“When the task force made its report, it led with a bombshell.” Read on!
It’s early in the last decade, and the CEO of one of America’s top orchestras is at a gathering, talking to someone they’re friendly with.
At this gathering are board members, staff, and musicians from more than a dozen orchestras. And at this point in their proceedings, anyone can start a discussion. You just write the subject on a sheet of paper, and post the paper where everyone can see it.
The CEO writes his subject: “WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE SHITY ECONOMY.” Their friend points out that they’ve misspelled “shitty.” The CEO fixes that, and then says they can’t post the paper, because they used a bad word.
The friend says they should do it anyway, and the discussion takes place. About 15 people show up, including some other heavy hitters.
And so full story comes out
The CEO announces their real subject — structural deficits. Which they said the big US orchestras had been running for many years. In good years, the orchestras raked in donations, and the bottom line looked good. In bad years, they lost money.
Over time, the losses in the bad years were greater than the gains in the good years. Thus structural deficits. A longterm pattern of these orchestras spending more than they took in.
Why didn’t they notice this earlier? That wasn’t discussed at this gathering. Though for another time, it should be a crucial inquiry. Especially since those structural deficits may be part of the cause of the truly acute financial crises of the last few years. When orchestras have asked their musicians to take pay cuts.
Did anyone ask, back at the time of the discussion I’m talking about, whether orchestras were planning their financial affairs as well as they should have?
But on with the story
Everyone at this discussion agreed that structural deficits were real, and were serious. So then what followed?
- A proposal — or at least an informal one — was made to a major foundation, asking for funding to study these deficits, and figure out what could be done.
- A study group was formed, called the Elephant Task force, to look at the problem more closely. Getting its name because structural deficits were the elephant in the room that, up to then, no one wanted to talk about.
And when, in 2004, the task force made its report, it led with a bombshell. It studied three orchestras, identified only as A, B, and C. And orchestra A — clearly one of the biggest in the US — was in such financial peril that if present trends continued, it would be out of business by 2010!
We all knew…
…which orchestra that was. The one run by the CEO who started the discussion. We knew this in part because the board chair of that orchestra presented the task force report. And clearly knew more, far more, about “Orchestra A” than about the two others.
And of course we were right. Some years later I heard a presentation by that very orchestra, saying right out (though of course still in private) how they’d been doomed, and how they saved themselves. I can remember, almost as if it was yesterday, the face of the person presenting the report. And how the numbers looked on the slides that they showed, many in red, at first, and then ending with all of them black, as the brilliant plan this orchestra made to save itself succeeded.
(Though in 2012, someone at that orchestra told me they still hadn’t solved their structural deficits!)
Something else that came out of the Elephant Task Force
Robert Flanagan’s book on the economics of orchestras.
The Task Force sensibly wanted an economist’s help.
They found Bob.
He looked at their data, made a report, and — adding much more information — turned the report into his book, The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras: Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges. Required reading, I’d think, for anyone who cares about orchestras.
This is a story — along with many like it — that ought to be in the book I’ve imagined, about the history of US orchestras from the 1980s to the present.
Orchestra A, to my knowledge, has never spoken about any of this publicly. And, in fact, has never (again to my knowledge) even been talked about as having any trouble financially.
But it should get public credit (along with the people who ran it) for solving — as I said, brilliantly — problems that could have destroyed it.