Worth Keeping An Eye On

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!

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 “Worth Keeping An Eye On”

  1. What about merging the orchestras of these organizations? Do you know whether the Philharmonic plays for the Opera or Ballet? I couldn’t tell from the websites. I’d hate to think freelance musicians were going to lose their jobs with the smaller companies.

    • In most cases, you’re simply trading one set of bear traps for another. Add to that some very large differences between shared departments and entire administrative structures and you have some real issues with accountability vis-a-vis each respective board being responsible for governance duties etc.

  2. Christine and Tony,

    I’m responding to your questions as a Dayton resident, arts patron, and attendee of informational meetings presented by the three organizations involved.

    The Dayton Ballet performs to recorded music.
    The Dayton Opera performs with a reduced pit orchestra. The recent production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet used a 39-pc orchestra. This work was scored for a 60+ pc orchestra. All opera pit players are also Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra members.

    The boards currently have differing numbers of members and, if fully merged, would include over 100 members. Present board members are currently being interviewed for those who best represent the interest of the alliance moving forward. A board of 36 members is projected. The staff is being kept intact although some job duties may change.

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