The Real Issue In Indianapolis

News started flowing out of Indianapolis on Tuesday as a result of the eleventh hour labor negotiations between the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO) and its musicians. The latter went public with what they assert are draconian austerity measures being proposed by the board and all things being equal, those details should be center of attention; but there’s something ISO stakeholders should be even more concerned about.

Simply put, the ISO’s state of near complete leadership vacuum has far more impact on the institution’s fortunes as compared to terms either side is pursuing vis-a-vis negotiations. To fully understand the issue, simply examine the current ISO executive roster:


  • CEO
  • VP of Marketing & Communications
  • VP of Development
  • VP of Artistic Administration


  • VP & General Manager
  • VP of Human Resources

found it

Even in the best of times, an organization the size of the ISO with so many key positions vacant is in a highly unstable position but when you toss in intense economic distress, a stalled recapitalization campaign, and contentious labor negotiations, it’s a recipe for disaster.

For the time being, forget all of the typical spy vs. spy rhetoric coming out in news reports from folks like League President and CEO Jesse Rosen (“it’s the economy, stupid”) and ICSOM chairman Bruce Ridge (“it’s the management, stupid”). Folks can argue about the prognosis until they are blue in the face but this patient needs immediate triage before catastrophic cascade failure begins; because once it does, no degree of stakeholder vision, bridge funding, endowment raiding, or austerity measures will stop it.

To that end, the ISO’s immediate course of action should be clear:

  • Stop focusing on long term strategic initiatives by way of labor negotiations and focus your efforts on attracting leaders.
  • Secure a short term labor agreement capable of cultivating enough fiscal and artistic stability to attract the best possible executive candidates.
  • Don’t worry about securing backloaded contract terms; you can deal with recovery and parity later because the reality is if things don’t improve, they will be moot points anyway.
  • Get your house in order vis-a-vis the board: if there’s dysfunction, address it; if there are factions, bring them together.

A Broader Perspective

For more than three decades, ISO stakeholders have favored stability over risk and internalized a “slow and steady wins the race” culture. So the real mystery in all of this is how things became so bad in such a short period of time. Forget “the economy” excuse; that is undoubtedly an element in the overall equation but not enough in and of itself to disrupt an institution with a reputation in the field as being one of the more economically cautious organizations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems clear that the organization got off track in recent years and even though uncovering the reasons would be a fascinating study, even that should take a backseat to the triage work at hand.

The good news in all of this (and yes, good news exists) is the organization hasn’t passed a point of no return and the stakeholders have an opportunity to shift gears and focus on triage. Once that is accomplished and capable leaders are secured, they can return to pursuing longer labor agreements and strategic planning.

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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6 thoughts on “The Real Issue In Indianapolis”

  1. Not to quibble, but there are Directors of Artistic Planning, Marketing & Communication, Development in place at the ISO. Some have been with the organization for years. While not called “VP’s” they provide the required function. There is an “interim” CEO and this is probably not the best situation for organizational stability, strategic planning leadership, and building long term relationships within the community.

    • No worries and feel free to quibble away 🙂 But you’re absolutely correct; those departments to have Directors in place and in lieu of publishing a 2000+ word article, I left a good bit of those details out, but they were certainly included in the overall consideration.

      In addition to those individuals, many of which I know are excellent arts administrators, there is also the round(s) of staff cuts that have decimated the office over the years. So from the office perspective, you have the current season to implement, fewer people and resources to get the job done, a board that is pushing for sharply reduced operations (does this mean layoffs?), and an Interim CEO from within the office which means that person has all of the duties and responsibilities from the previous position plus the interim work, etc.

      If that weren’t enough, it isn’t unusual during periods of labor disputes for office workers to begin getting swept up in the issues at play. This creates increased potential for inter-office conflict resulting in decreased efficiency on top of managers who are already absorbing the tasks from positions that were cut.

      In the end, all of this begins to create the conditions for the sort of perfect storm referenced in the post.

      • Good points all. As a side-bar, it can also be pointed out that the full time administrative and production staff currently in at the ISO numbers about 60 people. (About the size of the reduced full time orchestra roster that has been proposed.)

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