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The bumbling merry-go-round of US orchestra managers

Orchestras do not run into trouble overnight (unless, as in London, someone’s cleaned out the bank account).

Crisis, when it hits, has usually been brewing for several years while the board and chief executive benignly ignored it. The troubles of the Minnesota Orchestra date back to the presidency of the Englishman Tony Woodcock, who was replaced in 2007 by a fellow-Brit, Michael Henson.

Both had previously run the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, which is presently the UK ensemble in deepest trouble. There may be no causal link to be drawn here; we are merely relating the history.

Woodcock went on to become President and CEO of the New England Conservatory, a job that was previously offered to Allison Vulgamore, who had been trying since 2005 to bale out of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra where she dug a financial hole that is now approaching $20 million. Vulgamore turned down the NEC offer to accept a more prestigious presidency from the Philadelphia Orchestra, which she steered into Chapter 11 bankruptcy and narrowly out again. Woodcock’s tenure at NEC has been marred by multiple discredits.

Still in the same loop, Stanley Romanstein, Vulgamore’s successor in Atlanta spent the previous decade…. where?

In Minnesota, as President and CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center where (his c.v tells us) the best thing he did was to focus ‘the Center’s mission around clear, measurable objectives, consistent with the agency’s history and mandate.’ You have to wonder which of the other local bumblers put him up for the Atlanta job.

If ever there was a time for symphony boards to seek fresh talent, it is now.


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  1. I was going to comment on your list of orchestras not starting a season ( with some snarky remark about the reasons why. THEN I read this article. Bravo, sir! It’s amazing to me how so many metropolitan orchestras can be so horribly mismanaged.

    Perhaps it’s time that some of these ensembles hire administrators from within their own ranks? Let the musicians run the orchestras!

    • Bad management is a huge problem. People with poor track records should not get bigger jobs. It’s terrible.

      However, I am not convinced by the common assertion that a musician from the ensemble, ipso facto, could do a better job – unless she is uncommonly talented at fundraising, marketing, accounting, and executive leadership, which actually is a skill unto itself.

    • @KLJ

      Musicians running the orchestra themselves doesn’t work either in most cases, since musicians have a habit of ending up bickering among each other when issues of control are involved. The U.S, has had masters degree programs in arts management for the last 30 years at some of the country’s most prestigious universities. Either the graduates of such institutions are not getting hired for top jobs or the degree is failing to live up to its intentions.

      Having a masters in arts management myself, I think it is generally a worthwhile degree, as students with backgrounds in the arts learn core MBA courses like economics, marketing and accounting, as well as the laws governing non-profit organizations and copyright. As an former artist, I can sympathize with the artists and talk their language while understanding how to read an annual financial report, do accurate budgeting and have an idea about financing a cultural institution. This is not to say that there aren’t musicians who have inherent management abilities, but generally speaking, efficient management of any kind of major cash-dependent operation is not a task you wake up to one fine morning.

      Where the failings of the above mentioned orchestra CEOs lie, I cannot say since, frankly, I have not studied their bios. What I do know is that there is a high degree of inbreeding among administrators of large cultural institutions. As we know, inbreeding tends to produce undesirable effects, and that may be the ultimate answer to the issue, as the blog above indicates.

  2. Mark Francis says:

    A lot of the problems are the symphony boards. They hire these people. The boards all think they know how to run orchestras and ignore their responsibilities to raise money and be ambassadors for the orchestra. If everyone did their job or took their responsibilities seriously this wouldn’t be happening.

    • Do you guys even know the basics of a not for profit Board?
      You can’t “hire” Board members, as that would be a conflict of interest in violation of 501(c)
      (3) regulations.
      Staff members are hired to carry out the mission/vision and strategic planning as set by the Board of Directors for any not for profit.
      Most Board members are volunteers with a passion for the mission and vision of the not for profit and spend a tremendous amount of time(usually in excess of 10-20 hours per week) raising funds to help keep the orchestra alive.
      There is a tremendous amount of ignorance that perpetuates false assumptions which create a huge disconnect between artists and “management”.
      Please get informed before you start jumping to false conclusions that create bigger rifts.

      • Stephen Owades says:

        Perhaps Mr. Francis’s message wasn’t expressed clearly enough, but it seems he’s placing blame on board members for hiring incompetent managers—not blaming the managers for “hiring” the wrong Boards.

        It does sometime appear that experience as a manager in the arts, even if that experience includes destroying a major institution, is seen as the ny plausible experience when organizations are looking for new leaders. And Mr. Lebrecht’s column points out several distressing examples of this tendency to “fail upwards.”

  3. Christopher Bell says:

    My understanding about the Bournemouth Orchestras when Michael Henson was there was that the finances were in a very healthy state. My recollection when conducting there was hearing about small annual surpluses and a financial turnaround.

    • Joe Carver says:

      I suspect it’s all about moving the number around to make it look good. Companies do it all the time. As the first sentence of this article states, “Orchestras do not run into trouble overnight…”

  4. Reading this brings to mind how sports teams keep recycling the same managers, no matter how incompetent, as if a change of venue will transform their abilities.

    • Except with sports teams, recycled managers and coaches show promise and get more out of some talent than should have been achieved. Bad coaches don’t get rehired. Good coaches and coaches who outperformed their talent do.

      However, that’s a non-sequitor as a coach/manager in sports is like a conductor in the orchestra. If you’re taking about the managers of the orchestra, you should compare them to the front office of the teams (the GM’s/VP’s/C-Suites) who’s job it is to get proper talent, assure proper use of funds, and proper marketing. When they don’t do their jobs, they are summarily fired and sports teams RARELY give them a second chance because they don’t pretend that the art is the most important. Money first, always.

  5. George Brown says:

    But where do they turn to find their fresh managerial talent? To the very same Symphony Orchestra League in which a hawkish faction of major orchestra Board members has assumed an influential role on the League Board as well. This group’s ideology isn’t about raising the bar for managerial standards but rather lowering the expectations for those making the music as a way of paying for the mistakes of the administrators.

  6. Vicki Michaelsen says:

    I am a musician who has played in a number of community orchestras over the years and served on the board of one. Once. Thankfully, all the hair I pulled out back then has grown in again so that I hardly notice the bald spot anymore :-) Anyway, the biggest problem with that board was they wanted to program all these concerts and worry about how to raise the money later. I suspect the problem is the same, on a grander scale, for these larger groups. I know that most of them are deep in the red at this point, but wouldn’t it be a better idea to play concerts they can actually pay for (even if it means an abbreviated season) rather than just piling debt on top of debt? Or does that make too much sense?

  7. Bravo for an excellent report pointing a finger at root causes behind the multiple crises occuring so coincidentally here in America. Thank God someone is finally looking to the managerial ineptness that seems to be raging through our industry.

    The next step is to starting looking to a deeper source behind the strategy in multiple negotiations: 1) the pattern of dipping into endowments to pay off annual debt until the organization’s borrowing credibility is ruined; 2) the decision at negotiations to announce 30- 60% cuts which include shortening the seasons of 52- week orchestras by 10- 15 weeks as well as cuts in pension and health insurance; and 3) the threat to lock out the musicians and cancel part or all of their season if these demands are not met. This interesting new tactic was tried and succeeded in large part in Detroit 2 years ago.

    Perhaps the next phase should be to examine the philosophy guiding the League of American Orchestras (formerly the ASOL) these days, as the managerial staffs of many current orchestras are associated with this organization.

  8. Harold Kupper says:

    It occurs to me that bumbling orchestra managers are often shuttled around to different orchestras in much the same way that abusive Catholic priests are moved to different parishes by an out of touch hierachy. It’s clearly more important to perpetuate the discredited myths of ASOL talking points(structural deficits, gut Union work rules) than to encourage bold innovative leadership that honors the art form and invites collaboration and cooperation. They’ve all been drinking the same ASOL Kool aid and the wreckage of their failed leadership is there for all to see.

  9. Galen Johnson says:

    Remember that these boards also hire managers who most reflect their own views, for good or for ill, and also fit in socially. They generally pick the person who seems efficient and agreeable, and tells them what they want to hear. The whole purpose of the board system is to integrate tightly the organization with the community–in prestige, finance, social events–but what happens is sometimes just the opposite. Why? If there is a wealthy and powerful board member, prominent in local business, who among the “lesser” board members wants to vote against his/her proposals and jeopardize their own business or standing in the community? Another thing: boards largely are drawn from gullible people who know little or nothing about hon-profits, the arts, let alone music.

  10. Gabe Langfur says:

    Another example is the career of David Wax, formerly of the Houston Symphony, San Antonio Symphony, Rhode Island Philharmonic, and most recently, interim executive director of the Delaware Symphony in the year before it suspended its 2012-2013 season. I have no first-hand knowledge of how much or little he was responsible, but to be fair, the trend certainly started before he got there.

    Fortunately, through the actions of a wealthy and connected “angel,” things are looking up at the Delaware Symphony right now:

  11. Gabe Langfur says:

    Mr. Lebrecht, I would be interested in your take on the role of the League of American Orchestras. If you look at their big “Fearless Journeys” publication, two of the five orchestras profiled as models of innovation are the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony. How’s that working out?

  12. If orchestra boards and managements were held to the same standards of excellence as the musicians, this crisis of funding would not exist. We have boards and managements who want no more orchestra than they feel like paying for, vs. orchestral musicians who want boards and managements who share their vision.

    • Ha! That’d be the same musicians who refuse to be held to “standards of excellence” by refusing to take part in anything approaching an individual assessment, and calling for the boycott of any orchestra’s or directors which dare to suggest that, would it?

      • violinista says:

        Given the audition process, a notoriously soul-crushing experience, and the extraordinary competition just to get one of these coveted spots, and the length of time people tend to spend in these orchestras so that their playing ought to be well known to the music director and their peers, I can’t even begin to tell you how insulting and demeaning the notion is. I’d boycott, too.

      • violinista says:

        Just want to add, I’ve been in orchestras where performance issues were handled punitively, and I know how people feel about it. Being right doesn’t matter if everyone hates you for putting them through the indignity. You won’t get the results you are after.

        • So it’s somehow easier to get one of rather fewer top management posts than an orchestral job, and for some reason those people should be put through the wringer if they can’t keep up any more?
          I agree, they should – but so should the players. Fair’s fair, after all; and without maintaining a very high standard of players, you don’t get the best orchestra. There are only a handful of orchestras who couldn’t improve somewhere for personnel reasons; yet virtually every orchestra is afraid to tackle it. I don’t understand why the musicians feel they should be exempt from quality control and criticism, yet feel equally as strongly that management must not be so exempt. The same folks who argue that underperforming musicians should be given time, encouragement, and training would rather fire a director at the whiff of incompetence, rather than prescribe the same medicine.
          As a basic concept, it seems flawed and nonsensical.

          • One difference is that the orchestra playing jobs are the end-of-the-line, top-of-the-heap jobs in the industry, other than the soloist jobs and chamber group jobs, which only exist for a select few people on a very small number of instruments (basically strings and piano only). The management jobs are one alternative for people who have trained in the related disciplines, with a number of others that will pay more money.

  13. harold braun says:

    Send `em packing!!!

  14. Of course, Norman, do you want to point out the round-robin of music directors and guest conductors that has led to a homogenization of the world’s orchestras. Personally, I long for the days when I could tell the difference between the Philadelphia sound and the NYPO, for example. While I’ve not heard the Chicago SO in a few years (live), I have to imagine that they are far removed from the “muscular” performances of Solti. Cleveland still seems in a class all its own as Szell still casts a long shadow–even some 40 years after his passing.

  15. Thank you so much for this article. This needs to be talked about!!
    Why do we seem to assume that if someone wears a suit to work and makes the “big bucks”, that they MUST be competent at their job? (All to often, this is not the case.)
    We as orchestra musicians have very little insight into how the management performs on a day-to-day basis.
    We have to take them on their word that they are doing all they can to keep the organization running smoothly.
    We have to believe that they are capable at their jobs and have been running things efficiently.
    However, despite my limited access to their day-to-day performance, I can tell you that I (and many others) have had numerous opportunities to witness the incompetence, fiscal irresponsibility, and even illiteracy (to some degree) that goes on behind the scenes at various orchestras across the country. It can be so disheartening.

  16. Perhaps the industry needs to scrutinize the corporate head hunters which recycle these same incompetent executives from organization to organization.

  17. George Brown says:

    THINK about it, folks. What does it say about the League when a bona fide, proven turnaround artist like Michael Kaiser is considered persona non grata at ASOL, while administrators like Vulgamore, Woodcock and Coppock leave orchestras sputtering in their wake, only to be hailed at the League afterward as ‘innovators’ & ‘visionaries?’

    And with their League connections — which now include lots of rich, right wing ideologues like Bruce Clinton on their Board — most of these people just continue to get bigger orchestras to manage. Makes the League seem more now like a revolving door welfare system for 2nd rate administrators than an organization preparing managers to tackle our new century’s challenges.

    • The “League” has been insular and inbred for decades and isn’t going to change any time soon, despite the efforts of some to encourage reform. What can you say about an industry whose most active managerial headhunter is a former “League” CEO? What can you say about an organization whose strategies and policies are dictated by an insular handful of managers of large orchestras?

  18. This article might have more impact if it were not full of terrible spelling and grammar

  19. Does no one have to present a resume or C.V when applying for a position? Are references not checked? You don’t have to list previous employers or “reasons for leaving”? If we, as citizens interested in the health and well-being of musical organizations can connect the dots with these people then how in the world are they able to keep perpetuating their brand of mismanagement? It’s long past time to put aside the “It can’t happen to us” mentality and hire people who actually know what they’re doing and who are held accountable for their actions with frequent audits. Musicians today have spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars honing their craft and to treat them with anything less than the respect due a professional artist is criminal.

  20. Managers may or may not be inept, but mightn’t there also be larger forces at work that *no* manager could overcome? I’m thinking of, first, the recession (not enough money to go around in this area as in so many others), and second, and the decline of classical music culture in the U.S. (this ain’t your grandfather’s generation).

  21. Jeffrey Gerard Holsen says:

    IMHO there is more than incompetence at work. It is a new global business paradigm. The ASOL is ‘harmonizing’ with it. This paradigm is perfectly deliberate – even as many who absorb and attempt to impose the model are not fully aware of it’s nature. Management and the ASOL are practicing the ‘Shock Doctrine’…Our own symphonic version. The arrival of economic upheaval has given them the opportunity to implement unwarranted changes simply to amass power. Previous features of our organizations are meaningless in the face of this imperative. These changes are like the brass ring – the reassertion of full spectrum dominance over and full subordination of the working non-owner class. The policies are about far more than simple lowering of costs.

  22. Karen Clarke says:

    Very stimulating conversation here with lots of good points. Is it not true that a lot of mid-size (in terms of bueget) orchestras in the United States are doing far better, for example Nashville Symphony or Grand Rapids? What is the difference in the managerial approaches of the healthier orchestras in this category?

  23. Phil Lostra says:

    MK’s wish list. This is brilliant. All orchestra managers and Arts Boards, PLEASE TAKE NOTE!!! 1. Board members of arts organization who remember their missions. While most arts organizations have missions that relate to bringing arts and arts education to their communities, many board members really believe that the missions of their organizations are to break even. They believe that cutting budgets and doing less is satisfactory as long as the budget is balanced. We need to remember that doing less and doing less important work does not achieve the mission. And, in fact, it works against the possibility of achieving a balanced budget.

    2. Arts leaders who focus on training the next generation of arts leaders. We are nearing a dangerous point when an entire generation of arts leaders will retire. This is a very difficult time for the arts because of a challenging economy, an increasing number of electronic substitutes putting pressure on our prices, and a generation of young people with no arts background. We need trained, sophisticated arts managers to see the arts world through the next 20 years. The only people who can provide this training are those in the current generation of arts leaders but we have been so busy running our organizations that we have ignored the needs of our field.

    3. Political leaders to remember that almost 6 million Americans are employed in the arts, that we are a main motivator of tourism and that we generate billions of dollars of economic activity. We are not just an effete interest group serving the elite. We are a potent sector of the economy in virtually every community, providing service to all Americans. Arts organizations can help build greater appreciation for our field by doing a better job of institutional marketing. If the work we did in our communities was more visible, it would be harder for political leaders to dismiss it.

    4. Superintendants of schools, school board members and principals who remember that we live in an economy far different from the one when they were in school. The majority of economic activity is no longer tied to manufacturing. We need our children to be creative problem solvers if they are to be successful and if our nation is to thrive. The arts are a great and inexpensive way to help children exercise their creative muscles. We in the arts need to collaborate with the leaders of our school systems so a meaningful arts education program can be available for every student.

    5. Arts organizations that are willing to work together on projects of great impact that surprise and enchant our communities. We are far too competitive with each other. Yet in many communities, we have failed to create broad visibility for our collective work. This hampers our fundraising and ticket selling activities. We will only thrive if we create work that exceeds the capabilities of any one of our organizations. And then we have a far better chance of achieving our missions.

  24. The League of American Orchestras bears a great deal of blame for the mess so many orchestras are currently in. throughout the late 90s and 00s their annual conferences basically promoted a message that said “yes, it’s bad, but not THAT bad.” The usual back-slapping at these conferences of major orchestra CEOs, who knew that the LoAO (or should that be LmAO?) would rotate them somewhere else if they screwed things up too badly. As a result, orchestral top brass was working with blinders on until they hit the proverbial wall.

    The League of American Orchestras was founded in 1942, when there were basically only large orchestras in large cities. With the advent of the Nelson Rockefeller cultural revolution through his NY initiatives, which more or less led to the model of the National Arts and Cultural Development Act of 1964, the number of US orchestras, especially smaller ones, grew exponentially due to large increases in arts funding. The LoAO was never geared towards being beneficial to smaller/midsize orchestras, but was happy to receive their dues. Also, being a member of the LoAO was comme il faut among orchestra managers, since it was the only networking opportunity they had. Going on an all-expenses paid conference in a major city to chat over coffee is nice enough when times are good, but a waste of time when when a precipice looms.

    Since the League of American Orchestras divides its orchestras into categories by budget size – and holds separate workshops for each category at its annual meetings – the organization has created a segregated membership, where, basically, only the two top categories count. The workshops for the bottom three (or so) category orchestras is mostly useless drivel.

    Not too long ago, an orchestra manager – in NJ I believe – pulled his orchestra out of the LoAO when his orchestra was struggling financially, stating that the dues were not worth the benefits. A more true statement could not have been made. If the LoAO can’t even help the large orchestras with their “life’s tough, but we’re doing OK” propaganda, you can imagine how valuable their services are to small/medium-sized orchestras.

    The League of American Orchestras has become an industry dinosaur, which does precious little of the work an umbrella organization should do. Namely lobby effectively for its members, large and small, at the state and federal level, and developing funding collaborations to help its members – again, not just the largest payers of dues, but ALL of them. Let’s face it – beyond asking its members to write to their congressmen and women before each year’s NEA budget is passed, the LoAO is pretty invisible on Capitol Hill and has created no national debate about the value of orchestras in their communities.

    What The League of American Orchestras is extremely good at is producing reams of paper (and paperwork for orchestra staff) to compile “reports.” These reports, however, have done precious little to benefit their membership materially. But who cares if you can sit in a cozy office in NYC and collect a fat salary from membership dues? The rot set in more than a decade ago with small/midsize orchestras, but since they didn’t pay all that much in dues, the LoAO couldn’t have cared less about some small orchestra in New Mexico going belly up. Now that the rot has reached the upper echelons, perhaps the LoAO will begin to notice. Not that that will make much difference anyway. Had the LoAO truly been able to create a collaborative network of orchestras large and small and developed a positive dialogue with the various districts of Musicians’ Unions, perhaps the crisis wouldn’t be as dire as it is now.

    I know someone will reply listing the myriad of good works done by The League of American Orchestras. All of that is good and fine, but as anyone who has worked in a development function knows, you’ll list all the fantastic initiatives you’re doing in your community even though your organization is about to go bust. In the end, such fantastic initiatives are only worth the ink and paper they’re written on if you can show positive results. The LoAO can not.

  25. Richard Herger says:


  26. Dear musicians, may I point out what is hopefully obvious to all of you but hasn’t really gotten much attention in this discussion, namely that this country has been in a recession for the past four years. I am sure many folks in orchestra management are incompetent, but they are also running up against the realities of our times. In the past few years, companies have gone belly-up, plants have closed, jobs have been sent overseas, law firms (as I witnessed up close) have sent about a third of their associates and staff packing. Raising funds to keep full-time orchestras in business in this climate has to be tough. In a way, it’s quite a miracle that so many orchestras have kept going without drastic changes for this long.

    I care a lot about music, attend tons of concerts, take lessons, and at least half of the money I donate to good causes goes to music-related initiatives. Believe me, I think maintaining top notch orchestras is important and I believe musicians should be paid appropriately. But what I am missing in this finger-pointing fest is any introspection, any questioning what YOU, as a musician, can do to help your group survive. All this bickering makes me very glad I decided not to pursue a career in arts management. It also, frankly, makes me less inclined to donate money to troubled orchestras, although I will absolutely continue to donate money to music education programs, chamber groups, festivals, etc.

  27. NYCG,
    Recession has nothing to do with this problem. Bad management has been bad for at least 10 years before. Raising funds should have been happening just as vigorously in the good times as well as the bad. Pension funds were not tended to when the market was doing well, and greedy boards and managements pilfered from those funds during the good times so that when it came time to ride out the shaky times…well, here we are. It’s not just our profession either. Public sector employees, airlines, as well as the private sector has gotten rogered.

    Please don’t take it out on the orchestras when the blame falls squarely on bad management and the boards who don’t take them to task for not doing their jobs. For others who jabber on about revenues, arts organizations are non-profits. You cannot impose a corporate business model into our profession. We have always relied on the moneyed folks in our communities for survival. It is up to our development and boards to provide the contacts within the community to make up the deficits. LoAO has produced a bunch of wet-eared kids who have no idea how to connect with the orchestra’s community at large. The musicians are doing their jobs, we are compensated for that work, and we provide both tangible and intangible profits for the communities in which we reside.

  28. Mr. C,

    Thanks for your response. You make valid points but I think you’re overstating your case by saying the recession has NOTHING to do with the problem.

    You say: “We have always relied on the moneyed folks in our communities for survival. It is up to our development and boards to provide the contacts within the community to make up the deficits.”

    But the reality facing the development and board folks is that many of the “moneyed folks” have become a lot less moneyed, and that a lot of high earners live in fear of losing their jobs. A company that has laid off a third of its employees may also not be so eager to donate a big chunk of money to the local orchestra.

    Also, I know quite a few people who work in orchestra management, and all of them are in it because they love music. In fact, many are passionate amateur musicians. I also know a few people who serve on arts management boards and who give a lot of time (not to mention significant financial donations) to their organizations. I can’t speak to their competence and I’m sure a lot of problems have been years in the making, as you say. But the “us v. them” mentality, at a time when everyone should band together, saddens me.

    You say: “The musicians are doing their jobs, we are compensated for that work, and we provide both tangible and intangible profits for the communities in which we reside.”

    You are absolutely correct. And since I mentioned my personal connections on the management side, I should add here that I also have friends who play in orchestras, and I realize that being a member of a full-time professional orchestra–preparing your parts and keeping up your level in addition to rehearsals and concerts–is a demanding job, both physically and mentally. But “doing [your] jobs” may not be sufficient when it’s about survival. No matter whose fault it is, many orchestras are a mess now. How do you propose they get out of it? What can you do to help your group get back on track? The answer may often be, not much, especially if–for whatever reason–your orchestra is located in a community that won’t rally in support. But the stakes are too high to not explore these questions.

    • William Safford says:

      The reality is that the monied are mostly just as monied as they ever were; in fact, they’re richer than ever. It’s the poor and the middle class — including most classical musicians — whose wages have been stagnant or regressing over the years.

      The rich — individuals and corporations — are just becoming tighter with their money.

      Furthermore, there is a strengthening anti-union movement among the rich in this country.

      It’s hard to miss the correlation between this movement and the union-bashing currently happening in orchestras as their contracts come up for renewal.

      Causation? I don’t know. But if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck….

      It’s important to keep in mind the fact that it’s the musicians’ job to perform music, and management’s and board’s job to make it possible for the musicians to do their jobs. This includes raising money.

      It is *not* the musicians’ fault when management and boards fail to do their jobs.

      However, it *is* the musicians’ *problem* when they get locked out and have their health insurance and instrument coverage canceled because management and the board failed at their jobs.

      Make sure to note that it’s the boards and management who failed at their jobs, yet it’s the musicians who are locked out. What’s wrong with this picture?

      Is there anything that musicians can do? That is a worthy, but separate, question.

      Please do continue to support your local orchestra. It needs your support.

  29. @ NYCG

    You are very right that the financial crisis has deepened the financial problems of orchestras. But it has also emphasized the underlying symptoms of cultural institution management incompetence.

    Smaller/medium-sized orchestras have to some extent felt a financial pinch since the 1992 recession and the halving of the NEA funds due to the Serrano exhibit controversy. On top of that, they have faced audience declines, which, naturally, does not help the bottom line. But let’s look past the smaller orchestras for now and look at the big ones.

    In large symphony orchestras, fixed costs such as salaries and rent or depreciation total a good 80% or so of total expenditures. The remaining 20% goes to variables such as marketing, fundraising costs and soloist fees. This leaves an orchestra in a bind that would be a challenge to even the most capable manager.

    Even if the manager had the powers of divination and could see a global fiscal crisis looming, s/he would be hard put to do anything about it. You don’t start cutting musicians salaries and firing (often bloated thruth be said) administrative staff when the rest of the world thinks life is good. Donors would start wondering what the orchestra was doing wrong to do so when there was no apparent reason and perhaps withdraw funding, the musicians’ union would have a fit and probably call a strike and your board would promptly the manager.

    Such steps are only possible when the orchestra is well and truly on the ropes and everyone understands that it’s action time or go bust. It is one of the major failings of the LoAO that it did not raise this serious management issue for wide debate and increase awareness among managers and boards that good management includes foresight and always being ready for bad times to hit. Especially since orchestras arguably are among the most sensitive organizations to recession, since income – from attendance and fundraising – is impacted disproportionately compared to other nonprofit organizations (colleges, universities, hospitals, churches, etc.).

    An endowment is a great thing to have, but you can’t plan getting a 5% annual return until the last trumpet sounds. Most managers and boards seem to do so, and are then horrified when the financial faeces hits the fan. Interest rates go down, and – gasp! – red ink requires that you draw on your restricted funds to cover deficits. Yes, one can borrow from a bank against the endowment if it is an untouchable holy cow, but that hardly solves the problem, since the loan has to be repaid with interest.

    I am consistently amazed that orchestra managers do not set a portion of endowment income aside during good times into a “downturn fund.” Here again, though, I can foresee problems, as funders might ask “why should we give you more when you have all that money sitting there doing nothing” and musicians might balk at management wage increase proposals during contract negotiations when they can see money sitting there which could be used towards increasing their salaries by a higher percentage. Foresight ain’t built into the nonprofit model as it functions today.

    In an ideal world, a “downturn fund” would be a mandatory requirement for orchestras. So would learning to run mean and lean on the staff side. Finally – and this is also a large problem which is rarely discussed – the LoAO would raise the issue of soloist fees. Such fees have become insufferably bloated in the US, since an artist’s agent can tell a manager “soloist X’s fee is this much. If you have problems with it, why don’t you go to your donors and sponsors and ask them to provide the extra money needed to hire a star of this magnitude.” This may have worked once upon a time when such “super soloists” were loss-leaders for seats filled mostly by subscribers, but the audiences are no longer so hot to buy a full season subscription to get to hear X, either for reasons of cost or lack of time to attend a full season. In Europe, soloists salaries are lower and curtailed by the fact that orchestras are publicly funded and have limited sponsorship funds. Politicians and tax payers would get incensed if orchestras paid US-size fees to individual soloists to the detriment of the rest of the season.

    So as you can see, things are not as uncomplicated as merely dealing with incompetent managers and a mostly useless umbrella organization like the LoAO. But if the major US banks and car manufacturers screw up – presumably also due to bad management and lack of oversight, who can point their finger at bad orchestra managers and inefficient boards?

an ArtsJournal blog