What The Other Side Gets Right

Amidst the backdrop of increasingly partisan politics and some of the lowest Federal government approval ratings in history, Thomas B. Edsall published a pair of opinion articles in the New York Times where he asked key figures among conservatives and liberals what they thought the other side “got right.”

The results were captivating in that although Edsall notes liberals and conservatives did not always share the same degree of enthusiasm when identifying what they felt the other ideology contributed to producing good governance, they still produced a clear set of accolades.

Given the number of high profile labor disputes within the orchestra field since the onset of the economic downturn, Edsall’s articles provided inspiration for a similar endeavor to see what employers and musician employees thought of one another’s ideological strengths amid a time when most public discussion focuses on shortcomings.

Likewise, the timing of these efforts coincided wonderfully with a presentation I had to prepare as part of the What’s Working and Must Work session within the 2012 American Orchestras Summit, hosted by the University of Michigan.

To get the project underway, a cross section of managers, board members, and musicians were invited to answer one of two straightforward questions: orchestra musicians were asked “What do you think Boards/Managers get right?” while board members and managers were asked “What do you think Musicians’ Unions get right?”

For this exercise, the terms “union(s)” and “musician(s)” are used interchangeably; meaning there are no distinctions between individual orchestra musicians along with their elected committee representatives and those who represent them whether they are employed by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), International Guild of Symphonic and Opera, and Ballet Musicians (IGSOBM) or hired as independent counsel. 

Among those who declined, the primary reason could best be described as a desire to follow the age old adage of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” However, the answers from those who accepted the invitation to participate were enlightening, not necessarily because of the response but due to the reasoning behind it.

What do you think Boards/Managers get right?

Nathan Kahn is a 24 year veteran negotiator for the American Federation of Musicians’ Symphonic Services Division and a Bassist in the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. His work has incorporated representing musicians in orchestras with annual budgets ranging from $500,000 to $20 million. His response was the most succinct of those in the musician group and focused more on a strategic overview.

Read Nathan Kahn's response.

There are a select group of managers/boards who do understand that the way to address real fiscal problems is more of the revenue side, plus, if necessary some cost cutting measures that do not adversely impact the artistic product, or marketing/development.

Paul Ellison served as principal bass of the Houston Symphony Orchestra for 24 years and currently serves as the L.S. Autrey Professor of Double Bass; Chair, String Department Shepherd School of Music, Rice University; and is Principal Bass of the Grand Teton Music Festival. Throughout his career he has served on numerous negotiating committees along with additional representative roles.

Read Paul Ellison's response.

Boards/Managers recognizing & acknowledging that the production of transformational art IS the main goal and function of the orchestra and the Managers/Boards service there to.

As stated in the Hippocratic oath—-“and never do harm to anyone” – those entrusted with stewardship of an orchestra extend this to cover the status/reputation/artistic well being of said orchestra.

The realization that long gone is the effectiveness of adversarial relationships with the creators of the art for which said Managers/Boards accept stewardship.

The manifestation thru vision and insight of long term artistic excellence, depth and relevance to include varied repertoire, venues, visibility, out-reach/community interaction and a local sense of pride and ownership of a treasured entity.

Bravo to the Managers/Boards who thru their collective wisdom, dedication and tenacity have made secure the future of their unique entity. Combined efforts to continue/establish acknowledged excellence, long range endowment planning and legacy provisions, successful visibility/branding and intense community involvement appear on several fronts in a time when excuses are ready and plentiful.

Thank you for this opportunity.

Paul Austin is currently a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony horn section and is Vice President Emeritus of the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA). He was also a panelist during the 2010 Orchestra Summit.

Read Paul Austin's response.

During the time in my present job (Grand Rapids Symphony, 1999 to present), we have had three very different Executive Directors. In my opinion, the orchestra’s BOD reflected the leadership style of each ED. While there is no perfect BOD, here are my thoughts regarding when I felt that our BOD were “getting it right.”

First and foremost, our BOD was most successful when they had a true and genuine love for symphonic/orchestral music. They did not attempt to make artistic decisions that should be left to those staff members who were hired to do just that, and they regularly attended the orchestra’s concerts as season ticket subscribers. When asked by their colleagues or friends, they could speak with great enthusiasm about the orchestra.

Training of board members will lead to “getting it right” as a unit, and required reading should include the two Michael M. Kaiser books, “Leading Roles. 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask” and “The Art of the Turnaround.” It would be reasonable to require board members should make a financial contribution to the organization.

Board members “get it right” when they promote the organization by bringing in other influential members of their community, be it individuals or corporations, who can assist with the financial health of the orchestra. They have a basic understanding of a union shop and do not mix politics with their board affiliation (do not work toward pushing out the union, promote right-to-work-for-less, etc.).

During a Music Director search, board members “get it right” by paying close attention to the rapport between the musicians and the MD candidates and listening to the recommendations of the musicians. An effective BOD understands that musicians have dedicated their lives to this art (training, instruments, daily training, etc.). They respect the musicians by honoring commitments (such as pension) so that their musicians will not become a burden to society one day.

Board members frequently seek to compare orchestral musicians with other careers. An effective BOD will do this with care. While the career of a orchestral musician is longer than that of a professional athlete, it is one that should close with dignity at the right time. While athletes make a tremendous amount of money, far more than musicians will in their careers, both are prone to accidents and injuries that can take them out of the season or their profession altogether. Thus, health care is another essential concern for musicians, perhaps more so than corporate America employees (where most board members have their background). On the other side of the coin, an effective BOD will not compare orchestra musicians with the clerical staff in a law office or other 40-hour a week jobs.

Finally, a BOD “gets it right” when they remember that the musicians are the product and not merely a work force. 

Paul’s response differed from the others in that it focused more on what he wished managers and board members get right. After receiving his contribution, I asked Paul if he wouldn’t mind sending in an amended version focusing more on what he believes boards/managers currently get right as opposed to what he wished and he ultimately decided that his response was best suited in its original form. With his permission, here’s is his reasoning.

When reading the email message that I sent to you a few weeks ago, I see that my response is what I wish that I would see in our industry. Given the current state of things, this is the only way that I can look at this situation.

What do you think Musicians’ Unions get right?

Russell Willis Taylor is currently President and CEO of National Arts Strategies and has also served as the Executive Director of the English National Opera. In addition to these positions, Russell is a popular speaker and commentator on matters related to strategic thinking within arts organizations.

Read Russell Willis Taylor's response.

I think what they get right is understanding how important job security is to their members. How they go about securing it will, in the long run, be counterproductive – if orchestras fail because of inflexible working terms then no one has a job. 
Curt Long currently serves as the Alabama Symphony Orchestra Executive Director and prior to that position, was the Executive Director at the Dayton Philharmonic since 1994.

Read Curt Long's response.

My comments are drawn on my personal experience in Birmingham and Dayton, as well as work I have done with the orchestras of Charleston, Honolulu, and North Carolina.

  1. In my experience musicians’ unions generally rightly want to focus on the long term health of the institution (which is not to deny that there can be substantive disagreements about how best to promote it). Managements and boards come and go, but the musicians generally have to live with the consequences of organizational decisions.
  2. In my experience musicians’ unions are more flexible than we give them credit for on a host of issues, large and small (which is not to deny that they are not going to accept changes to things which, in their opinion, have worked well in the past and were structured in certain ways for good reasons, without a compelling argument why doing it differently would be better).
  3. In my experience musicians’ unions are rightly skeptical of pronouncements that “the model is dead,” that every bump in the road means that ways of running orchestras which have worked for decades must now be abandoned (which is not to deny that there are some communities where what was achievable in the past may no longer be achievable, and many orchestras where some aspect of what they do and how they do it does need to change).
  4. In my experience, musicians’ unions are right to push for increased transparency and accountability.
  5. In my experience, musicians’ unions rightly understand that enlightened and committed board leadership is critical to an orchestra’s success.

Elaine Calder has experience in both the United States and Canada in a variety of arts organizations. She is currently the President of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra and before that served as Managing Director at the Edmonton Symphony and Administrative Director at Hartford Stage.

Read Elaine Calder's response.

Based on my work [in Oregon] and Edmonton, I’ve found the AFM representatives to be very good at understanding the difference between a global economic crisis and an organizational budget challenge. If it’s the former, they work with us to find the least painful solutions that can be shared by the entire organization. If it’s the latter, they politely but firmly decline to help us offset external cost pressures.

In other words, you can’t tell an orchestra they have to accept a freeze when they know the IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) crew at the hall you rent is getting a 3% increase. You CAN negotiate concessions when it’s clear the country has crashed into recession. 

William Ryberg served in the senior administrative position with the Oregon Symphony, Grand Rapids Symphony, and Palm Beach Opera, during which time he successfully negotiated labor agreements with musician unions for each organization. He currently serves as an independent arts consultant.

Read William Ryberg's response.

 Based on my experiences working with orchestra musicians and the people representing them both inside and outside of labor negotiations, I have a great respect and appreciation for the seriousness and earnestness of unions protecting and ensuring that music professionals of the highest order have safe and fair working conditions. It was important to me as the CEO that all employees – including those covered by collective bargaining – had the best work environment which enabled them to be as successful as possible in the workplace.

Such a commitment really does require the management leadership to do their best to relieve the stress of issues that may weigh upon a performing professional. As a former opera singer, I know that the more I could focus on performing, (and less on what the temperature on stage is, or whether or not I am going to get paid for my services) the better my performance was.

As CEO, I found that if my management team of colleagues and I did a good job of keeping the flow of information, both casual and official in nature, out there and transparent, then the chances for surprises or other disruptive occurrences was greatly reduced. Strategic planning, financial projections, artistic initiatives from the music director – whatever the information – keeping musician leadership in the communication loop helped build trust and a spirit of cooperation in each of the institutions where I served as CEO.

It is very important for leaders to remember that the success of others for whom they are responsible (and I include all employees) is dependent on the CEO helping each and every one of their people to be successful. Having the right people in the right place and trusting their abilities will lead to a healthy and productive work environment. That same responsibility must be extended to musicians’ unions and their leadership. 

Putting Everything Into Perspective

In his articles, Edsall observes a few trends along partisan lines such as how conservatives “carefully limited the scope of their tributes, even as they acknowledged the virtue of certain liberal values” and liberal assessment of conservatism was “surprisingly full-throated.”

Based on the responses from those participating in this exercise, the temptation to slip into similar conclusions along ideological divides is alluring. But that would ultimately be a disservice to those who were willing to not only articulate their observations on what are arguably very sensitive issues, but to do so without the cover of anonymity.

The majority of managers appear to have little trouble acknowledging the intrinsic benefits of union/musician ideological insight into strategic decision making. Conversely, a larger ratio of musicians and union representatives focused more on perceived shortcomings by way of offering purported ideological guidelines which they believe characterize effective managers and board leaders.

It is difficult to miss how often those desires intersect with the elements recognized by many of the managers.

Adaptistration People 021Another fascinating component to this project is the response rate of those invited to participate. In order to provide as comprehensive an overlook as possible, invitees were compiled based on their past and present association with organizations recently engaged in open labor disputes alongside those from institutions which are holding their own, financially speaking, and those from groups which are thriving.

Nearly all of the managers and board members from orchestras associated with well publicized labor strife declined to participate; regardless of the amount of time passed since open hostilities concluded. Among union/musician invitees, only one turned down the invitation due to his perception that participation in this project alongside his other 2012 Orchestra Summit activities might be “a bit too much” presence in one sitting.

Within this context, it becomes easier to begin forming your own conclusions as to how much, if any, of this material fits better into “what’s working,” and/or “what must work.” The former is perhaps better defined by a number of board/manager replies whereas the latter is a perspective adopted by most musician responses.

Moving Forward

Although this project was not designed to produce firm, universal conclusions it does provide enough thoughtful insight from a broad enough cross section of successful and experienced professionals to recognize the following success oriented attributes:

  • Even during periods of economic unrest, stakeholders can agree on concessionary terms to provide adequate flexibility to manage debt without adversely impacting artistic standards.
  • In order to achieve stakeholder unity, organizations must adopt unbridled transparency and board/administrative leadership must incorporate musician input with regard to artistic standards.
  • Mutual respect is earned and must be maintained with diligence; rarely is it provided as a courtesy.
  • Musicians are equally concerned about administrative performance and providing the necessary tools as they are about artistic concerns and competitive wages and benefits.
  • Stakeholder communication and participation beyond negotiation cycles is mandatory in order to adequately address institutional challenges and maximize potential.
  • Administrative accountability and artistic standards is a two way street.
  • Strategic vision is not something either stakeholder can force upon the other.

Consequently, the insight from this project could provide a useful starting point toward stemming a growing tide of what might best be described as a series of intense ideology brush wars between boards/managers and musicians in locations such as Denver, Detroit, Louisville, and Philadelphia that damage not only the respective institutions, but the field as a whole.

Thanks to Rob Simonds for bringing the Edsall articles to my attention and sowing the seeds that ultimately germinated into this project.

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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