Tensions On The Rise In Fort Worth

Although Play and Talk is a useful treatment for bargaining deadline ills, it is important to remember that it isn’t a cure and as time marches on amid the current bargaining cycle, we’re beginning to see the early signs of those arrangements wearing thin among some of the remaining orchestras from our list of mid to large budget orchestras with expired collective bargaining agreements. Specifically, the ongoing negotiations at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) have attracted increased attention from local traditional news outlets due to the lack of progress combined with an increase in stakeholder frustration.

Adaptistration People 037The 10/28/15 edition of the Fort Worth Weekly published an article by Edward Brown that reports on growing tensions between the FWSO and its musicians and by those accounts, it seems that both sides are negotiating across a wide gulf in the form of their respective proposals.

Currently, the FWSO is proposing cuts to their season length, compensation, and paid vacation weeks and although the employer did not offer a comment to Brown’s article, the musicians assert these cuts amount to a 23 percent reduction in wages and benefits.

This would be over and above what the 13.5 percent cuts in wages and benefits absorbed via the recently expired agreement, which covered the 2011/12 through 2014/15 seasons. In that same agreement, the musicians also agreed to a temporary freeze in filling orchestra member vacancies, which could bring the orchestra size down from 72 to as low as 67.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this growing dispute is defined by what may be best described as mixed messages. On one hand, the FWSO’s President and CEO, Amy Adkins, purports a six percent uptick in fundraising and additional gains in ticket sales but she described those developments as going “a little slower than I would like” to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Barry Shlachter for an article that was published on 10/21/2015.

“Last season, we succeeded in raising $5.2 million from generous individuals, companies and foundations. This was $300,000 more than the previous season. The results speak for themselves, and I am proud of what we have accomplished.”

As it turns out, some of the FWSO patrons aren’t entirely impressed with what those results. The FWSO musicians published a letter via their Facebook page from one of their patron supporters asserting that regardless of Adkins’ statements, the organization has been recently underperforming compared to other nonprofits in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

During the North Texas Giving Day fundraiser, the Plano and Richardson Symphonies raised more money than the FWSO. Incredibly, the Feral Cat society and The Bat World Sanctuary raised more.

According to the FWWeekly report, the musicians echoed that sentiment, citing the same fundraising event and juxtaposing the FWSO’s accomplishments alongside those of nearby Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

[FWSO violist and musician spokesperson Scott] Jessup claims that in one day, North Texas Giving Day (September 17), the Dallas Symphony Orchestra raised about $135,000. By contrast, the FWSO raised $34,315.

Moreover, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), which represents the FWSO musicians, is weighing in on the dispute as well.

“The symphony management said they can’t raise the funds,” [Local 72-147 AFM president Ken] Kraus told the Weekly. “Fort Worth is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, so why is [the orchestra management] shrinking the budget?”

Although Kraus’ comment focuses on present conditions, there should be genuine concern among the orchestra’s current board leadership that the orchestra will become increasingly marginalized among the high profile local donor community. Historically, the more a group falls behind the fundraising curve during periods of local economic growth, the more likely they are to drop in status and attract necessary board talent. The longer this trend continues, the more difficult it becomes to implement corrective measures.

As for now, the group is set to begin negotiations again this week so time will tell.

Until then, here’s a reminder on where we are on the list of fourteen mid to large budget orchestra and opera organizations with a collective bargaining agreement that expired within the last four months:

  1. Chicago Lyric Opera 6/30/2015
  2. Chicago Symphony 9/13/2015
  3. Cincinnati Symphony 9/13/2015
  4. Cleveland Orchestra 8/30/2015
  5. Columbus Symphony 8/31/2015
  6. Dallas Symphony 8/31/2015
  7. Florida Orchestra 8/31/2015
  8. Fort Worth Symphony 7/31/2015
  9. Grand Rapids Symphony 8/31/2015
  10. Milwaukee Symphony 8/31/2015
  11. New Jersey Symphony 8/31/2015
  12. Philadelphia Orchestra 9/13/2015
  13. San Antonio Symphony 8/31/2015
  14. Utah Symphony 8/31/2015

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 “Tensions On The Rise In Fort Worth

  1. I’m not sure what the problem is here, the info in today’s post is accurate based on the sources provided. If the musicians wish to refine their message as time continues, that wouldn’t be unusual in the least. If they feel there is any confusion, I would be surprised if they choose to ignore it.

  2. Hi Drew, another item in the article that hasn’t received as much attention was the huge loss in ticket sales. The article says that currently they are $200,000 less than they were seven years ago. This is not just a one yeari issue, this decline in sales has occurred for 4 straight years. Since the new president took her position, the whole marketing dept has become a revolving door with many terrible hiring decisions. This instability has made consistent marketing, PR, branding and sales impossible. I know that development is responsible for more percentage of the budget than tickets sales, but a loss of at least $200,000 a year in ticket sales for that many years in a row makes a huge impact.

    • That’s going to be an intriguing discussion point becasue even though I would agree with you that development tends to bring in higher ratios of overall revenue compared to marketing, a group can’t have one department excel while the other stagnates. It’s a symbiotic relationship and even though one can stumble forward while the other is in a building cycle, it’s not a sustainable relationship.

      And if the dispute continues to degrade to the point where these issues garner more attention, I’ll be curious to see if stakeholders focus on the surface value talking points in the form of gross revenues as opposed to diving into more important benchmarks for institutional health.

      For instance, marketing performance and development performance; or how much it costs per dollar of revenue is a far more important statistic.

      I often see groups entering or exiting a nasty labor dispute purporting gains and even though they may be experiencing an increase in something such as ticket sales and/or ticket revenue, their marketing performance bay have taken a nosedive, resulting in overall lower or neutral net earned income.

      Even worse is when a group doesn’t have a plan to get out of those patterns and spending something on the scale of $0.80 of every dollar earned to to sell a ticket becomes the new norm, it’s akin to operating in continuous crisis mode.

      It always makes me sad to see stakeholders, board members and musicians in particular, completely overlook these vital metrics. In the worse cases, a group of either stakeholder at Orchestra A will say to their their colleagues “see, Orchestra B is selling all kinds of tickets” without having a clue whether or not that increase is the result of sacrificing marketing performance.

      In the end, I agree with you, wholeheartedly, that the items you addressed are a critical part of the conversation; having said that, I fear that growing chorus of armchair expert observers out there launch into those conversations grasping at phantom smoking guns without the faintest clue as to the larger discussion it should introduce.

      Ideally, none of this will be necessary in a public forum and the FWSO will find a way forward without needing to reach that stage. But since you’ve mentioned it, I genuinely hope you and all concerned stakeholders seize the opportunity to push past those surface discussions into the deep end where groups sink or swim.

      Thank you very much for taking the time to send in your comment, I think it is an excellent launching point for those larger discussions.

  3. i agree, many times comparing two different orchestras can be tricky when you don’t also take into consideration their differences. However, comparing Orchestra A to it’s own history when considering which areas have declined or which areas have room for improvement can be valuable in elevating the organization as a whole. Although no longer in this field, I do have experience in the administrative area of this particular orchestra and have been concerned about the trend of their marketing and ticket sales for many years. I still have much love for them and can only hope that the outcome of these negotiations is beneficial in keeping a much loved gem in our community shining.

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