An Unfortunately Anomaly Or The New Normal?

It’s rarely a good sign when Sunday morning news talk show topics have more in common with the orchestra field than not and it was difficult to listen to pundits talking about crippling impact of congressional entrenchment without seeing parallels in our field. One of the more surprising items was related to reports that one of the most sacred of Federal cows, the Department of Defense (DoD), is making genuine preparations for previously unimaginable cuts due to ongoing effects from sequestration.

150x150_ITA_Guy177The situation has reached a point where Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been quoted by the Associated Press emphasizing that the DoD’s projected cuts and subsequent results are not exaggeration.

“I know there’s politics in all this,” Hagel said. “But what we’re trying to project here is not crying wolf or not trying to overstate or overhype.”

At first thought, orchestra stakeholders and the Department of Defense (DoD) may not have much in common but we live in interesting times. For example, the ongoing stretch of congressional malaise responsible for sequestration may best be described as a profoundly dysfunctional legislative process dominated by extremist voices within political affiliations that are satisfied with sacrificing a great deal that impacts many in order to achieve goals that benefit ideology over cooperation.

Now, try swapping a few pronouns and see if the same phrase doesn’t suit the ongoing rash of extended work stoppages: the ongoing stretch of orchestral labor disputes responsible for sizable cuts to artistic and non-artistic expense may best be described as a profoundly dysfunctional governance process dominated by extremist voices within stakeholder affiliations that are satisfied with sacrificing a great deal that impacts many in order to achieve goals that benefit ideology over cooperation.

Ultimately, the field is going to have to begin formally addressing the immediate impact of governance strategies that appear to be geared toward little more than reigniting ideology driven all-or-nothing struggles for dominant control that haven’t been seen in the field for decades. Allowing them to continue without broader scrutiny risks allowing what should be nothing more than an unfortunate anomaly in the field’s evolution to become a new, and very regrettable, normal.

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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11 thoughts on “An Unfortunately Anomaly Or The New Normal?”

  1. Don’t forget the other commonality in that sequestration will likely also lead to cuts to military bands. I read last year that there was an effort last year to cap military band spending at $200 million which was a cut of $188 million.

    Now considering the NEA appropriation last year was $146 million, it is a little depressing to think that military spending on the arts even exceeds the NEA budget.

  2. It makes me sick that just over a year ago the Minnesota Orchestra had been hailed as one of the nation’s best orchestras and now we are sitting here with a pile of mud (being PC). No orchestra, no consensus, no real negotiations, and no hope. It would be nice if the entire BOD would fire themselves as there is no longer an orchestra and its their own fault. Maybe by 2015 or 2016 we could re-construct a new ensemble to play in that nice new empty hall. Or maybe sell the hall to finance a new orchestra??

  3. There are stakeholders, and then there are shareholders. When I was getting my MBA 20 years ago (!) the hot curriculum area was “business ethics”, after the 1980’s excesses and the $175 million (!) S&L debacle. We started talking about “stakeholders”. Well, that is so last millenium, because with the orchestra lockouts, stakeholders were pretty much dissed. SHAREHOLDERS – i.e. those with lots of money – appeared to be the only ones who matter. I could extrapolate that to just about everything these days.

    • I submit that in the case of the Minnesota Orchestra, not even shareholders matter…if they disagree with the board at large. Donors who have given more than either Campbell or Davis, but then taken their dollars elsewhere because they feel the MOA is going in the wrong direction, have been dismissed privately as “small stakeholders.” Plus Judy Dayton, the woman who has given the most to the orchestra, and the wife of the man Who Made Orchestra Hall Possible, has obviously been snubbed in major, major ways.

      It’s not about the money. Never has been. It’s about ideology.

      Welcome to the new normal!

  4. The Minnesota Orchestral Association for some reason decided to change their raison d’être from the Minnesota Orchestra to the Orchestra Hall. They cut the number of concerts, eliminated any mention of the orchestra from their mission statement, put their fundraising efforts into the building rather than the orchestra, locked the musicians out effectively canceling the entire season, and had the NERVE to complain that the musicians’ salaries comprised too high a percentage of the budget (somewhere below 50%, as I recall). This illustrated that they approached the musicians as mere employees of the venue (a drain on the budget, easily replaced by lower wage employees) rather than THE PRIME ASSET of their organization, for which they (the Board) existed. The Board should be responsible to nurture and maintain, if not increase, the value of the Orchestra. Instead, the building became the asset they intend to nurture
    and whose value they would increase. They are now the Minnesota Orchestra Hall Association. The Orchestra itself lacks a Board. It is up to us, the Orchestra’s public — those for whom they exist — to stand up to the Board. The Board has lost their raison d’être — their purpose for existing — and lost their way. What a travesty! From now on we should recognize them as the “Minnesota Orchestra HALL Association” only and work to build a new Minnesota Orchestral Association.

    • I think the situation we’ve seen in Minnesota (as well as Nashville, and previously in Detroit) shows the hazards of what can happen when an orchestra tries to own and operate its own venue without being absolutely certain it can handle the financial obligations of ownership in a way that doesn’t threaten the organization’s mission.

      I fear a lot of these organizations have allowed themselves to be suckered by the notion of a performing arts center as a revenue generator in non-orchestra weeks without ever considering the predicament that if revenue ends up falling short, bondholders are going to demand precedence over the employees (both on and off stage) who are responsible for executing the organization’s mission. And that’s not without merit – bondholders are people to whom the orchestra has already made a financial commitment.

      The path from opening a new facility to getting the facility fully paid off has been a perilous one for many organizations.

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