Define That: Total Fiscal Transparency

There’s a fascinating article by Charles T. Downey in the 8/12/19 edition of Washington Classical Review that examines the ongoing Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) lockout.

Downey suggests that in order for the organization to maintain artistic integrity while addressing existing economic conditions, the BSO’s executive leadership must “establish total financial transparency.”

That’s a superb suggestion and one that has certainly assisted with not only resolving pending labor disputes (Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) but helping bring them to a close after going public (Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute).

But there’s far more than the devil lurking in the details. For instance, Downey provides the following overview of what total financial transparency would include:

One of the most important steps that BSO leadership can take would be to establish total financial transparency. The BSO should make all financial documents and the entire budget—including complete assets and expenses—available to the musicians and to the public. Everyone needs to see for themselves what the burdens are, in order to be on the same page.

Adaptistration People 175

This is a great start. But even something that seems far reaching in its definition falls short in practical application. In the BSO’s case, there’s the complex and less than transparent relationship it maintains with the foundation that oversees the funds from selling off their largest asset at the time, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Offloading ownership of endowments is a great way to obfuscate strategic decision making. And while there are certainly good reasons to offload endowment ownership, it’s more common to see it functioning in similar capacity to someone hiding funds from their spouse’s divorce lawyer so they don’t have share it in the settlement.

In order for fiscal transparency to work, it requires independent oversight and accountability. In the BSO’s case, that would include all communication with the organization that owns and manages the endowment and implementing similar transparency activity there.

I don’t see that happening anytime soon at the BSO, but I wholeheartedly support Downey’s notion that it should function as a cornerstone of ongoing stability.

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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