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December 2, 2007

JSO Board Needs to Do Its Damn Job

John Stoehr

This is a big weekend in Jacksonville. The administration for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra has said a previously scheduled production of The Nutcracker with the First Coast Ballet will go on even though the orchestra's management locked out its musicians three weeks ago. JSO musicians have gone without paychecks since then.

Drew McManus, an expert on orchestral management and host of Adaptistration, has been tracking the developments as well as doing original reporting on the situation. Today, he reports that a mediator has been brought in to broker an agreement between management and the musicians' union representatives.

That meeting, McManus writes, is set to take place Friday at noon. (Read more on the background of the lock-out here, here, here and here.)

Traditionally, the Jacksonville Sympphony has produced The Nutcracker using live music by the JSO musicians (and it has been marketed as such every year), but Alan Hopper, the executive director of the orchestra, said publicly that the show will go on even if they have to use recorded music. JSO musicians on have threaten to picket the this weekend's performances if they cannot reach a settlement before the weekend.

Some background
The old labor contract in Jacksonville expired in August. Negotiations for a new one started in September. Until a new contact was ratified, musicians decided to continue playing under the terms of the old agreement with no intention of going on strike. In lieu of guarantees, they would keep performing.

When the proposed contract was offered three weekends ago, musicians felt the terms were not in their favor. The proposed contract asked them in effect to take a pay cut (in the form of reduced pension contributions and less pay for part-time players) even though they had already taken pay cuts in 2002 and 2004 with the understanding that they were giving management the breathing room it needed to make necessary financial changes.

Management, meanwhile, said the orchestra's deficit is too big ($3 million). To meet yearly financial goals (i.e., cleaning up red ink), management said there was no choice for the musicians but to accept terms of this new five-year agreement. And they weren't going to take no for an answer: The proposed contract was "the last, best and final offer," according to McManus, who interviewed Hopper, the orchestra's executive director.

Some analysis
I don't know much about the internal mechanics of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. So should not comment on its organizational attitudes, infrastructure issues, or civic ideology. I do know, however, that similar developments occurred along similar themes and issues with the Savannah Symphony. In 2003, the Savannah Symphony was among five orchestras nationwide to have work stoppages, labor disputes, or financial woes that led to bankruptcy. But it was the only one that did not come back over the next few years.

I was living as a cultural journalist in Savannah during the time of the orchestra's demise. I saw firsthand what happened, but only understood what happened with the passing of time. And what I came to understand in Savannah is what I sense is happening in Jacksonville. That is, an attitude, a dangerous and perhaps ubiquitous attitude, among board members and key positions in the JSO's administration toward the orchestra's musicians.

Remember: The musicians had already committed to playing. On the Tuesday after negotiations stalled, however, they found the doors to the concert hall locked. There would be no rehearsals that day or the immediate future. Later, management announced it had canceled the following weekend's concerts, and the next weekend after that, and that future concerts were to be decided on a weekly basis.

As Matthew Westphal noted in PlayBillArts on Nov. 19, it's unusual for an orchestra's management to cancel concerts if the musicians have not gone on strike. The implication here is that if the management locks out its musicians, it's forcing their hand in contract negotiations. In other words, if you want to work, take the offer. If you don't take the offer, you can go without a pay check and we'll see how long you wait to change your mind.

As I said, even though musicians were willing to play, management locked them out and canceled concerts. Surely for political reasons, both Hopper and Jim Van Vleck, chairman of the board, went to great pains not to appear like they were not pushing to musicians to make a decision. Hopper and Van Vleck told Jacksonville reporters that musicians had not gone on strike and they were not being locked out, even though they were -- literally.

So the lock out seems to be the board and JSO management's strategy for getting the musicians to accept the new deal. But even if they succeed, there's still something rotten in Jacksonville. And that still might threaten the future and future credibility of the organization. Unsavory as the lock out is to impartial observers, the framework of the rationale behind the strategy is even more so.

Some shit talk
Van Vleck said musicians were asking for too much. He told reporters that if JSO musicians wanted to keep the orchestra going, they'd need to concede.

"I really do respect our musicians," he told the Florida Times-Union, "but there's something about a 37-week year and 20 hours a week that doesn't seem too onerous."

This "onerous" comment suggests he doesn't understand the lives of professional musicians and doesn't understand nonprofits. Worse, he doesn't fundamentally value what musicians do. It's an attitude that can, once it becomes rooted, damage an orchestra or undermine the value of having one at all.

If that statement wasn't bad enough, Van Vleck expounded on his point of view in an op-ed piece on Nov. 16 in the Times-Union called "New Realities Require Change." In it, he says that the amount of money it takes to pay musicians is larger than the amount of money generated by the symphony.

As a result, operating deficits have occurred in eight of the last 10 years and maintaining the contract at the current level continues to produce significant deficits in the future.

This is utter nonsense. If an orchestra's board can't raise the money it needs to pay its musicians, it's not doing enough fund-raising. That's the bottom line.

There are no new realities. This is what board do for arts nonprofits -- raise money.

If you don't like it, don't serve on the board. The arts don't pay for themselves. Tickets sales, everyone knows, don't pay for the cost of producing concerts or theater productions or dance ensembles. You fill in the difference with contributed income, do your best with earned incomes, and hope by fiscal year's end that your income-expense balance is zero.

That's the reality, a reality Van Vleck and others, one presumes, don't get. And they don't get it, because they don't see the value of what the orchestra is and what the orchestra's musicians do for the board, for the organization and for the city. If they did, they wouldn't be locking out musicians over pennies. They'd get cracking on paying off that debt.

Re-posted from Charleston City Paper's Unscripted.

Read comments to this post here and here.

1. Barbara Ames
Posted November 30, 2007 at 8:43 am | Permalink

Great commentary! The fault ".......does not lay in the stars, but in ourselves.....". It's the Board's responsibility and if you don't understand that musicians are not factory workers, then you shouldn't be on the board of the symphony nor of any other artistic endeavor. Let's get Board members who understand and settle this before it's too late. The damage is still reparable, but not for much longer!

2. Bill Jackman
Posted November 30, 2007 at 9:03 am | Permalink

I am a member of the JSO Chorus. The players rejected a bad contract because manangement tried to take money away from them.

But the real reason the first weekend of concerts were cancelled was not because of the players rejecting the contract. The next weekend after we did the 9th was supposed to be "The Music Man" featuring actors from a local dinner theater. The problem was that the dinner theater actors were having horrible rehearsals. It was clear to everyone attending the rehearsals from the Orchestra and the Chorus that the Actors would not be ready in time. So, the management used the contract rejection as an excuse to postpone the concerts. This was to avoid embarassing the Dinner Theater owner who is very popular in town.

That is why they only proposed the lockout until the next week's rehearsals were scheduled to start. The players then went public, so everything broke down.

3. Alex Weinsztok
Posted November 30, 2007 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

Very good and fair article.

It is unfortunate that the JSO management and board has decided that their proposal should be a "take it or leave it".

Are the board members considering picking up the instruments and playing themselves?

An orchestra can function with different manegements and boards. It cannot function, though, without musicians.

The musicians make the orchestra...they are the orchestra.

As a patron and contributor of the JSO for the past 10 years, we have seen a steady improvement in the quality of the musicians and indeed of the orchestra as a whole.

It is very unfortunate that the actual board and management has decided that they are willing to forego music and culture in Jacksonville because of their own inability to do what is mandated from them: create the funds to support music and culture in the city.

We have seen both the Savannah and South Florida areas going through the same situations and they both ended up without orchestras.

I guess the board's point is that if there is no orchestra there are no expenses, thus there is no deficit.

I can see some of our best musicians starting to consider either moving to other areas (where they will be quite welcomed) or leaving the music scene altogether. And I don't see good musicians deciding to come to Jacksonville, considering the negative and unstable labor situation at the JSO.

We fully support our musicians. Cannot say the same thing about the management and the board, which has asked us to donate the amount of the tickets from the cancelled functions to the JSO.

Mayor John Payton, who is seen in lots of pictures in the JSO program when things go great, has been very absent and has not shown what we consider should be great leadership in getting things resolved. All we need to take care of the deficit is for his and his father's company (Gates Petroleum) to put a few extra bucks. We all know that with the gasoline at $ 3.00 per gallon they could afford it.

Let's hope for a prompt resolution. If this goes too much further the damage will be too big to fix it.

4. margaret koscieny
Posted November 30, 2007 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

Great post! If only the Times-Union in Jacksonville would present the side of the musicians in its coverage of the "impasse,"a word which does not describe the real arbitrariness of the Board in shutting out the musicians, but is used, erroneously, to make the musicians look bad. The fact that the publisher's wife sits on the board might influence the weight of the editorial page towards the board's point of view, although this is not known for a fact, it does create a questionable relationship if the newspaper doesn't report, fully, the musician's story. So far, the greatest support for the orchestra has been in letters to the editor. However, the art community of Jacksonville is used to high handed treatment by ignorant lay persons in charge of their institutions. One longs for enlightened, educated people with a sophisticated experience of arts to become the leaders of its arts institutions, instead of politicians and developers and lawyers who have not generally "swum" in musical or artistic "waters."

5. jin pena
Posted November 30, 2007 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

great article!!!

Thank you!!

6. Samuel Thompson
Posted December 1, 2007 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

This is a most enlightening and informative article, and I thank you not only for writing it but particularly for including this:

"Van Vleck said musicians were asking for too much. He told reporters that if JSO musicians wanted to keep the orchestra going, they'd need to concede.

"I really do respect our musicians," he told the Florida Times-Union, "but there's something about a 37-week year and 20 hours a week that doesn't seem too onerous."

This "onerous" comment suggests he doesn't understand the lives of professional musicians and doesn't understand nonprofits. Worse, he doesn't fundamentally value what musicians do. It's an attitude that can, once it becomes rooted, damage an orchestra or undermine the value of having one at all.

Having worked as both an orchestral musician and an administrator, I do understand the conundrum, that being that many "businesspeople" do find themselves focusing on the bottom line. It has become clear, however, that the focus on the bottom line - that being the financial aspects involved in the operation of an orchestra - seems to go hand in hand with the sad fact that many of today's board members lack a true understanding of the orchestral musician's lot: not only does it take countless hours to prepare an orchestral audition, but much of the musician's "job" - keeping his technical facility at the highest level possible - happens outside of the twenty-hour "in the workplace" week.

Maybe those who select board members should create a real interview process wherein the potential board member - or administrator - should be asked questions that lead to his understanding of a musicians' life.

Posted by John Stoehr at December 2, 2007 12:07 PM