A Matter Of Governance At The Grand Teton Music Festival

Shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday, a public relations disaster started brewing at the Grand Teton Music Festival (GTMF).

In a nutshell, the festival’s President and CEO, Andrew Palmer Todd, decided to fire a trio of long-time musicians for non-artistic reasons. The decision has been met with an enormous amount of dissatisfaction from festival musicians, patrons, and donors. That discontent quickly snowballed into a host of local, national, and international news outlets picking up the story.

Things reached fever pitch on 11/29/19 when the Jackson Hole News & Guide published an article by Billy Arnold that reports a letter written by GTMF music director Donald Runnicles to the Board of Directors stating the likelihood of his not returning if the musicians were not reinstated.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” [Runnicles] wrote, “as it currently stands, without an orchestra in 2020, without strong board leadership, without an imminent resolution, it is well nigh impossible for me to imagine my role at the helm of the 2020 Grand Teton Music Festival.”

While the specifics regarding the dismissed musicians are a fascinating topic, it takes a back seat to a much larger question of governance the GTMF board will be forced to address. According to the article, the decision by Todd to dismiss the musicians was presented to the board’s executive committee as though it had the music director’s support, but that was apparently not the case (emphasis added).

In the letter, Runnicles said the executive committee had been told he supported the action [to dismiss the musicians], though he had spent five weeks communicating his “full-throated opposition” to President and CEO Andrew Palmer Todd and Board Chair Christine Hartley.

Assuming the report is accurate, there’s only one question the GTMF board needs to examine: did the GTMF’s board chair and President and CEO willfully misrepresent the music director’s position on a personnel matter in order to deliberately mislead the executive committee?

If this were only the President and CEO, it would be more straightforward for the full board to evaluate records, investigate, and deliberate options based on the outcome of those efforts.

If the Board chair was involved to an equal degree, things become increasingly complicated. If any potential misconduct was limited to the President and CEO, the full board will have a much easier time saving face and determining if actions were intentional or unintentional.

A Growing Problem

In order for a board to make informed decisions and act as dutiful stewards of public trust, they have to trust that the information they receive for key members of executive leadership are accurate and complete.

There’s an enormous amount of faith placed in that simple concept.

But short of routine efforts that randomly spot-check the accuracy of information, there’s no way for a board to know if they should be questioning their frame of reference until something goes very, very wrong.

Sadly, I can say that throughout the course of my consulting career I’ve seen a string of executive leaders abuse their position of information gatekeeper. In some cases, it is as slight as selectively withholding key pieces of information or performing less than comprehensive investigations. While more extreme cases include outright fabrications and misrepresentations.

Fortunately, it isn’t the norm, but it still happens more often than it should and in instances where it does, it often goes unchecked.

In the GTMF’s case, given the degree of public scrutiny that’s transpired to date, sweeping things under the rug won’t be an option without risking considerable institutional harm.

Given the potential for personalities to drive the debate, things could quickly escalate to lawsuits and if so, the last thing a board of directors wants are depositions that uncover information they should have been able to discover via internal investigation…but didn’t.

Moving Forward

For the GTMF board members, there will be no shortage of pressure to focus on the avalanche of attention surrounding the dismissals.

But in the end, if Runnicles’ position on this issue was intentionally falsified by one or more members of the executive leadership team, it will be in the organization’s best interest to conduct an independent investigation, free of influence from executive decision makers, to determine if any intentional or unintentional misrepresentations occurred.

Given what’s been reported, it shouldn’t take long to conduct interviews, research written communication, and provide the board with a report.

If it is determined that inadmissible information was intentionally inserted into the decision-making process, then the board can determine the degree of that malfeasance and take appropriate action to protect the interests of the institution and execute accountability.

Disclaimer: My wife, violinist Holly Mulcahy, has been a member of the GTMF orchestra for nearly two decades. I maintain no professional relationships with any individuals or organizations involved in these matters.

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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