There is an intriguing set of events underway in Dayton, Ohio in that three of the dominant arts organizations are amidst the final stages of a proposed merger; the Dayton Philharmonic, Dayton Opera, and Dayton Ballet. Regular readers know that we haven’t looked favorably on most arts organization mergers; in general, they are far more complex than what many imagine when considering the endeavor. But I have to say that based on what I’ve seen to date, the plan in Dayton is looking pretty good.
One of the most common bear traps that end up making a mess of most mergers is a belief that combined administrative resources will produce improved efficiency. You’ll often hear claims of savings in the form of eliminated redundancies in development and marketing department staffing levels, but the differences between selling a ballet and an orchestra are akin to the differences between football and baseball.
That’s why it was encouraging to see early reports indicating that the merger doesn’t plan to rely on these empty promises. Instead, current plans focus more on combining staffs so that each respective department can continue building on connections and relationships with respective ticket buyers and donors. There will be the expected issues related to executive alignment (who gets to be the new VP, will there be co-VPs, etc.?) but those issues all have solutions and it would be surprising to see this many groups get to this stage without sorting out those loose ends.
Beyond that, merging the governance structure is the next major challenge. Different bylaws, internal cultures, and committee structures mean multiple opportunities for stepping on toes. If any one group in a proposed merger bullies the other into submissive board roles, you can expect an exodus of members resulting in potentially long term resentments that impact immediate fundraising efforts.
Again, these problems aren’t without solutions and if the Dayton groups have a long history of collaborations and/or a high degree of board member cross-pollination, then seeing the same old faces, albeit in the same room at the same time, should marginalize the risks involved with the transition process.
Consequently, Dayton might become an enormously interesting city to watch over the next few years from an arts administrative perspective. If nothing else, it would be nice to have an opportunity to examine an orchestra oriented arts org merger that actually worked!