Here we go chasing our tails from Detroit to Duluth…..

There is always a hyperventilating that takes place when the so called “model” is challenged and why is it that Orchestras live in the extreme?  When there are problems everything an orchestra does has to change, and when there are not, let’s spend spend spend,  and ignore any impending problems.  I cannot over emphasize enough that spending whenever we do it is never the answer, we would be all well served re-reading the Knight Foundation Magic of Music report (linked below).  What is the answer?….

Well I would be arrogant to suggest that I have it, however just like Music itself, nuance can make a difference, perception is important and most of all the four things that I believe need to be at the foundation of any organization are motivation, leadership, openness  and sincerity!

Firstly, between 1994  and 2004 The Knight Foundation threw $13million at several orchestras and this was their justification:

After decades of growth, the field was experiencing financial crises that appeared to be symptomatic of larger problems. Knight’s program attempted to tackle those problems head-on.

Umm is this sounding painfully familiar?  Reading the report is well worth the time before we decide that throwing money and innovation at the problem is the answer.  The orchestras involved all implemented innovative programming with the money, and dismal failure doesn’t even begin to describe it!  Look where we are now, in exactly the same place!  What did they find out from this experiment? In the opening paragraph:

Funding aimed at fostering transformational change during times of crisis will inevitably be diverted to short-term fixes. It also became clear that without strong unified leadership from all segments of an orchestra’s family – music director, musicians, board and executive leadership – change is unlikely. Such unified leadership becomes more difficult when organizations are under great stress.

HELLO!!!!!! So what are the recommendations out there now, of course let’s innovate, and change everything.  This is the wrong time to completely write off everything we are doing, that would be the equivalent of chasing our tails.  I would say $13million down the drain is pretty good quantifiable evidence to prove that!  What is being suggested everywhere it seems, is an external change i.e how we want the world to see us.   The focus should be on internal change so that we make what we do successful, not change everything and toss out why people have been donating to us and patronizing us all along!  That shows lack of sincerity and a lack of belief in ourselves e.g it always irks me when a fast food place says ‘now made with fresh chicken” so what were we eating before?

Similarly just simply throwing musicians out there into classrooms as the answer in a time of crisis is so insincere potentially causing people to be skeptical i.e so why were they not always doing that?  We should not do it  just to try and save ourselves but as part of an organizational push to present a unified vision of how the orchestra can best serve its community not just for now but for the future.  This is where nuance comes in, because the vision should be formulated WITH the groups we wish to serve, not FOR them.  That way we bring them on as our advocates and let’s face we all need “a little help from our friends” especially now!  It needs to be programming and change that OUR community needs, not the programming and change that works for another orchestra in a different state i.e the so called magic formula.

The engineers who build a foundation for an actual building need to take into account the properties of the earth below it for it to be structurally sound and not topple over, just like the foundation for any orchestra needs to take into account the properties of the community to be sustainable.  Buildings may look the same, because they serve similar purposes, but they cannot be built exactly the same way, there are nuanced differences sometimes undetectable but totally necessary.  This is true for orchestras too.  That is why there needs to be an internal shift to make the foundation (people, vision and finances) more secure before any implementation, or the building (orchestra) is in danger of collapsing.

We can’t just use innovation as the answer, because more often than not it is a gamble that doesn’t pay off (re read the report if you don’t believe me).  Instead we need work to maximize what we have now and make unified decisions by not just blindly sticking to a hard fast and inflexible plan, but instead create a plan with multiple scenarios, stop gaps, outcomes and REALISTIC GOALS…I mean if your plan includes selling out every concert, and finding 5 new $1million dollar donors you are not being realistic and it’s a total cop out.  Most importantly it is true leadership when we involve and are open to all stake holders in the organization and the public too (the real stakeholders of the community), and any concessions that need to be considered should be brought up as a discussion, not brought down like a hammer!

We don’t need fix what we are until we fix who we are.

1 thought on “Here we go chasing our tails from Detroit to Duluth…..”

  1. Ron

    I believe the “who” and “what” we “are”, are pretty “set in stone” concepts. You are either an orchestra…or not. It’s hard to be anything other than “who” you are….unless we apply fiction to the equation.

    A couple of observations and questions:
    1. 13 million bucks isn’t a lot of money to throw at even one major orchestra. “Innovation” is great….but the objectives seemed vague. “Who” and “What”, in this case, don’t seem to be the components necessary to make those objectives less vague.
    2. Why have people been donating to symphony orchestras? List the reasons in order of dollar amount. It would help to also have that broken down per person/dollar amount and look carefully at the motivation. I’ll be in the case of big donors….it doesn’t have much to do with programming. ;-) Orchestras with programs not meeting the popularity contest criteria don’t need a lot of complicated/expensive studies to figure it out. This part of the equation is seen/felt/reflected very quickly by “investors” buying tickets. Those folks may not have a lot invested individually…but they do easily tell the story about programming. If music director/managment are paying attention…this problem can be fixed over night. If the board rejects that fix….tell them they will have to make up the difference in ticket sales loss…out of their own pocket. :-)
    3. Which takes me to the third observation. I’ve been on many negotiation committees, representing the players side of the effort. It’s clear…if you go to the “engineering/foundation” work you referred to….that the three basic elements (artists/managment/board) in the business end of the symphonic orchestra…do NOT have the same objectives. It would be nice if they did….but it does not seem possible…and is certainly the reason we see so many orchestra failures in recent years. Perhaps those raising the money, the board (their job)….can add the word “how”…so that the “who” and “what” parts complete properly. One simple arts group example:
    The Texas Ballet Theater is constantly promoting itself as a “world class” organization….yet has no orchestra in the pit. “Who” and “what” kind of large budget (6 million a year) arts organization, requiring an orchestra to perform the art as created…..uses CD/taped music for their performanances….and calls it “world class”? Managment, top artistic director are over paid….and the board has a lot of nice parties. Ticket sales…not so great. Artistic effort….really poor. Board members…happy as a hog in an acorn patch. Managment and artistic director…cashing in while they can.
    Different objectives. Destructive in the long term.

    Ok…enough wandering. Thanks for your post and observations.


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