Well Worth Your Time

If you haven’t taken the time to read James B. Stewart’s missive in the 3/23/2015 edition of The New Yorker about the Metropolitan Opera’s recent labor dispute and related political rapids, then you’re missing out. Yes, it is nearly 9000 words, but you’ll be glad you allocated the time.

Adaptistration People 133Even if you’re already quite familiar with The Met’s recent rumble, the article goes a long way toward filling in some of the missing pieces which managed to stay out of the mainstream media, such as the degree of infighting among Met board members and how those power struggles and turf wars left money on the table over recent years.

Stewart doesn’t hold his punches when it comes to analyzing artistic highs and lows that ultimately became the centerpiece of the dispute, albeit to Met General Manager Peter Gelb’s chagrin.

The piece spends a too much time on certain key figures and misses out entirely on some of the genuine behind the scenes heroes (you know who you are), but given who those individuals are and the roles they played, it isn’t exactly surprising to see them missing from the article. In time, it will be interesting to see if historical accounts get updated with that info.

Likewise, the article glosses over some of the more fantastic behavior from the labor side of the equation such as the steady stream of verbal pyrotechnics from American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) National Executive Director Alan S. Gordon. Stewart’s article only references Gordon a handful of times and uses his position as a vehicle to highlight the shifting tide of scrutiny on Gelb’s leadership.

We also get to learn a bit more about the role of Eugene Keilin, the financial analyst who entered the process in the eleventh hour yet played a key role in pushing the institution back from the edge of thermonuclear labor war. There are no direct quotes from Keilin but Stewart does attribute a notable second hand reference that hints at my own VagueBook comments above.

The author keeps a safe distance from drawing any firm conclusions but there’s plenty of space between the lines to insert pretty much any perspective you feel most comfortable assigning. To that end, did you read the article; if so, what did you think and why?

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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4 thoughts on “Well Worth Your Time

  1. I’m surprised (but not really) at the people who were hoping for a bomb to drop with this piece. Stewart is a methodical writer who writes about business. This is exactly in line with what I thought. Lot’s of new information for the public that shows what a dysfunctional minefield the board is.

  2. Something interesting in what the Royal Opera exec said, “As long as love, death, longing and despair are part of the life experience, and people want to hear great stories told through music, opera has a vibrant future.” The question is, how much does it cost to tell those stories?

  3. The material about the board totally dismayed me. The combination of artistic short-sightedness* and unwillingness to dig into the financial side – sheesh. Boards have fiduciary responsibilities toward the organization, and bothering to read the financial statements and think about the organization’s future are part of that responsibility.

    The article provides good reasons to get smart people who are knowledgable BUT NOT RICH on arts orgs boards. They don’t exist just to raise money and rubber-stamp what management says.

    I really wish he’d said more or been able to say more about Eugene Keilin’s findings. They were very much at the heart of the eventual settlement.

    I want to take a nice red pencil to some of the article, though:

    1. He uses the terms “average salary” and “base salary” without bothering to define either. I know what those things mean and people who follow arts business know what they mean, but most NYer readers do not.

    2. He never provides hard numbers about what the orchestra and chorus cost beyond the disagreements about the chorister salaries.

    3. There’s a paragraph where you might think that GELB designed the Ring set, not Lepage. That’s terrible editing, not worthy of the NYer, and something that ought to have been caught.

    I had a bunch of other minor quibbles. I was hoping for something deeper.

    *The board member who really wants the Zef Tosca back. For the millions that could have come from bringing it back, perhaps Gelb SHOULD have offered to do so immediately, but the fact that the board member asked means that Gelb has failed to sell his artistic vision to key board members.

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