The Pandemic’s Impact On Us Vs. Them Syndrome

There’s a fascinating article in the 10/26/21 edition of the Pittsburgh-Gazette by Jeremy Reynolds that examines the impact vaccination mandates are having on Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) musicians.

Like many nonprofit performing arts organizations, the PSO adopted vaccination requirements for all artist employees and Reynolds’ article dives into some of the resulting conflict among some musicians refusing to be vaccinated.

The article does an excellent job at making clear the requirement was negotiated with all of the PSO’s unions but the real hook here is the way the article references the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO).

“The Dallas Symphony Orchestra has had 100% of its musicians choose to vaccinate. The orchestra began performing with reduced numbers of musicians and smaller audiences in 2020. CEO Kim Noltemy said that a rigorous daily testing regimen helped convince employees and listeners that the organization was prioritizing safety. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted more than 20,000 daily COVID-19 tests during the 2020-21 season.”

Reynolds’ does an excellent job at taking a deeper dive into the point about how the DSO decision to continue artistic activity over the pandemic managed to build consensus and trust.

Simply put, working through challenges together contributed to the DSO’s ability to sidestep the sort of us vs. them syndrome popping up at other orchestras that shut down or conducted limited activity. The latter groups seem to be experiencing higher rates of minority dissention among artist employees, like the PSO musicians reported in Reynolds’ article. In more extreme cases, like the Chattanooga Symphony, a minority of musicians openly protesting mandates and the employer’s process that resulted in policy is gathering local news attention.

Yet, groups that followed the DSO’s path appear to have little to no issues.

This is based on my own conversations with board members, managers, and musicians along with observational knowledge but there’s more than enough there to justify a formal study.

Having said that, I would be surprised to see anything materialize because there’s no way to really examine the issue without identifying groups that demonstrate why shutting down missed the boat on this unique collaboration process. And if this field is good at anything, it does a bang-up job at avoiding anything that might be construed as a counterproductive decision.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to see just how much good can come about stakeholders have reason to come together behind a singular vision. Perhaps the key variable here is the vision was beyond the control of any one stakeholder.

If nothing else, there’s plenty here to consider.

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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