We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us

The  commencement speech given by Aspen Music Festival and School President and CEO Alan Fletcher during the 2013 Convocation on 6/24/2013 has been making the rounds due, in part, to its approach that some of the recent troubles in the field are the result of self inflicted stakeholder relations problems than merely a down economy. Regular Adaptistration readers already know this is a well-worn topic but it is nice to see it take root elsewhere.

We’ve been seeing some terrible fractures in the historic cooperation that is needed to create music.

For me, the very worst of it has been in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where two great orchestras were locked out of their halls.

This is not the place to try to describe fully what has happened – the complexity of the problem is intense – but what happened, and is still happening, has no place in our art form. A strike is a very unhappy thing, but a lock-out is unworthy of us all and unworthy of our beautiful profession.

In almost all of the problematic cases in recent years, one or more of the “sides” in a dispute is saying that they can’t, or won’t, recognize another side’s good faith, and the rhetoric all around the country has been remarkably poisonous and negative.

We really must find a way to work together, and this fracturing makes that seem impossible.

Let’s start with one of the most wrongheaded ideas: that, since there are so many good musicians out there, the particular composition of any given orchestra doesn’t matter.

The trouble with implementing what seems like a perfectly rational point of view into is the lack of necessary pressure on those who are more interested in a fight than an their institution’s respective the mission.

To that end, decades long traditions of self regulation that utilized a combination of peer pressure and common sense to achieve unified mission potential no longer produces the desired outcome and the field needs a new collection of cooperative leadership driven by concerns other than its own perpetuity and capable of influencing desperately needed change.

In the end, the adage nothing risked, nothing gained comes to mind. but what do you think? Take some time to read through Fletcher’s speech and leave a comment with your thoughts and observations.

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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5 thoughts on “We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us”

    • It also, in the case of the MOA, becomes difficult for the audience to want to team up with management when they’ve waged an awful PR campaign, lied to them about the state of the orchestra’s finances, refused to speak in-detail in public about their intentions, forbidden donors access to Q&A sessions just because they aren’t members of the Laureate Society, totally ignored patron petitions, boycotted Judy Dayton’s “neutral” concert, refused to answer letters from stakeholders, written disingenuous editorials, never commented in the comment sections of said disingenuous editorials, refused to answer repeated questions from outside experts about the state of the orchestra’s finances and discrepancies in the much-vaunted Strategic Plan, refused to release the full Strategic Plan, removed patrons who disagreed with them from mailing lists while continuing to badger the spouses of locked-out musicians for money, been investigated by the state auditor for misuse of state money, been scolded by politicians for their choices in public hearings, six months ago told patrons in fundraising calls that the orchestra will go under in six months unless more money can be raised, violated roughly a third to maybe half of the Minnesota Principles and Practices for Non-Profit Excellence, and even told a roomful of donors behind closed doors that “blogs are senseless and must be ignored,” and yet have dispatched monitors to watch over every blog entry and Internet comment section in order to bully employees into silence. In the process of demonizing the musicians, MOA management demonized its audience, too. We’ll see if the audience forgives these slights, or chooses to move on to less dysfunctional arts organizations. I personally believe the MOA will be happy either way, and I do not believe they will ever apologize. This whole dynamic of disrespect works against many of the ideas in the speech. It is pretty hard to have a fulfilling productive partnership once personalities and politics get involved.

  1. To this point about the 30% pay cut and lockout I would add this:

    When Osmo Vanska was hired he promised to turn the Minnesota Orchestra from an excellent regional orchestra to one that is world class. This became part of the Orchestra’s “brand” in the sense of being a narrative included in quite a number of published reviews and discussions of the orchestra. Management certainly wasn’t disagreeing based on their public statements. As one who has listened to and attended MO concerts for 40 years, I can attest that Osmo–and the band–delivered. The playing improved markedly in many ways, including ensemble quality, dynamic range, expressiveness, engagement by the players, stronger first chair players (when vacancies occurred), and, not least, much better consistency in delivering exceptional performances week after week. Osmo’s interpretations were never less than interesting and often were revelatory. Reviews of their playing around the world were extremely positive, and the excitement level in the Orchestra Hall audience was several notches higher.

    As an audience member I could also see problems in the past few years: Orchestra positions not being filled, a weaker group of guest conductors and soloists due to budget restrictions, slowly falling attendance, some staleness in programming, and recent budget deficits, which I noticed at the time were covered from the endowment and then were not. I also have long been distinctly unimpressed by the Orchestra’s marketing operation in the sense of how they presented the Orchestra and its subscription programs and also its top players, who should have been promoted as stars. Of course, the small matter of the Great Recession complicating things, and many orchestras around the country were having moderate to severe financial problems.

    Given this recent history I wasn’t surprised that the Orchestra management and board wanted to apply some new thinking to Orchestra operations, but the ham-handedness of their actions has been a sight to behold. Fundamentally, they did not lay a reasonable foundation with the Orchestra’s other constituencies for the kind of drastic changes they wanted to make. This includes the audience and also the donors who were expecting to see the MO they knew and loved in the remodeled hall. Also, the “strategic plan” released by the board that was the basis for all of this is unimpressive.

    So, they announced the big pay cut proposal and a huge number of work rule changes, accompanied by public statements by their board leader that “things are going to change.” Then the lockout, followed by the remarkably clumsy public relations campaign expressing that the players are the problem for the Orchestra’s new primary goal of being financially sustainable. This and the various statements on the Orchestra website and direct mail campaign are the sort of things that might appeal in some other towns well south of here but not in a place like Minneapolis.

    Back to the initial point: Through all of this the financial guys running the Orchestra seem to have ignored the risk and now acute problem that their brand (world-class orchestra led by a world class music director) has been wrecked. I wish we could have confidence that management is capable of putting the pieces back together. An 80-member orchestra with several open first chair positions (and quite possibly no Osmo or no Osmo for very long) is not exactly what we had before or expected for the new hall.

    As for the Orchestra players: They are not blameless–I have found their sense of entitlement over the years a bit off-putting. But it is hard to judge without more information about their interactions with management over the past couple of years and what ideas they had to address the financial and artistic issues that have been apparent for some time (assuming they had a serious opportunity to do this). My sense is that they will need to step up more than they have, and management has to cultivate them for this purpose as well. But there is no way that the players’ errors balance those of management.

  2. “We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us” This is twice in the span of a week or two that I have heard this quote. Each time it was in reference to a different orchestra. This must improve.

    I buy tickets. I write a blog, but by no means am I an orchestra (or orchestra business) insider. Non-profit experience, yes – I have that, but not with an arts organization. However, even with my very limited access, I can see things that can very easily be improved. I question why some orchestras don’t do more to improve things such as an existing 19-step online donation process. That alone would help bring in money – especially by a lot of one-time, $10-20-50 donors. Enough to solve all its financial woes? Of course not, but it’s one thing that CAN be done with a minimal amount of effort.

    Being responsive to those who ask questions is also something that can be done – especially to those looking to help. If someone asks about group ticket pricing, my advice next time would be to not hand out the wrong phone number and then never respond when a corrected number is subsequently requested. Ticket sales are not the answer to all and yes – fundraising is ridiculously hard, but at the very least, respond to inquiries. Maybe it’s my corporate background, but my gosh – a little – basic – customer service can go a long way. And good customer service doesn’t cost anything. You just have to care.

    The subject of handing out correct numbers or cutting out a dozen steps of what should really be a more simplistic means of donating is not hard to fix. There are plenty of bigger problems, but it’s almost as if some organizations have made a conscious decision to not even try to fix those that can be fixed.

    As a relatively new season ticket holder, I find that concept rather disconcerting.

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