RSO Board To Musicians: It Is for Your Own Good

The news out of Richmond, VA continues to march along at a furious pace. The latest development centers on a 1/28/2012 memo from the Richmond (VA) Symphony Orchestra (RSO) board of directors to the RSO musicians about the organization’s involvement vis-a-vis proposed legislation that would bar musicians from receiving unemployment benefits during non-employed weeks.

Before we jump into the memo, it is worth taking a moment to clear up some confusion that’s been coming in via reader email over the past few days about the difference between the RSO and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra (VSO). In short, they are not the same organization; the RSO is based in Richmond, VA and features Steven Smith as music director whereas the VSO is based in Norfolk, VA and features JoAnn Falletta as music director.

Now, back to the memo.

A copy of the memo, written by RSO Board Chair, John W. Braymer on behalf of the entire RSO board, was provided by a source close to the situation. With the exception of removing personal information in the email header and shortening the length of the URL so as to fit allotted space, the following is a complete and unedited version of the memo.

From: John Braymer [mailto:JBraymer@{address removed}.org]
Sent: Saturday, January 28, 2012 3:32 PM
To: {RSO Dir. of Operations}
Subject: Please distribute to musicians on my behalf

Dear Musicians of the Richmond Symphony:

As you know, we notified the Local 123 negotiating team this past Monday that we had recently drawn legislators’ attention to the issue of unemployment costs, and that a bill with some cross-party support had been introduced by a legislator shortly before the deadline last Friday. This was presented to the union within the context of the $350K in costs that the Symphony Board has instructed management to eliminate in order to balance the Symphony’s FY13 budget. Without a balanced budget, the organization will not be able to make its cash flow work going forward.

Please know that the decision to ask the General Assembly to review the unemployment issue was taken reluctantly, after a full vote of the Symphony Board to pursue it, on the recommendation of a Board Committee. This was not a management-level decision. Neither is it in any way intended as an anti-union or anti-musician action, nor do we want to have a public war of words, which can only damage relationships further. It is a simple financial reality: as revenues have shrunk during the last four years of recession, we cannot afford to ignore the heavy expense involved in paying unemployment claims.

In the briefing process, we are making legislators aware of the difference between core and per service musicians. David Fisk did make one public comment to explain the difference between core and per-service remuneration levels, in response to a media question, but was not fully quoted in the subsequent newspaper report which appeared. Now that we have entered negotiations, and since this is a related financial issue, we do not plan to make any further public comment, in keeping with normal practice.

We recognize your right to protest this issue. However, though you may oppose this bill, please be aware that David and various board members have been spending months, and far more time and energy, advocating for a restoration in State funding via the Virginia Commission for the Arts. The Symphony’s grant from the Commonwealth has diminished from $210,500 in FY08 to $79,000 in FY12. Funding of the VCA has been cut from $5.96M in FY06 to $3.36M in FY12. If we can get it restored, the Symphony will receive a share of any increase to the VCA, and so relieve some of the pressure on expenses.

Since you are contacting legislators, consider also supporting the statewide efforts through Virginians for the Arts of arts groups across the Commonwealth to increase VCA funding by $500K in FY13 and $500K in FY14. The House budget amendment is item 242#1h:

Though we must cut expenses in the short term to remain viable, all of us on Board and management are focused on the long-term sustainability and artistic health of the organization, which has to be based on revenue growth.

Sincerely yours,

John W. Braymer

In short, this has to be among the most astounding memos between an orchestra board and its musicians in recent years.

I have yet to decide whether or not an analysis of the memo is warranted at this juncture and at the time this article was published, RSO executive director, David Fisk, has yet to respond to inquiries for additional details.

In the meantime, what do you think about all of this?

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 “RSO Board To Musicians: It Is for Your Own Good”

  1. Perhaps management should spend more time raising money and developing relationships in the private sector and less time thinking the government will come through. I think sometimes fine arts administrators spend too much energy on grant writing and wishing the government saved the day rather than developing relationships with deep-pocket arts supporters. There are a number of fortune 500 companies with offices in Richmond for some reason or another Certainly the culture of the town (including its Arts) has something to do with this…

  2. “Astounding” about sums it up, Drew. “We voted on it and instructed management to notify the legislator without telling you it was going to happen, and now we want you to understand and take your medicine nicely.” Were there any respect for the RSO musicians from their employers, they would have been brought into this discussion long before any such measure were taken.

  3. This is going to sound flippant and unrealistic, but situations like this one is exactly why musicians need business training and greater board representation. I don’t know how many musicians are on the RSO’s board, but seeing as they’re now lobbying the government to absolve them of financial responsibility to their own employees, I can’t imagine there are very many. As musicians, we need to stop relying so much on other people to make business decisions that affect our livelihoods so deeply. We need to take some ownership, assume more of the risk, and increase our presence on orchestra boards and fundraising committees. Could the consequences get much worse than they already are?

    • What’s interesting in this situation (and would be fascinating to find out more about but the organization is in a media lock-down and not responding to requests for information) is the RSO was a member of the Mellon Orchestra Forum and if memory serves, one of the byproducts of that participation was improved integration of musician stakeholders into board discussions and committees.

      Consequently, it would be fascinating to study the Mellon related work as it related to this particular component and follow it through to the point when the RSO decided to form the exploratory committee and conduct the subsequent full board examination.

      I’m not going to hold my breath on that ever coming to pass but it would be a terribly useful study to analyze the practical implementation of new governance ideals aside traditional decision making practices.

  4. As one who was present and active at most of the Mellon Orchestra Forum over its 10 year run, I can tell you that one of the outcomes was a widespread knowledge and experience of just how incredibly difficult it is to change the culture of an institution.

    Near the beginning of the Mellon program, Richmond was in the throes of a painful conflict over a plan to offer early retirement incentives to older players in the orchestra. Management characterized it as a way to make up for lack of pension for long-time musicians; musicians viewed it as a means of clearing out the older players. I don’t recall whether this plan was a top-down surprise like the current issue, but there was a great deal of talk about the need for increased trust and communication. It may very well be that the RSO has made a great deal of progress and avoided many other conflicts in the meantime, but it also underscores the difficulty of truly re-creating an organizational culture, as well as the damage that can be caused by a reversion to past behaviors and attitudes.

    Because there were no “Mellon commandments” or models developed at the Orchestra Forums, there really is no way of measuring the impact. The meetings were intended to model an atmosphere of trust and open communication individual orchestras could then take home to address their particular issues. Communication was open and many things that were not politically palatable at home were expressed and discussed. That openness and a greater realization of the extent to which orchestras large and small shared the same issues were valuable results. The fruits of the more open communication are just now beginning to be seen in some of the responses to current troubles – I think the Mellon board had hoped for more immediate results, but I do see things moving in the direction of the ideals we discussed over the period of the Orchestra Forum program.

    My personal reflection/hypothesis on the results of participating in the Mellon program is that orchestras that went whole hog into changing experienced more radical change AND greater conflict (Philadelphia, St. Louis, St. Paul) than orchestras that have proceeded on a more organic change path. I also don’t think that Mellon work changed the economic environment for orchestras that participated, but it may have improved the speed and flexibility with which they have begun to adapt.

  5. What I think about that memo is that it’s taken double-speak to a whole new level of cynicism. “Please know that the decision to ask the General Assembly to {screw you out of money that is rightfully yours} (my words, obviously) was taken reluctantly.” Yes, and a board member of my orchestra-without-musicians, the Louisville Orchestra, hastened to assure some of us players, when she saw us at a church a few days afterwards, that the room was “full of angst” when they voted to file for bankruptcy and thus clear the way, as they thought, to break their obligations to the musicians.

  6. Brian, I think what you’re saying makes sense- on paper. However, I do think that simply having a more business-educated orchestra is an unrealistic solution if it’s presented as a way to mitigate a situation where a board and management doesn’t respect the musicians and will stoop to any level to save a few bucks.

    As far as greater musician representation on the board is concerned, I unfortunately don’t see how it would make much of a difference. If the board/management is really visionary and eager to build the orchestra, they’ll do it with or without musicians on the board. If they have what could be considered less than optimal agendas, then they’ll do that with or without the musicians as well.

    They write the checks, and you’re just a musician- and trust me, when push comes to shove they’ll be quick to remind you of it, as you can witness for yourself in Mr. Braymer’s letter to the players. I can say with confidence that having musicians on the board questioning their spreadsheets and color charts would not have made any difference in this situation.

    • Although I agree with your “push comes to shove” perspective, I’d point out that’s the end result of a negative internal culture and dark environment. There are a number of examples on the other end of the pendulum where musician input at the board level has helped move organizations in healthy directions that marginalize conflict. What’s likely best to focus on is a case by case evaluation so in this particular instance, the publicly available information to-date certainly indicates a scenario that swings toward the negative outcome end. But there’s always the possibility that once the board experiences those results firsthand, they may begin to shift direction. And in the end, providing a window of opportunity to back away from bad decisions is every bit as important as efforts to move stakeholder groups in that direction.

      On a related item, I remember from my time at asking Rogger Ruggeri (Milwaukee Symphony bass) to write an article about musician involvement on boards as I knew he had a number of terrific things to say about it based a career’s worth of very active committee service. I’m glad to say he didn’t disappoint: Positive, Yet Perilous Potentials of Musicians on Orchestra Board Committees.

  7. Drew, I’m sure there have been plenty of examples of boards moving in better directions with the help/advice/input of musicians- but this outcome requires good faith.

    My main point, and perhaps I didn’t express it as well as I could have- is that the board has to have a willingness to grow, as well as respect for the musicians as professionals that have something to offer them in order for this scenario to happen. Where those things don’t exist, having musicians serve on the board will be pointless.

    Inversely, if they want to build the organization in a positive way, I’d think that they’ll likely want to hear the musicians input regardless of whether they happen to be board members or not.

    • I think that’s a very good point of view; it’s more or less the point from Roger Ruggeri’s article and what I tend to write when people talk about about replacing the current”model” with something else. In the end, it has far more to do with the individuals working together than any single system.

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