Columbus’ Last Voyage?

It is not necessary to understand things in order to argue about them.

-Pierre Beaumarchais

I’ve been avoiding writing about Columbus because unless I’m directly involved in a situation like this one, I’ve found that I usually don’t have enough of an understanding of the specifics to say anything meaningful. Plus there are already lots of people out there writing really well about it (exception: the Columbus Dispatch).

But there’s one personal angle I have that I wanted to throw out there. In 2005, the Milwaukee Symphony was in big trouble financially and otherwise; in my opinion we were in a lot worse shape than Columbus is today, for some of the same reasons. We had a negotiation coming up with a relatively new management team, and lots of dire predictions were getting discussed.

I specifically remember some conversations with long-standing Board members who attempted some of the same silly arguments we’ve heard from the Columbus Board:

The community won’t support an orchestra of this size.

Our donors are tapped out.

The musicians don’t understand the complexities of the situation, and they all work “part time” as it is.

This orchestra is good enough for a city of our size, and nobody knows the difference anyway (my favorite).

Our management in the negotiations proposed some draconian approaches, although nothing compared to what was put forth in Columbus. After a stalemate that got down to the last second, a third party was mutually agreed upon to try and resolve the impasse. In a very short time we had a four-year contract. The sacrifices were shared all around; we are still feeling them, and they have not been easy. And we are by no means out of the financial woods. My point is that because of some key differences between this and the Columbus debacle, we found a solution that was certainly not perfect, but allowed the orchestra to continue and even flourish in certain ways; things are actually looking pretty good for the MSO right now, a few short years later.

Here are three critical elements that distinguished the MSO episode from the current situation in Columbus:
– The musicians and the management of the MSO both had a common goal: to come to an agreement in good faith that would somehow address the major obstacles and allow the orchestra to continue in roughly its same incarnation. Behavior and negotiating tactics on both sides reflected this. Sadly, this is not the case in Columbus, where constantly irresponsible actions and business decisions by the management and (in particular) the Board seem to convey an intention to shut it down no matter what ideas are proposed by the musicians and their counsel. Specifically egregious have been the shameful (and often spectacularly misinformed) actions and statements of Mr. “Buzz” Trafford, the Columbus Board Chair. Not far behind is Executive Director Tony Beadle, who seems to have very little creative thinking to offer, and continues to demonstrate his allegiance to the Board even if it means destroying the organization itself. In my view, a more intuitive and astute Executive Director would have never brought such a suicidal proposal to the musicians in the first place (detailed here in the New York Times). For a highly detailed and informed analysis, go here to Robert Levine’s blog.

– In Milwaukee, we didn’t have press issues while we were negotiating. From the beginning, both sides agreed to a blackout, and stuck with it. This in contrast to Columbus, where the Dispatch has consistently and enthusiastically printed slanted and woefully inaccurate articles and editorials that basically parrot the positions of Mr. Trafford and the Board, who presumably are leaking to the newspaper whenever they see fit. Drew McManus goes over this and other Columbus-related topics in some detail on his blog. Pay particular attention to his discussion regarding the brilliant idea of refusing to sell subscriptions for 08-09, which is just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen proposed by an orchestra management (and that is saying a lot).

– When things reached an impasse at the MSO, we brought in a mutually agreed mediator to help out; in our case it was the eminent arts consultant Peter Pastreich, the former Executive Director of the San Francisco Symphony. My feeling is that we would not have come to an agreement without him, and that he offered fresh insight to both sides at a critical time during the talks. He also stayed involved with the MSO in a consulting role for another year. When things got bad in Columbus, the idea of a third party was flatly rejected by the Board (just before they needlessly canceled the popular summer season). The musicians recently presented the idea again; so far there’s no commitment from the Board to go that route, even if it’s non-binding. Why not? What is there to lose? The orchestra?

There are other differences that were certainly situational, but the three above are the starkest examples I could think of, illustrating a fundamental difference in mindset by the management and Board of the Columbus Symphony. Their actions simply do not indicate that they really believe the orchestra is worth saving, and how do you negotiate with that? How do you have a productive exchange with people who think they are selling widgets, and don’t bother to learn the peculiarities of business models used by successful orchestras (and other arts institutions)?

Today is June 2, so maybe it’s too late (it is, according to “Buzz”, but apparently he thought it was too late back in November). If the orchestra soon ceases operations (as promised by “Buzz” and Mr. Beadle), then the toll will indeed be catastrophic, and not just for the musicians who have essentially been swindled because of bad management at the CSO. The city of Columbus will experience dramatic fallout both economically and culturally, and the effects will not simply disappear in a year or two. History has shown that there is no way to dramatically cut your way to success in the orchestra business, but there are plenty of examples of self-inflicted “symphonicide” (to use Robert Levine’s term). Most organizations took many years to regroup to even a rudimentary state (if they came back at all). And of course dumping your city’s greatest cultural asset for questionable reasons isn’t exactly great for civic pride (or attracting new business to a community).

If it isn’t too late for Columbus, then it’s time for a seasoned and informed third party to intervene, preferably with a binding role. And if it is too late, it should be noted that contrary to what their Board and management keep repeating, this was not the only possible outcome. It’s just the one they chose unilaterally.

1 thought on “Columbus’ Last Voyage?”

  1. Mr. Almond,

    Very well put! Thanks for sharing about a similar situation. We pray everyone will learn from it.


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