Toronto Takes Strong Action To Avert Disaster

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) has seen its fair share of rough waters over the past few seasons. In 2015, they endured the Valentina Lisitsa firestorm and 2016 was pockmarked by way of the very public annulment legal battle between former president and CEO, Jeff Melanson, and his estranged wife, Eleanor McCain. According to an article by Martin Knelman in the 5/21/2016 edition of The Toronto Star, all of these high profile problems along with an active music director search contributed to a $12 million deficit.

Adaptistration People 034According to an article by Andrew Willis in the 6/3/16 edition of The Globe and Mail, Melanson’s personal scandal was amplified by what one TSO board representative described as “commitments made by Melanson that were more expensive than anticipated.” Those expenses conspired with a hefty golden parachute expense connected with his departure to put the orchestra’s governance leadership into an extended crisis mode.

Fortunately, the TSO has a plan to ease some of those pressures by selling one of its more valuable assets: a viola (presumably, the 1703 Amati used by TSO principal violist Teng Li). Or to be more precise, they are considering a plan to transfer ownership of the instrument to the Toronto Symphony Foundation, a separate nonprofit institution from the TSO which controls the orchestra’s endowment, in exchange for $4 million, which is equal to the instrument’s most recent valuation.

According to Willis’ report, that would erase most of the expected annual deficit, effectively resetting the TSO’s clock to a time just prior to their losses after Melanson’s tenure.

If this plan materializes, it is a fairly resourceful solution to a problem that typically ends up as a nasty and public labor dispute. Provided all goes according to plan, the TSO’s board could certainly use the momentum to make badly needed bridge funding headway as well as make the institution more attractive to potential music director and executive candidates.

Time will tell.

It’s Not All Doom And Gloom

If nothing else, the heavy governance drama doesn’t appear to be setting too much of a tone for artistic creativity. Case in point, the TSO’s listening guide, a visual representation designed to be read before and during the respective piece’s performance.

Mark Sinclair wrote a wonderfully detailed overview of the entire program for and since then, it has been garnering a great deal of attention. I highly recommend taking the time out of your day to give Sinclair’s article a read.

TSO percussionist Chester Englander's recent tweet about the guide.
TSO percussionist Chester Englander’s recent tweet about the guide.

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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