Philadelphia Dines At The Ida Know Buffet

The 11/21/15 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article by Peter Dobrin that paints a dreary picture for the Philadelphia Orchestra Association’s (POA) future. In short, and contrary to a stream of public relations messages from the POA to the contrary, the organization continues to struggle reversing the downward revenue spiral that prompted their 2011-2012 bankruptcy.

Adaptistration People 169In his routine style, Dobrin walks readers through the grim finances and does a good job at probing into the reasons behind post-bankruptcy shortfalls with questions to the POA’s executive leadership, Board Chairman Richard B. Worley and president and CEO Allison B. Vulgamore.

What’s fascinating is more often than not, the response from those individuals when asked about existing shortfalls in ticket sales and annual fund giving or plans moving forward amounts to shoulder shrugging.

“I don’t know if it’s because the audience isn’t here, or the audience is here and we don’t know how to reach them,” Worley said at the gathering of [POA stakeholders].

Although the POA has slashed administrative expenses and instituted a hiring freeze on open positions, Vulgamore outlined an institutional vision that would require a sharp uptick in those expense areas if the organization is to have a reasonable shot at successful implementation.

Vulgamore suggests a future that will be much more heavily educational, and that might find the orchestra less frequently in Verizon Hall. She envisions the possibility of a portable stage…that would go to audiences, rather than depending on audiences to come to it…”Does that mean we would do less subscription [concerts in Verizon Hall]? I don’t know. Does that redefine the work we do at some of our venues? It might, if it’s exciting to all the partners. For me programmatically it’s not just the obvious – which is, is there a different way to earn money using an orchestra?”

For an institution that marked its post-bankruptcy path with a combination of bridge funding and an expanded austerity driven expense structure, launching new and lightly researched artistic driven earned income programs that mimic the higher risk and upfront cost structure of a traditional startup business is not unlike the string of short-sighted earned income and capitalization initiatives the POA listed as reason for filing bankruptcy in the first place.

Dobrin’s report ends with a reference to the recently launched strategic planning initiative being led by consultant Michael Kaiser (which we examined in detail via an article from 10/14/15) but even then, there is a distinct lack of clarity regarding how the POA will even handle those findings.

What that means precisely hinges on Kaiser’s report and the orchestra’s willingness to accept its conclusions and act on its recommendations…”[Kaiser will] be building on strategic planning that’s been here. It’s just not been funded.” Still, [Vulgamore] said the arrival of his “independent voice” was well-timed. “I think he can have more influence now.”

That’s an intriguing quote, it indicates a level of expectation that the Kaiser led strategic planning process will deliver findings that support diverting existing and/or generating new revenue for initiatives already defined, but have yet to be implemented.

It will be fascinating to watch what transpires if Kaiser’s involvement finds a different path.

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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5 thoughts on “Philadelphia Dines At The Ida Know Buffet”

  1. I think the transparency is very good – a lot of people want the best for them in this region and want to know the facts.
    I have wondered with articles like this if it positively or negatively impacts ticket sales. In other words, how many people read this and decide they’ll attend more concerts out of support, how many decide they don’t want to support that management and stay away, and how many people it makes no difference to them because it’s Mahler tonight. Every city is a little different – of course every writer is different. My personal feeling is that the day-to-day ticket sales shouldn’t change – people need music – but an article like this can either positively or negatively impact other forms of contributing – and how certain wording may push things one way or another is interesting.

  2. The picture that Dobrin paints is fairly bleak, but one has to keep in mind Dobrin’s own role in contributing to the mess that the Fabulous Philadelphians are in currently. While he didn’t start the fire, he fanned the flames pretty strongly in the years prior. I refer to, of course, the bad decision by the POA to hire Christoph Eschenbach as music director after Sawallisch, when the orchestra itself didn’t want him. That was a very bad move on the then-management’s part (pre-Vulgamore). In obvious hindsight, if we could wind the clock back 15 years, it’s now clear that if the POA couldn’t get Simon Rattle to succeed Sawallisch, they should have hired Charles Dutoit rather than Eschenbach. But things didn’t work out that way, of course.

    Dobrin then reacted to this bad move by taking it upon himself to mount a one-man scorched earth campaign against Eschenbach during Eschenbach’s tenure, with excoriating reviews and continually dismissive rhetoric for those 5 years. Admittedly, my next sentence or two gets in the realm of speculation, but it’s hard not to imagine that such a continuous and vitriolic stream of anti-Eschenbach rhetoric must have had a demoralizing effect on fund-raising and audience attendance (unless the guest conductor was Vladimir Jurowski). In other words, Dobrin’s anti-Eschenbach one-man war of words may well have contributed to the eroding financial situation. James Undercofler came in as the POA’s executive director, and helped ease Eschenbach out, which clearly was Dobrin’s goal.

    But Undercofler didn’t stay long enough to help right the financial ship. That’s where Vulgamore came in, and with the help of the POA board, she and Worley played the bankruptcy nuclear option (an option that can only be played once), which I still think was a totally unnecessary move. Unfortunately, that too had ripple effects, as we are seeing now, with Dobrin’s report of the recent POA meeting and the continuing financial travails. The overwhelming sentiment of the comments to Dobrin’s article is anti-Vulgamore, which I completely understand. However, it’s a complicated chain of events, to which Dobrin contributed in the years before, as I summarized earlier. People need to keep that in mind when reading this story, especially when Dobrin is reporting it.

    That I happen to agree with Dobrin’s assessment of Eschenbach’s hiring as a disastrous move does not mitigate the fact that how he reacted over the years to it gives me some disquiet, in retrospect, given the long-standing Philly financial doldrums that continue now. Even Nezet-Seguin doesn’t seem to be able to turn things around single-handedly, not that it’s fair to put all that rescue burden on one man’s shoulders.

    Drew remembers, I’m sure, the financial crisis that St. Louis was in several years ago, which was actually much more dire and with a greater short-term danger risk of the orchestra going under compared to Philly’s situation, which seems more slow-drip erosion. Granted, in Q1 2005, there was the nasty labor dispute and work stoppage, but we managed to get through it. I’m not so sure, observing from a distance, that Vulgamore and Worley are really trying their darnedest to fund-raise as much as they can, more in a Spidey-sense gut feeling than with hard numbers on hand (which they’d never tell a little guy like me anyway).

    • My apologies for a delayed reply but I was away over the holiday break. Nonetheless, I think these are all very good observations and provide an excellent opportunity to point out that I tend to avoid the artistic angle on topics like this. Consequently, all of the Dobrin’s MD review content is something mutually exclusive and although a necessary variable in the overall equation, it is mutually exclusive to the business decisions the POA has made over the years that steadily erode their sustainability. Everything from big ticket items like the capital campaign project and the related rental deal to the failed record label. MD’s come and go but an inability to steer clear of bad business decisions (and all of integrated governance issues) will cripple the institution regardless of artistic concerns.

      So for the time being, I’m more than happy to let others examine the artistic items, especially when they do so with such eloquence as is the hallmark of your comments 🙂

  3. I was a subscriber to the orchestra for about a decade up until the bankruptcy when I moved away from Philadelphia.

    It always seemed like management didn’t have a clue how to do basic things like fundraising and marketing, and that continues through today.

    I was rarely asked for money — maybe once a year. Far and away the least aggressive nonprofit I have ever interacted with when it came to fundraising. And, I remember when they put out that big financial recovery plan post-bankruptcy that there was almost nothing in about improving fundraising.

    The marketing was always terrible. They’d send me postcards urging me to buy single tickets to concerts that I had a subscription for. When the attendance started to drop a few years before the bankruptcy they began putting up door hangers on homes about upcoming concerts. And when I go back to visit Philadelphia today I occasionally see billboards on the highway for the orchestra. That kind of advertising only works if you buy up a ton of them, and 99% of the people you’re paying to speak to will never attend a concert (where as if you’re advertising a movie that way, most people are potential ticket buyers). It’s just money down the toilet.

    Starting with the the 1996 strike, every time there was a labor contract negotiation management would very publicly criticize the musicians. There was zero thought and concern about the negative impression it made with patrons. They’d take to the media to accuse the musicians of being greedy and wanting to destroy the orchestra, and a few months later wonder why ticket sales had dropped. And they’d do it over and over again.

    Let me add this as a marketing mistake: The orchestra had no understanding about where people lived in the metro area. In 1950 nearly 2.1 million people lived in Philadelphia. By 1990 is was less than 1.6. Meanwhile, surrounding counties like Montgomery jumped from 350,000 to 700,000, and today is over 800,000. Unless you live as close as Lower Merrion, for example, nobody outside of the city is going to come into it on a weeknight. Maybe they have data that proves me wrong, but I never got why they had so few Sunday afternoon concerts and never any Saturday matinee.

    I don’t know what the situation is like today, but when I was subscribing there weren’t many cheap seats in the house, and the boxes were so expensive that they were always empty. And if a quarter of the house is empty right now, it would obviously appear that they’re completely miss-pricing the house.

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