which reports that hot on the heels of the bankruptcy court ruling that the musicians’ union can have access to some of the documentation it requested regarding the Philadelphia Orchestra Association’s (POA) Endowment, Philly Pops founder Peter Nero has filed a similar request.

The issue at hand is whether or not the POA’s assertion that its $140 million endowment is comprised exclusively of restricted funds and, therefore, unable to be used as a resource to make good on contractual obligations. According to Dobrin’s report, Nero suspects that the POA received a recent $50 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation, in part, to support the merger between his group and the POA.

The Annenberg Foundation has been in the limelight throughout the POA bankruptcy filing due to the fact that their grant came with the caveat that they could take back their money if the POA ever filed for bankruptcy.

What’s interesting in Dobrin’s recent article is his report that the Annenberg Foundation is none too pleased with the attention it’s receiving both publicly and via court filings such as the one from Nero.

“The Annenberg Foundation is very disappointed that it, the Philadelphia Orchestra Association’s largest benefactor, is being inappropriately pressured in a two-party dispute in which the Annenberg Foundation is not a party, and will be considering all of its options moving forward,” David Ulich, a lawyer representing the foundation, wrote in an e-mail.

On the afternoon Dobrin’s article was published, I received an email inquiry from a regular reader who was puzzled over why the Annenberg Foundation would care.

Why indeed.

There’s no simple reply to a question like that but it all comes down to a subject in this field that is nothing more than one big, ugly minefield.

On one hand, foundations give money to nonprofit performing arts institutions all the time and it isn’t unusual to see them come with a variety of strings attached. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; after all, it’s their money, they can do with it what they like.

On the other hand, and this is where it gets dicey, this can cross a line when those wishes begin to play out as undue influence in collective bargaining tactics. If something like that could be proven through a process such as court ordered discovery, it would likely be ruled as a violation of the National Labor Relations Act and although that doesn’t carry much of a legal penalty, the dynamic ramifications could be intense.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, private philanthropic foundations don’t welcome the sort of public scrutiny being proposed by Nero so, hopefully, you can begin to see just how dangerous minefields such as these can become.

Some performing arts orgs adopt a don’t ask, don’t tell approach because at times, certain leaders do conspire with foundations to influence strategic visioning (and therefore collective bargaining agreements). Other times, organizational leaders may tell a foundation one thing but implement something entirely different because in the end, they need the money.

Between those two extremes, and let me be clear about that they are extremes, is an expansive middle ground; a middle ground that has been steadily seeded with mines from one year to the next.

There are no clear cut good guys and bad guys in all of this and hopefully, you aren’t trying to lump anyone into those blunt categories.

All of this seemingly simple process can turn sour when politically (figuratively and literally) motivated agendas come into play. One might think the middle ground would be relatively easy to occupy, but then again, there’s a minefield out there which seems to grow a little larger every few years and after all, you can’t go on year after year laying mines and not expect someone to step on one at some point.

If nothing else, perhaps the bankruptcy process will actually do some good for the field as a whole and foundations in that it creates an environment where we can begin to shed some light on all of this and clean up a system that’s been dysfunctional for far too long.

Certainly, this is a much larger discussion with a wide variety of equally diverse tangential topics but perhaps the time has come for those discussions.

What do you think?

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 “Why Indeed”

  1. Interesting to keep following all of this…One way or another, for better or for worse, I do hope that the orchestra has sufficient documentation for these gifts that are supposedly restricted. I know that record-keeping like that can sometimes fall through the cracks, especially with the amount of staff turnover they have had in the past decade or so.

  2. While I would like to see orchestras programming more stuff that’s relevant to their communities and interacting more with blah blah blah yadda yadda you know the drill, it’s really starting to look like the music is the last thing responsible for the bottom falling out of all this rigmarole lately. Not just for Phila (my hometown band which I love with a fiery passion), but for lots of other orchs, too. I’m glad you are talking about this stuff even if as a mere amateur music lover and player, most of it goes right the hell over my head.

    It’s really starting to look as if all this stuff wasn’t so much a sign that orchestras were playing boring music or that the audiences were getting unfashionably older in our culture — a culture that already completely despises anyone over 50 or so. It’s a sign of crappy business-running that has finally gotten to the point where the rot can’t be hidden, especially in a lousy economy that will magnify the effect of any crappy management decisions. The house of cards has got to fall over sometime, and a hurricane is likely to bring it on. Claiming that a lot of orchestras are on their last legs because:

    1) the musicians are icky, old, and un-hip,
    2) the orchestras program too much new-age shite, or
    3) the orchestras program too much stale, old junk

    is starting to sound like a claim that the housing bubble was caused by tacky combovers.

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