Imaginary Fiscal Distress Syndrome

Back in January of 2012 I published a post titled Do Some Orchestras Exaggerate Their Financial Position For Negotiation Leverage? Like most topical subjects, there was examination elsewhere throughout the culture blogging community with some in the Chicken Little circles suggesting such a notion was ludicrous. Consequently, I found Thomas Cott’s 8/21/12 newsletter fascinating as it highlights yet another concrete example of this sad scheme that the Chicken Little crowd might have a tough time brushing off.

pillsIn particular, Cott cites the 7/2/12 article by Christopher Knight in the LA Times that reports the Barnes Foundation museum’s claim of financial crisis was actually fabricated in order to facilitate the museum’s relocation efforts. Knight sources a blog post by former Barnes president and chief executive, Kimberly Camp, which reportedly confirms the finical crisis hype (final paragraph).

Hopefully, this will help put to rest any remaining debate on whether or not an arts organization can exaggerate a negative financial position as a means to an end.

It’s sad, but it happens.

But the real danger here is every time one group cries wolf, it makes everything much more difficult for the dozens of groups that aren’t exaggerating their respective financial position. The results can manifest in stakeholders and donors entrenching positions, sowing mistrust, and giving credence to fringe elements that are all too happy to launch some mindless jihad of a labor dispute to settle whatever old score is on their personal sh*t list.

Up until the turn of the century, there was a good system of self regulation in the field that prevented this sort of monkey business from getting out of hand and restricted it to a comparatively minor posturing tactic during negotiations. Sure, everyone knew it happened, but it was limited and anyone stepping outside of those boundaries would get smacked down in the form of career suicide.

But over the past decade, that system of self regulation has been slowly eroding and I prefer not to think about what might happen if it continues unchecked. Welcome to the age of new models.

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 “Imaginary Fiscal Distress Syndrome”

  1. “But the real danger here is every time one group cries wolf, it makes everything much more difficult for the dozens of groups that aren’t exaggerating their respective financial position.”

    Yes, I completely agree. But I have to wonder, where were the auditors? And if the auditors were doing their jobs, where were the journalists who knew how to read audited financial reports? Maybe not working the arts beat? There are other checks and balances besides “self-regulation.”

    • Absolutely, there are plenty of other checks and balances via traditional means; the history of self regulation is a much looser code of conduct among executives. Certainly nothing that even comes close to approaching being codified in writing but more of a general understanding of where the line is and how much you can dance on it without doing any career damage. These are rarely perfect scenarios but they can, and do, play crucial roles in maintaining overall stability in the field and the orchestra field is really beginning to feel the impact of the erosion.

      I always feel for traditional print media culture journalists covering these situations as the complexity and depth of information goes beyond their typical training. Add to that an office environment with fewer support services due to cutbacks and it leaves outlets with two unpalatable options: publish something incomplete or don’t publish anything.

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