Not Pulling Any Punches In Denver

Make no bones about it, the Denver Post’s Fine Arts Critic, Kyle MacMillan, has some strong opinions about the current state of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO), its value to the community, and what stakeholders need to start doing in order to make things better. In an article published on 10/1/2011, he lays out a straightforward account that doesn’t require any reading between the lines to understand.

In particular, MacMillan acknowledged what he perceives as a rise in artistic excellence and in recent years, a similar bump via artistic planning but those advancements aren’t enough to compensate for what he describes as critical shortcomings in board and donor development.

Such a development would lower the ensemble’s quality and prestige and sabotage decades of efforts by music directors Marin Alsop and Jeffrey Kahane to make this a national-level symphony[…] The board and the management, including chief executive James Palermo, have to take a sizeable chunk of the blame because they have been at the helm as these problems have mounted.

While Palermo and his team have done a good job designing innovative programming and boosting earned income, they have been less successful in increasing contributions and energizing Denver’s philanthropic community.

MacMillan also acknowledges the difficult economy but instead focusing exclusively on the typical Philly bankruptcy and Detroit style implosions, he examines some of the positives in the recent years such as successful endowment campaigns in Minneapolis and Kansas City which have benefited their local orchestras.

The article wraps up with MacMillian citing an excerpt from the CSO’s recent internal report about their impending financial impasse and that the problems aren’t so much external as internal.

According to the internal report, the symphony faces its current fiscal year with potentially $1 million or more in “lost donations” because of what is described as “donor fatigue” and a loss of confidence in the organization.

Strong fundraising requires a strong board, something that the orchestra hasn’t had. In a 2010 interview, Tim Schultz, president and executive director of the charitable Boettcher Foundation, said Denver probably has 10 or 12 “can-do” donors who can write $5 million checks. It is doubtful that any of them are on the symphony’s board.

But it’s worth pointing out that MacMillan’s article isn’t solely about him calling a spade a spade; he concludes by stating some basic principles that have led other orchestras, such as the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, from the depths of financial peril to the heights of artistic accomplishment, community relevance and sustainable fiscal prudence (all without the need for radical, unproven changes to their business model).

If the Colorado Symphony is to get back on track, its leaders urgently need to lay out a doable, confidence-inspiring plan. And then the community — everyone from big-time donors to once-a-year attendees — need to get behind the organization and lend their support.

If Denver wants to be a world- class city, as its political and civic leaders so often profess, it can’t afford not to have a first-rate symphony orchestra.

In the end, it’s important to remember what we’ve examined previously in this topic thread as a way of divining what’s in store for the CSO and that’s keeping an eye on the orchestra’s recent internal report MacMillion referenced in his article. The less you hear about it from the CSO, the more you can count on the likelihood that the organization is backing away from that direction in favor of something else. Hopefully, that something will focus on Nashville style board development and building stakeholder trust, then capitalizing on that to rally the entire organization around a strong central vision.

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 “Not Pulling Any Punches In Denver”

  1. I still do not understand how this orchestra could go from having a budget surplus last year to this mess in such a short amount of time. Either they were not being truthful then, or they are not being truthful now. Do you have a take on this Drew? Anyone on the inside care to share what they’ve seen happen inside of the organization that the media isn’t telling us? I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems like there are crucial points of information missing to this story…

    • As I believe Paul Helfrich mentioned (and rightly so) in an comment to an earlier post on this topic, it certainly is possible but I do believe your puzzlement over the details is something that is likely the source of concern and possibly frustration for many supporters, not to mention the local music critic. The difference is the latter has a very public format.

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