SDO Mass Board Exodus But Controversial Exec Remains

Following last week’s board meeting at the San Diego Opera (SDO), several key board members responsible for the initial decision to shut down the company resigned, including SDO Board President Karen Cohn. This doesn’t come as an unexpected surprise but the real curiosity here is the retention of the company’s general and artistic director, Ian Campbell; a figure many believe is the source of this quake.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-085The remaining board members announced that they have decided to back a plan that will investigate options for continuing operations but if there was any request for a resignation from Campbell, that news ailed to make its way to the surface.

In situations such as this where an embattled executive loses his/her board supporters, the individual’s exodus comes in very short order. The only exception to this rule is when the departure would trigger terms related to an abnormally large and/or unusual severance package.

Although questions related to both the terms and conditions for Campbell’s severance package have been floating around, there is no clear public understanding of related details; moreover, Campbell has not released a copy of his work agreement and related addenda.

In the end, it would be highly unusual to see Campbell continue in his position for any length of time; instead, it is more likely that his tenure has more to do with working out these details to the existing board’s satisfaction.

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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9 thoughts on “SDO Mass Board Exodus But Controversial Exec Remains”

  1. This column feels a little irresponsible on your part. Ian Campbell is and has been a stalwart of the national Opera scene for a long time. The surprise of all this is that he was supportive of closing it, but that leads one to wonder what does he know that we don’t. He had already announced his retirement and is following through on that. None of it was knee-jerk reaction, but planned over a lengthy period.

    To have the Board unceremoniously dump him due to a debate about his last piece of advice seems petty in the extreme. The continual innuendo that this is all about his severance deal seems equally irresponsible. In your own note you point out that there is no evidence of this being a part of this discussion. It besmerches him with absolutely no evidence – why do that? Who would want to serve in a field that is so careless in attacking those who had some degree of success?

    I think is is a sad story, but we often worry that far too many arts groups are formed and others whose role is less vital are never set out to pasture except through crisis. It is just possible that he made his suggestion that hiring someone to step in an lead it towards a path that was not viable was untenable to him and gained the support of his Board to follow that path. Why give someone else the remainders of a dignified and celebrated heritage?

    Mostly in San Diego, it is a healthy debate that it s closure may provoke a rethink that could give it renewed life and a new hope for the next generation of leadership.

    There is another dangerous spin going on that is alarming. The premise that one could close San Diego Opera and reopen without the legal encumbrances of existing contracts is actually illegal and to assert that as a future plan would make many there legally culpable.

  2. Thanks for your comment Andrew, those are intriguing points.

    I’m not entirely comfortable with classifying advocating closing the institution as a single, mutually exclusive action. Instead, the long line of executive decisions made over the last several years which led to the institution’s current position are what the remaining board members will be considering.

    As for Campbell’s compensation and related bonus and/or severance terms, this has been well documents and reported throughout a number of traditional media outlets, here is a sample:
    http://www.kpbs.org/news/2014/apr/11/san-diego-opera-meets-its-future/
    http://www.kpbs.org/news/2014/apr/07/much-handwringing-slow-progress-san-diego-operas-f/
    http://inewsource.org/2014/04/11/san-diego-operas-generous-contracts-under-scrutiny/
    http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2014/Apr/15/san-diego-opera-rescue-under-way/
    http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2014/Apr/15/san-diego-opera-rescue-under-way/

    My own professional opinion mirrors much of the interest displayed on those articles. But I’m curious to know why any examination of Campbell’s compensation, in your own words, “besmirches [sic] him with absolutely no evidence.”

    Lastly, I’m not certain anyone has asserted that the decision to close the SDO is related solely to Campbell’s compensation. On the contrary, it seems quite clear that the compensation element is part of a larger tapestry that has since come under considerable scrutiny.

    For example, the multiyear resistance to adaptive strategic policies , many of which have become mainstream throughout a number of nonprofit performing arts fields, justified by nothing more than sentiments that doing so would “cheapen the company’s grand opera tradition and ‘be like putting water in the beer’” (http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2014/Apr/15/san-diego-opera-rescue-under-way/).

    That, combined with the growing mountain of professional judgment to support that the SDO’s situation has had more to do with what may best be defined as reactionary strategic planning, seems to be some of the very best reasons to conduct a thorough examination of potential conflicts of interests and/or variables that would otherwise influence the very highest levels of governance. I hope that helps provide some additional insight and thanks again for posting your comment.

  3. The simple answer here is we disagree. No problem with that. I think your own response and that of the articles you listed all infer a particularly self-serving agenda here. I think that terms of an employment contract begun as far back as 2003 and carried forward, (even if the actual rates of pay are generous), is hardly reason to think the Campbells didn’t honor their obligations to the Opera. It is hard to extend the argument that his point about the future of the Opera is tainted by his package. If one were to take that point, then one could say that once he chose to retire all future leadership and advice that he used in doing his job is under a new scrutiny. Someone with 27 years in has earned more internal respect than that, and I think that respect was reflected in the first vote, even if I or anyone else chooses to disagree with it. A 33-1 vote indicates that his advice was presented in a sound manner. (It is equally understandable that upon reflection others are horrified at it and seek to reverse it – also, still a sound option.)

    The generosity of a deal is not really the point here, unless it alone closed the company and there is no evidence of that. A similar argument is often made when union musicians are challenged because their deal was ‘too good’ and therefore threatened the future of other groups. In the end, a deal is struck between two willing parties and it is not for an outside group to evaluate if it was appropriate or not on the basis of its scale.

    While I may or may not agree with Campbell’s advice and the Board’s action, I think scrutiny of his motivation as self-serving seems out of bounds. He clearly made a huge impact in San Diego and to taint it seems to me to in poor taste. The old adage is that reasonable people can look at the same thing and see it differently and agree to disagree. I think one can approach this argument in this manner, but to assign motive to his opinion is my objection.

  4. I’m not entirely certain what you’re attempting to convey here Andrew; you’ve bounced around between a few intriguing topics but I’m not sure how all of this ties together. Nonetheless, one item I wholeheartedly disagree with within the context of a nonprofit entity is that an agreement between two parties is outside the scope of public trust review. If the SDO were a commercial enterprise, I would be far more inclined to agree, but that is not the case.

    The moment the field begins to exempt agreements from scrutiny when they have the clear potential for influencing behavior and actions is the same moment nonprofit performing arts organizations will lose the public trust.

    It is clear at this point in time that there was a substantial amount of dysfunction within certain facets of the SDO board, enough so that it calls into question the circumstances for decision made within the past few seasons. That, combined with the remaining circumstances, makes it clear that the questions circulating through numerous media outlets and those from individual stakeholder voices are not only legitimate, but appropriate.

    But in the end, I’m curious to know what sort of self-serving agenda you described is in pay at all of the outlets included in my list of references above as well as my own post. Clearly, we disagree; but I’d love to hear more about this point. What precisely is this agenda? Why is it self-serving?

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