New Paradigm?

Possibly. But last week’s news from my own orchestra was certainly a shock to anyone familiar with traditional arts management dogma. As my colleague Robert Levine has noted, this isn’t exactly new thinking, although it may be the first time a major orchestra has rather abruptly propelled one of its musicians into the CEO position. The amazing thing to me is that it happened at all, given the current industry climate.

At this very moment, musicians in Indianapolis, Atlanta, the Twin Cities, Jacksonville, and a few other places are all facing the same mindset in one form or another: draconian management and/or board proposals that will dramatically affect the institutions (and communities themselves) in ways that those managements and boards most likely do not comprehend. Often in barely concealed contempt for the musicians, we continue to see attitudes and ideas that (if implemented) could rapidly erase decades of effort and dedication. Along with high artistic standards and goals, the matching importance of quality management, board participation and governance, and intelligent development strategies seems to hardly merit discussion- it’s much more expedient to penalize the musicians that have shown up every day and done their jobs.

So how is it possible that our own board would even consider the idea of a musician running the place? One factor would be that for years now we’ve had an unusual circumstance: musicians are involved in virtually every aspect of the organization (including serving on the board), and generally positive musician/management relations even through some pretty tough times. When the whispers of this idea started to take shape, the first reactions were widespread disbelief and skepticism (from everyone, including Mark Niehaus). But after everyone got in the weeds a little and really thought it through, it didn’t seem like such a crazy idea after all.

Consider that for a new CEO, the search aspect alone is onerous: maybe 12 months out of everyone’s life slogging through a pretty thin talent pool (or maybe longer- ask someone in Dallas or New York ). Then another few months while the new person gets up to speed, then maybe it’ll all work out and that individual will somehow possess the incredibly complex and rare skill set required to be an effective orchestra CEO. With a fair amount of momentum artistically and otherwise, we just didn’t have that kind of time, and we’d been through all that just two years ago. But we did have a musician who had repeatedly demonstrated that he might have the necessary skills for that role, and those skills did not go unnoticed by either our board chair or Music Director.┬áPlus Mark was an MSO veteran, chair of the Player’s Council, a gifted public cheerleader for the institution, and (along with myself) a musician rep on the board. He knows the whole organization (and cultural pulse of the city) inside out.

Does it matter that Mark has no management experience beyond a few years with the Cub Scouts? Of course, although I would argue that the Cub Scouts have much more in common with orchestras than most people realize. Were there other drawbacks or potential deal-breakers? Absolutely. But to their credit, our board leadership did something we always ask for but is all too rare these days: they acted like authentic stakeholders. They took decisive, innovative action and rigorously examined a truly novel idea, and after a pretty comprehensive interview process and assessment, they hired him.

Obviously there are no guarantees, and there’s always a chance the whole thing will blow up at some point for various reasons. I guess then we could do a search and Mark could go back to his horn. But I’ve seen my share of orchestra managers, some spectacular and brilliant, many more that were not. I’ve met very few musicians with the skill set I mentioned earlier, and I believe Mark is one of them. I hope and expect that he will succeed, not just for the sake of an orchestra and community I am deeply fond of, but for the industry as a whole.


2 thoughts on “New Paradigm?”

  1. There actually is a (splendid) precedent — 20 or 30 years ago the London
    Symphony was going through a bad patch, and one of the principals took
    over, with the orchestra going from strength to strength ever since…

  2. Thanks for this, Frank. I think a lot of us were wondering what the musicians felt about this and are relieved and glad to hear your approval and the orchestra’s support. Really interesting analysis of the usual process and how onerous it is. We out in the audience are all rooting for this working — to everyone’s benefit, knowing there has to be some rocky transition from musician to management.


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