Gelb’s Puzzling Threshold For “Best Relationships”

The Associated Press published an article on 1/28/2021 by Ronald Blum that examines The Metropolitan Opera’s finances. Nutshell: they saw the same drop in earned income other groups are experiencing but offset that in part by increased unearned income.

In and of itself, there’s nothing remarkable there but what should catch your eye is the spin Met general manager Peter Gelb put on that story.

“The good news is that we’ve managed to maintain the best relationship with our donors and our audiences through our nightly streams to our pay-per-view concerts for a period of almost a year now without performances.”

Regarding the nightly streaming offering Gelb referenced as a strength, it’s an odd item to source as pretense for positive donor relations. On 1/21/2021 we examined the quantity and intensity of negative comments on The Met’s Facebook wall to their archived recording announcements. That vitriol has remained consistent to this day.

It’s difficult to believe Gelb wouldn’t be aware of what would otherwise be a major source of PR heartburn for a nonprofit performing arts organization but the decision to spin that into some sort of support story only risks making a bad situation worse. Intentionally antagonizing the artists and technicians who actually made those streams available projects an image of an executive leadership team comfortable crushing the very people responsible for creating the product that is supposedly inspiring increased donations.

If that weren’t enough, the AP article confirms Gelb is exploring hiring replacement workers for the union employees currently locked out.

It has used nonunion musicians for its streamed concerts from Europe, angering the union of its orchestra, local 802 of American Federation of Musicians. The Met last month locked out its stagehands in Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees because it has been unable to negotiate wage cuts during the pandemic. Gelb said the Met is exploring the use of outside workers to start construction of sets for next season’s new productions.

When asked about the decision to hire non-union musicians instead of using musicians from their own orchestra for fundraising events, Gelb split hairs by saying fundraisers aren’t opera concerts, so it’s no big deal.

“We’ve hired a couple of musicians for these pay-per-view events in Europe to enhance the experience for the audience of what are basically vocal recitals, they’re not orchestral concerts.”

It’s one thing to adopt an Antoinettesque approach to stakeholders, it’s something entirely different to weaponize it. The longer the Met’s board allows the organization to walk down this path, the more costly it will be to retrace those steps and move toward a better future.

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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