The Music Director Search: Resisting Donor Pressure is Essential

You might think that this only happens in bad fiction, but in the past year alone I have encountered it in real life a handful of times. A small or mid-sized orchestra is in a music director search, and someone, either a board member or a major donor, makes one of the following offers:
"If you hire XXX, I'll donate enough to cover his salary for the next three years."

"I'm not asking you to hire XXX, but if you at least make her one of the finalists, I'll donate a significant amount of money over and above what I've been contributing."

The obvious answer, one would suppose, should always be "no."  But it isn't so obvious to an orchestra that is struggling to keep operating with a balanced budget. Orchestras often agonize over whether to accede to one of the above "suggestions" from a donor. And they might justify it, particularly in the second instance, by saying "well, we're not guaranteeing to engage her, only to bring her in as one of the finalists."  No. No. No. A thousand times No.

Small and mid-sized orchestras are now getting between 150 and 300 applicants for the position of music director--my goodness, there are a lot of conductors out there--and winnowing that list down to the four, five, six, or even ten "finalists" you will actually bring in to guest conduct the orchestra is a painstaking job, and a crucially important one.  To give one of those slots away to a conductor that you otherwise would not have made a finalist is to waste a valuable opportunity to see a candidate who just might be the right one.  

In my opinion, if a board member makes such an attempt to influence a music director search, he should not only be refused, but should be invited to leave the board. It is irresponsible governance in the extreme, and attempting to influence such an important decision with the power of one's money is nothing other than bribery.  I know that may sound harsh--but in fact, it is virtually a dictionary definition of the term.

In a recent conversation I had with an orchestra board member about a situation like this, he asked what I would say if the donor offered a million dollars. (This was a small orchestra, with an annual budget of perhaps $1 or $2 million.)  I fear I succumbed to the temptation of falling back on a joke that I recall from my high school days (probably much earlier).  A guy sitting next to an attractive lady at a bar strikes up a conversation, and then asks "If I give you a million dollars, will you sleep with me tonight?"  She pauses, thinks a bit, and says "Just one night--one million dollars?" "Yup," he says, "just one night--one million dollars, and then I'll be out of your life forever."  "Well," she says, "that's a lot of money, so I guess I will."  He then says "Well, I don't have a million dollars, so what about $50?"  "What do you think I am?" she screams.  He answers, "We've already established that. Now we're just negotiating the price."

Almost nothing is as important to an orchestra as its music director search. The outcome will be central to what that orchestra is, artistically, for years to come.  The search process cannot and must not be influenced by factors beyond who is most qualified to meet the requirements that the orchestra has laid out for the position.  People who try to affect the outcome with the weight of their dollars should be ashamed, and should be turned away in no uncertain terms.

June 5, 2009 11:20 AM | | Comments (1)

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-as a patron of classical music concerts, my comment is this: if the board knew what the mission was to begin with- they wouldn't be considering the so called "bribe"!. Finding the MD is not about how much money a donor will give you, or about balancing the budget. It's about the music!!! Whether small or mid-size orchestra, I would think the musicians should play a HUGE part in the selection of the MD. The board should consider the concert going community- like who would be dynamic, personable, willing to sign autographs at fundraisers- someone who cares about the community that they are a part of, etc. And then consider who attends their concerts?, how do you attract more attendees? If a large % of your revenue comes from ticket sales then I'd focus on how to make the attendees happy and not worry so much about a "major" donor. The mission of an orchestra is not to balance the budget- it's WAY beyond that- but for some reason, the current economy? although I don't really see the relation- everyone is on a budget crunch mindset. The leaders of the American Symphony Orchestra need to speak out more about what the mission of the orchestra is rather than what everybody is not supposed to be doing so we can all get back to the grassroots of how Art enriches our lives and start enjoying it more!!!!!!

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This page contains a single entry by on the record published on June 5, 2009 11:20 AM.

What I Look for in a Conducting Demo was the previous entry in this blog.

Thoughts on Strategic Planning is the next entry in this blog.

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