A Sad Day

I was saddened to learn the news that Doug Whitaker unexpectedly passed away on 1/9/2014. For those who didn’t know him, Doug was the Director of Artistic Operations at Memphis Symphony and an absolute archetype of the sort of professional arts manager that keeps this field running, often in spite of boom or bust cycles.

He was the type of professional that won’t get singled out for attention vis-a-vis some gilded award from a service organization but without managers like Doug, the show would come to a sudden and unnerving stop.

What made Doug unique wasn’t his exceptional work ethic, his multigenerational knowledge for dozens of orchestras and festivals, or his genuine passion for live classical music that kept him from exploring career opportunities that would have certainly paid more and delivered less stress, it was his core principles that all stakeholders were cut from the same cloth. No one gets preferential treatment and he gave of himself, professionally and personally, to fellow managers and musicians without discrimination.

That doesn’t mean he was a walking, talking love fest; in fact, if you knew him, you’d likely get a chuckle out of that notion. Instead, Doug was about mutual respect and the ability to leave disagreements at the stage door.

One of his qualities I admired most was his seemingly unending capacity to recognize and call out bull shit wherever it reared its ugly head. It didn’t matter if you were a manager, musician, or board member he was an equal opportunity witness who did not suffer such foolishness gladly.

But what I’ll perhaps miss the most is a quality Doug had in spades and this field is already dangerously low on: he was a true egalitarian. Doug could differentiate accomplishment from hype and he didn’t give special dispensation to anyone just because they held a post from a large budget organization. He treated people with a degree of respect they deserved based on their merits and not the size of their paycheck.

In the end, the entire field is better because Doug Whitaker was part of it and he will be sadly missed.

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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10 thoughts on “A Sad Day”

  1. He was an exceptional human being, gone too soon. One of the greats. I know he and Lenny (Leonard Bernstein) are hanging out in heaven together having a good Bourbon and a laugh. Our love and sympathy to his beautiful wife Sania and his children and grandchildren.

  2. There are no words to express the sadness we feel here in Memphis. Doug was an incredible colleague and his ability to lift harps over his head was a marvel not only to us on stage, but to our audience as well. Tears were shed backstage over the weekend, and all at the MSO will miss him.
    Michael Barar
    Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Violist, Orchestra Committee Chair

  3. Well said Drew. Doug is upstairs setting up Gabriel’s stage-Lenny and all his friends that have left us by are with him. Respect is something you earn. Doug didn’t have to try. He listened to every musician, got to know us all and no detail was too large or small to ignore. We all feel Sania’s loss as if it were our own. She is family, and Doug would be so pleased to see us all rallying our support and love for her. His integrity for a job that few take with the pride he took was pretty much unparalleled. His mark on the industry was fantastic. Plain and simple..way too early.

    Matt Sonneborn
    Principal Trumpet, Naples Philharmonic

  4. Doug was, by far, one of my best friends and colleagues. We called each other out on bullshit (yes, Doug had is fair share). One of the things we loved to do was yell at each other: all the time. We would wait till we had someone around who didn’t know us and how long we’d been friends and then we would start in on each other. One time I remember in particular was when the Opera came to my house and there was a new Maestro coming to see the space. When Maestro walked in we started. We kept at each other for at least 5 minutes, getting louder and more irate till it ended with Doug claiming “it’s all about me!” There was a beat and we laughed till we were in tears and embraced. The Maestro was mortified and confused but quickly realized that he had seen two friends greet each other.
    I will miss getting to answer my phone “what the fuck do you want?!” or hearing “oh dear God, it’s YOU” on the other line followed by that distinct Doug Whitaker laugh. We drank together on more than one occasion and waxed philosophical on many things including baseball and soccer.
    I will miss being able to call to ask for the scuttlebutt on any symphony in the country and know that my source was sound.
    Tonight I drank a glass of Jameson in his honor. He would have approved.
    I miss you, Doug.

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