This week Washington Post arts journalists Anne Midgette and Peggy McGlone published results of their six-month investigation of sexual harassment in the classical music business. Some of the stories they put on the record were new; others have been open secrets for years.
One of the latter stories – about Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil is not new at all. Back in 2007, the Cleveland Scene published an article questioning Preucil’s behavior and reporting an incident with a female student at the Cleveland Institute of Music in which the student claimed Preucil had harassed her. The school, said the article, had investigated, and responded by transferring the student to another teacher and paying for her to audition at another school. The Cleveland Orchestra did nothing, at least publicly.
After this week’s story, the Cleveland Orchestra quickly suspended Preucil and the Cleveland Institute of Music circulated an internal memo saying that Preucil had resigned. There will doubtless be other announcements from other institutions announcing suspensions and investigations.
There has been a flood of #MeToo revelations in the ten months since The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published their explosive story about Harvey Weinstein. Several prominent artists have had to step down from their positions of power, including James Levine, Charles Dutoit and Peter Martins. In classical music insider circles, there has been little surprise – the words “open secret” greeting most revelations. That seems to be the case with Preucil.
- Why did the dam of #MeToo stories break with the Weinstein story? It certainly didn’t after the Bill Cosby revelations or other prominent stories over the years. The Cleveland Scene story, for example, didn’t spark a Preucil suspension. Journalists had been trying to get the Weinstein story for years. I know several journalists who had repeatedly attempted to nail down the Levine story but never could pre-Weinstein. I wonder if in the Trump era, where documented misbehaviors of the president have had seemingly no consequences, frustrations have emboldened victims to step up and for more people to not just take notice but treat their stories seriously. It’s happened with gun violence too. Columbine and Sandy Hook didn’t get the traction that Parkland has. Sexual harassment and gun violence seem less tolerable when the harasser-in-chief gets away with bad behavior. People seem more motivated to stand up for things they believe in.
- Fine to flush predators out of the system. But what about the institutions and the people who run them who looked the other way? Where are the consequences for them? Levine’s behavior at the Met was known for years. It’s outrageous for Met officials to say they didn’t know. The predators are frankly less to blame than the institutions that looked the other way because the bad guys had talent. If there was zero tolerance (something like how we treat embezzlement) there would be less bad behavior. So the Cleveland Orchestra suspended Preucil after the story broke, but why did it take public exposure before it was investigated by the orchestra? The fact that this seemingly went on for years is a Cleveland Orchestra failure as much as it is Preucil’s. Until there are consequences for the institutions and the people who look the other way, things won’t change. These institutions have to have clearly defined policies and procedures for dealing with accusations. No, people shouldn’t be convicted based merely on accusations, but because these institutions clearly aren’t invested in curbing bad behavior, the lines are blurry about how to investigate, let alone deal with it.
One last personal note:
When I was an arts reporter at a large metro paper, I discovered that one of the big arts institutions in town had settled with an artist who had come forward with a story of sexual misconduct against the artistic director. The company had subsequently encouraged her to retire and bought her a house to compensate. I dug around a bit and pitched the story to editors who quickly killed it. They didn’t want the controversy. He stayed on for several years more, retiring with full honors. Even though the behavior was an “open secret” it was never confronted publicly and there were no public consequences for the enabling institution beyond payoffs to victims. How many careers were ruined or cut short because of it?
It has always bothered me that I didn’t push harder, but in truth it was an icky sordid story, and I was acutely aware that exposing this person in the newspaper would end his career and damage his organization. While I cared nothing about him, I understood the precariousness of his institution. And it wasn’t – I rationalized – like the victim (or others I had tracked down with similar stories) was willing to talk on the record. When no one is clamoring for a story to come out, it’s easy to rationalize not doing it.
But by making that choice, I helped perpetuate a system that ensured there surely were more victims. Saying nothing has long-lasting, corrosive consequences not only for victims but for institutional culture. All of which is to say that Anne and Peggy, two of the best arts journalists working today, did a very brave, very important service with this first step. It will be a shame if it stops with outing the predators and not holding the institutions themselves to account.
Full disclosure: In 2014-15 I worked as a consultant for the organization in Miami that ran the Cleveland Orchestra residency in South Florida, and was paid through the Cleveland Orchestra Miami for that work.