Collateral Damage From The Clinton Letter

Since the Denver Post published an opinion piece written by former Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) board members Heather K. Miller and Bruce Clinton, the field has been abuzz with backchannel discussion over the tone of the letter (in particular, how the authors characterized CSO musicians). What’s got folks talking is the fact that Clinton currently serves as a board officer at the League of American Orchestra.

What seems to be fueling most conversation is whether the rancor and tone of Clinton’s letter represent official League views.

From a short and simple point of view; no, it doesn’t.

The situation is similar in nature to the musician board representatives and orchestra board members relationship in that it is common for the latter to misinterpret a single musician representative’s opinion as that of “the musicians.”

Although it’s an easy error to make, it’s one every board member should be diligent about avoiding; likewise, musician representatives need to regularly pepper statements with disclosures as to whether their comments are those of an individual musician on behalf of the collective as an elected representative.

At the same time, none of that makes the Clinton situation short nor simple.

Shades Of Gray

The trouble begins with the realization that someone who has clearly spent a great deal of time, energy, and treasure on behalf of advocating for orchestras so as to rise to a position of considerable influence and responsibility within the field’s largest service organization is capable of purporting such inaccurate, misleading, and vindictive positions.

To be clear, Clinton’s letter wasn’t some mindless gaffe taken out of context that is perhaps most closely associated with political elections; it was a deliberate and calculated piece of communication.

And when the League’s executive board officer walks this path and the League has nothing publicly to say about it, some folks begin to feel a little nervous. In short, the lack of any public statement, even something along the lines of an obligatory the views of Mr. Clinton do not represent…, only sows the seeds of anxiety.

After all, the League purports to represent all stakeholders within the field and maintains one of the longest running leadership training programs, the Orchestra Management Fellowship Program, with the self described goal of “launch[ing] executive careers in orchestra management.”

Granted, the League has had a long standing policy of not commenting on labor disputes but in this case, Mr. Clinton removed himself from the CSO board and is therefore no longer involved with the institution. As such, the matter at hand that has people on edge is Clinton’s sentiments and his position inside the institution as an influential member of closed door policy decisions.

And we’re not talking about general board work; folks who know better know that real policy and implementation doesn’t happen in board rooms, it takes place during face to face meetings, telephone calls, and email exchanges. In this sense, it isn’t the decisions so much as the implementation; much the same way laws filter out into bureaucratic process.

Consequently, the question at hand is what comes next. Will Clinton remain on the League board? Will the League release a statement addressing Clinton’s letter?

Given the severity of these issues, adopting a “let’s see if it blows over” policy amidst a climate of accelerated labor and economic tension may allow things to do exactly that or it may increase suspicion and anxiety among field stakeholders.

To help provide some clarity, I contacted Judith Kurnick, the League’s Vice President for Strategic Communications to see if the organization has any official statement on this topic or if there is any change in store for Mr. Clinton’s board status.

At the time this article was published, Ms. Kurnick acknowledged receipt and indicated that she is checking into the matter. If and/or when a reply is forthcoming, it will be posted here as an update. UPDATE: Ms. Kurnick provided the following statement on Friday afternoon,

The League will not be commenting on this situation.

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 “Collateral Damage From The Clinton Letter”

  1. Wow, that’s quite a diatribe! Instead of proposing constructive dialogue or an open forum discussing the future viability of “the model” (whatever that is), Miller and Clinton have instead erroneously attempted to make the CSO the victim and the union the aggressor. The sentiments of the letter, while understandable to some degree, fail to address two critical errors in reasoning:

    1. The union and the musicians are one and the same. The authors praise the hard work and dedication of the symphony musicians while simultaneously demonizing the union when, in fact, every member of the symphony is also a member of the union. Furthermore, these members ratify the contract by a democratic vote. This is the contract that the musicians want, not just what the union as a whole imposes.

    2. The union, i.e. the musicians, and management negotiated and agreed on the terms of the contract. It’s called a “Collective Bargaining Agreement” for a reason. It’s a legally binding document whose terms were agreed upon by both parties who negotiated in good faith. “Both parties” includes the CSO management and by extension the board. If they aren’t happy about it, they need to address those matters in contract negotiations, not in a public editorial.

    This is exactly the kind of public airing of dirty laundry that musicians get scolded for. I hope the CSO board and the LOA respond in a similar manner.

    • This theme that the “Musician’s Union” is dictating the negotiations and terms to both management and the symphony players is pervasive in responses online and in the press to the situation here in Louisville. I try to inform when I can that the players (specifically the musicians of the Louisville Orchestra) are the ones who decide to either accept or reject an offer from management. The local Union officers in my mind should only be there to support that decision. I believe with some helpful intervention from the National union, that is how events have transpired here. But the spread of this idea that the Union is preventing the players from accepting a reasonable solution is overwhelmingly held by the general public in their ignorance (and I don’t mean this as a pejorative) and is certainly being promoted by those in management who should and do know better.

  2. I agree with Brian and Ray – they raise good points. What struck me in the Clinton/Miller editorial was the desire to deploy musicians to community centers, etc. for revenue, rather than to fulfill the organization’s mission.

    The key difference between a for-profit and a non-profit is that one exists for the purpose of making money and the other exists because of its mission. And yes, both need a business model where revenue meets or exceeds expenses over time.

    I would also guess that during the times when the full orchestra programming doesn’t require everyone, the musicians who are off are probably doing some community engagement through teaching and chamber music on their own.

    What if management said, “We’re missing opportunities to bring this amazing music to our community – how can we provide support for you to play more when your orchestra schedule is light?” I bet they’d get more community engagement with much less demand on staff time than trying to plan it all top-down.

  3. Thanks for that Henry, I get so tied up in the business perspective sometimes that I miss the sorts of observations like your revenue/mission catch. But I think you’re absolutely correct. I just returned from the Music & Civil Society conference at Brown University and there was a fair amount of talk about the role of education/outreach among larger performing arts organizations.

    along with another participant (who shall remain nameless because conversations for this part of the event were conducted under the guise of anonymity), I was attempting to point out to the other attendees that as soon as you begin to dip your toe into these waters, you’re going to encounter exactly the sort of attitude that you observed vis-a-vis the Clinton/Miller letter.

  4. I’ve been reflecting further on the Clinton/Miller letter. I think that for those responsible for the financial well-being of an institution such as an orchestra, it is easy to slip into the habit of thinking of it as an organization that employs musicians, rather than recognizing that the power of an orchestra comes from the collaborative activity of the individual musicians. An orchestra is not an organization, it is a group of musicians. Musicians are not employees, they are members. Change the musicians and the orchestra changes.

    Perhaps the strong reactions to the Clinton/Miller letter stem from the implicit de-personalization in it.

    Again, I’m not denying that the economic issues are real, and I’ll concede that musicians treating their management strictly from an adversarial labor-management viewpoint is also de-personalizing, but perhaps that reinforces my point.

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