Mayhem In Memphis

It looks like the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has officially entered into cycle of panic induced fundraising coupled with all but certain massive budget cuts. The MSO released a press statement on 1/30/2014 asserting that the economic downturn and fickle patron habits have forced the organization into financial crisis.

An article from the January 31, 2014 Associated Press reports that the MSO board approved a resolution to “wind-down” the orchestra at the end of the season.

Adaptistration Guy 008Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been a great deal of discussion and conjecture about what the MSO means by winding down operations. According to MSO board chair, Gayle Rose, even though that’s the term the board used, they can’t tell people what it is. But that isn’t stopping them from telling people what it isn’t.

Board chairwoman Gayle Rose said during a meeting Thursday that officials aren’t sure what winding down will mean.

“We don’t know that yet,” Rose said. “We’re not just going to throw up our hands and say this is over.”

She says a best-case scenario would include fewer performances and less community outreach. Rose says the symphony will be broke in April if nothing is done.

If that statement seems confusing, you’re apparently not alone.

Author and critic Norman Lebrecht inferred that unless the MSO raises a bunch of money, they will close out at the end of the 2013/14 season.

The board of the Memphis Symphony has decided to close out at the end of the current season unless they raise a lot of money, very soon. They can’t find the $20-25 million it would cost to continue.

Lebrechet’s article on the subject from 2/3/2014 prompted what might be best defined as a virulent reply from MSO President and CEO, Roland Valliere, who attacked Lebrechet by accusing him of ineptitude and harboring a personal agenda over a failed commercial project Valliere launched several years prior.

This is Roland Valliere, the Memphis Symphony’s President and CEO. Some years ago, when I created the Concert Companion, Lebrecht wrote a scathing indictment of the project. The funny thing was that he never actually used the device and didn’t know what he was talking about. What was true then is true now. The Memphis Symphony has not announced “lights out.”

Lerbrecht replied in-kind within minutes.

Curb the bile and respond to the facts reported in your local press: ‘Memphis Symphony Orchestra board members have approved a resolution to “wind-down” the organization’s operations at the end of the season.’

Subsequently, neither Valliere nor any other MSO spokesperson have provided Lebrecht with an expanded explanation of what winding down the organization actually means.

Moreover, statements from MSO musicians have been as confusing as those from board chair Rose. Chris James, MSO second flute and piccolo, serves as the current chair of the orchestra musicians’ committee and describes the murky future within the context of horticulture.

“The rhetoric that we’ve been using a lot is the Memphis Symphony as it exists is a dead tree. Rather than chop off limbs and resuscitate it somehow, we’re trying to plant a new tree,” James said.

All of this caginess has stirred additional bewilderment, including the Nonprofit Quarterly (NPQ), which described the MSO’s announcement as something of a curiosity among comparable events at other orchestras.

NPQ, of course, has been covering multiple restructurings among classical music organizations across the country. This one is odd simply because of the ambiguousness of the declaration.

Currently, the MSO is engaged in crisis fundraising efforts but it seems clear that the orchestra is facing a round of substantial expense reductions lasting no less than several seasons. Whether or not those cuts will be codified in emergency negotiation sessions is currently unknown.

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 “Mayhem In Memphis”

  1. Drew, you mention the possibility of emergency negotiating sessions, which, in terms of a reopener for this season’s CBA, is more than a remote possibility given that the board voted to approve this season’s CBA (the talks were not contentious, and that the settlement occurred so late had to do solely with a perfect storm of logistical contingencies) with no cuts in the same meeting that they discussed how to manage the current cash crisis and voted to allow for the winding down of the institution if that becomes necessary (which is not the same as voting to shut the doors). This was done very openly, as nearly the entire orchestra committee was present for the meeting (except for the CBA ratification vote), myself included.

  2. For what it’s worth, each article published has quoted less and less of the original statement, making the situation sound more and more strange. The original sentence, from the article in the Commercial Appeal which broke the news on Jan. 30, was: ‘The symphony board on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution saying the MSO “cannot incur future deficits in operations” and giving its executive committee authority to “wind-down MSO’s operations” if adequate funding or commitments aren’t found.’ The board resolution wasn’t meant to be an action plan for the future, it’s a business necessity: we must balance a budget next year, because there is no more endowment and nothing left to borrow against.

    • Thanks Chris and even within that expanded context, how is the winding down reference less strange and/or vague?

      Traditionally, in situations like the one you’ve described where there are no more cash and/or endowment reserves, supporters are that much more inclined to want details about projected cuts in order to give during crisis fundraising appeals. Consequently, if it weren’t for the parameters you’ve defined, there likely wouldn’t be quite as much attention.

      • Sure. I’m just pointing out that the PR on this has been weird. The initial emphasis has been on finishing this season with no cuts to musician salaries or benefits, but some of the verbiage, especially that darn “wind-down” stuff makes it sound like we’re further along in the process of figuring out next year than we really are.

      • Those are very good points Chris and that is the real question, are you in a position to speak with that level of authority on where the organization is on making plans for next season? Are you involved in every executive committee discussion along with relevant communication between the key leadership team of the board chair, CEO, and Music Director?

      • The CEO and board chair have been very transparent with all of the numbers and their intentions of including the musicians as much as possible in this process. We have been privileged so far to deal with a management that has accepted a great deal of musician input.

  3. So, does anyone remember the “Memphis model” ? What could possibly have gone so wrong? I hope this is a learning experience for the think-tank that these silly ideas come from. I’m glad the lines of communication are open. The news that this business plan doesn’t work for our industry should travel quickly.

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