A Larger Look At Indianapolis

Back when the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO) labor dispute and subsequent work stoppage was fairly new, Indiana native and urban affairs analyst Aaron M. Renn published an article at his website, The Urbanophile, that took a very long and hard look at what was transpiring.

globalIn his article from 9/2/2012, Renn begins with the bigger national picture and begins to whittle down to what’s transpiring at the ISO. On the way, he touches on other Indiana related scenarios, such as The Carmel Center situation, and by the end his final sub header sums up the analysis: Leadership Failures.

Now, in case you’re prone to jumping to conclusions and think Renn’s article may be some sort of pro-this, anti-that dreck, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. For instance, the article is launched with the following observations:

“…as far back as 2008, in an article I would strongly encourage you to read entitled “The Decline of the Midwest Cultural Institution,” I actually suggested that the city consider downgrading the orchestra myself.


A top quality, full time orchestra is a huge mouth to feed financially. Some cities like Cleveland, which has a world-renowned orchestra, derive considerable branding benefits from their orchestra. But Indy’s orchestra, despite its high quality, doesn’t generate those branding benefits.”

Consequently, content such as that may not lead a reader to imagine that the very same article would conclude with some of the following observations.

“…there are clearly serious leadership problems at the symphony. This is not all a result of outside structural forces…The previous music director was forced out by management, which now itself is gone. The CEO slot is empty, as are other senior posts, leaving a management vacuum.


The board itself has been operating in secret…There was absolutely no community discussion whatsoever about this, which is completely unacceptable for an organization that routinely solicits donations from the public at large.

Had the ISO been fortunate enough to have stronger leadership, perhaps it never would have come to these straits.”

In the end, Renn’s article is all but certain to get you thinking. It might make you angry, it might make you feel justified; but the real kicker here is you’ll see people on both sides of the debate think someone on the other side should read this.

In actual ISO labor dispute news…

There isn’t much to report other than what was expected following the latest offer from the ISO board which contained an escape clause after year two of a five year agreement. The musicians announced almost immediately after the offer was made public that they had no intention of accepting it and that’s precisely what happened.

As a result, the ISO cancelled another round of concerts scheduled for 10/12/12 and 10/13/12 and is offering ticketholders the options of a credit, an exchange, a donation, and/or a refund. Meanwhile, the 10/7/12 edition of the Indianapolis Star reports in an article by Jay Harvey that an ISO musician organized concert on 10/7/2012 featuring A-List piano soloist Andre Watts attracted a nearly 70 percent audience at The Palladium Stage in Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts.

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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4 thoughts on “A Larger Look At Indianapolis”

  1. I was at the Sunday evening ISO musicians performance–it appeared much more than 70% full. (Jay’s article doesn’t mention a percentage, so I’m wondering where you got that number.) There may have been some open rear upper-balcony seats that I couldn’t see, and they may not have been for sale initially (they had been showing as sold out on the seating chart), but there were very few vacant chairs in the orchestra and first two tiers (and the seat next to me would have been full, except my boyfriend couldn’t make it at the last minute). The concert was delayed 20 minutes because of the line at the box office. It definitely felt like a very, very full house, and the energy was amazing. The commitment of the ISO players to their ensemble and to making music is inspiring.

  2. Mr. Renn criticizes the ISO for not recording or touring to be a better branding organization for the city. In my day, we toured Europe three times, did domestic tours and in-state touring every year, played Carnegie Hall regularly, made several recordings and our subscription concerts were broadcast on radio stations around the country. Ask Mr. Renn if it is up to the musicians to plan tours, sign up sponsors for radio syndication and recordings and maintain the contacts to do in-state touring? As we ISO musicians were frequently told, that is the management’s job, and we were supposed to keep our suggestions to ourselves. Why should the musicians suffer, when the leadership failures have all been on the part of the ISO Board and the management people they hired?

    If I sound like an angry old retiree, I am. The Colts and the Pacers have seldom proved to be champions at the end of the season, but the musicians of the ISO have been champions for many years. Our younger colleagues do not deserve the under-handed tactics that they are seeing in negotiations. They have given their energies freely to make Indianapolis a better place to live. It is time the leaders in this city make a commitment to support the musicians.

    Rosemary Rader
    retired ISO violist

    • Thank you for you reply Rosemary and I certainly don’t speak for Mr. Renn but I didn’t get any sense that he was blaming or otherwise insinuating that the ISO’s artistic activity was being decided by the musicians. Instead, these were institutional decisions that ultimately come down to leadership; which is an area he addresses in greater details toward the end of his piece.

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