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2010 Conference

Opening address to the 2010 ICSOM Conference
August 18, 2010

Bruce Ridge, ICSOM Chairman

Early in his presidency, Barack Obama was asked by a reporter to describe the moments in his first few months on the job that had most enchanted, surprised, troubled, and humbled him. As I was completing my preparation for this meeting here in Houston I thought of those emotions and reactions as I reviewed this past year for ICSOM and our members. It has been a difficult year…a year of tough decisions and of obstacles to overcome. And while I have in this year been enchanted, surprised, troubled, and humbled, I have also been inspired, frustrated, disheartened, and encouraged. And ultimately, I am proud to be associated with the musicians of ICSOM who have, in this time of difficulties for our orchestras, emerged as strong and unified advocates for their art and their communities.

We live in a time of great fundamental change. There are new opportunities seemingly every day to reach more and more people with a positive message of promotion for virtually any idea or product. Evolving media, the internet, and social networking provide unedited forums for expressing ideas that used to have to be filtered through the editorial process of print media or broadcast outlets.

It is a time of great change…and great opportunity. Unfortunately, as symphonic musicians, we work in a field that has not been quick to adapt to new marketing strategies, and in some cases has not even adapted to old marketing strategies. As a result, we find that our orchestras sometimes seem to be promoting and undermining themselves at the same time. Even while printing glossy brochures that introduce our seasons with the fanfare of the same tired slogans, the words in our inky newspapers send a message to our communities that questions the sustainability and value of our orchestras.

It always strikes me as stunning that in many places our development departments are not well coordinated with our marketing departments, and that a basic tenet of fundraising is overlooked. People will donate to, and invest in, organizations that inspire them, and they will not give money to organizations that question their own sustainability.

Ideas and products that cannot offer anywhere near the level of community service that our orchestras provide have mastered the art of marketing, and thrive through the promotion of a positive image. The same could be achieved for our orchestras and for all the arts in America. There is a positive message and a positive future to be promoted. But instead, in city after city, we see our managements undermining that positive message, and as a result the all too common reaction of the public to our orchestras is that we are a dying breed.

Let's look at some positive messages: Here in Houston, where the great Houston Symphony approaches its centennial, and where over 350,000 residents attend Houston Symphony concerts every year, the non-profit arts and culture industry accounts for over $626 million in economic activity annually, and provides over 14,000 jobs for the citizens of this city. In fact, at a time when America is greatly concerned about unemployment, the arts provide 5.7 million jobs throughout the nation.

And further, at a time when Americans are concerned about economic stimulus, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Boston Symphony alone accounts for over $166 million in economic activity annually.

Yet still we must resist the negative messages promulgated by many of our managements and by national managerial organizations that should be the most reliable sources of advocacy instead of the most consistent sources of destructive thoughts and ideas. For years, ICSOM has been alone in this wilderness, articulating our positive message of hope for our orchestras and the communities where our children learn and our companies do business.

But lately we have been joined by other voices who are recognizing that the negative message of unsustainably is a detriment not only to our art form but also for the communities we seek to serve. Just last week I exchanged messages with a writer for New York's City Journal, Heather Mac Donald, who wrote:

"It is a mystery to me how anyone can think that harping constantly on the allegedly dire condition of classical music is a strategy for attracting new listeners."

It is also a pleasure to read the words of Minnesota Orchestra violist and noted blogger Sam Bergman, who asks: "For exactly how many decades do we plan to allow the prophets of doom to continually shout from the mountaintop that orchestras are withering on the vine before pointing out that their dire predictions have been consistently, unceasingly, 100% wrong?"

It is, in fact, a testament to the viability and sustainability of our orchestras that any of them still exist after decades of proclamations that that our cities can no longer support the investment in quality and business they have made over the past century. How many times will we have to refute the same flawed, negative rhetoric? It was in 1970 that a United Press International article reported on a study titled "25 Symphonies Doomed to Die." And in 1969, a Time Magazine article stated "Between 1971 and 1973 we stand a very good chance of losing at least one-third, if not half of our major symphony orchestras."

Miraculously though, our orchestras survived, thrived, and served. And I don't use the word "miraculously" in a sarcastic way. It is truly a miracle that any organization could withstand such a constant barrage of negative self-fulfilling prophesies, most of which have emanated from within the industry itself.

The fact that orchestras have survived can only mean that we do have something to offer, that we do have supporters, that we do reach people of all ages, that we do contribute to a healthy business environment, and that we do achieve success when we aspire to the noblest of endeavors--the elevation of the human spirit.

Still, the negativity of our managements does extract a serious toll. Board members, most of whom are remarkable and well-meaning people, are quick to accept an education about orchestras from managers that would seek to reduce the size of their organizations to a level that their skill sets are capable of managing. Board members who would not accept failure in any division of the companies they run are quick to accept the flawed conclusions of doomsday reports that undermine the community asset they are charged with protecting. When handed these documents by their managers, they too often assume the reports to be correct, despite all evidence to the contrary. And of course, if a manager can convince the board that orchestras everywhere are dying, then all he or she has to do is somehow manage to keep the doors open in order to be awarded with disproportionate salary increases.

One of my lowest moments this year came when I met with a board member from one of the world's greatest orchestras, who had convinced himself that his city could no longer maintain its orchestra, and that it must shrink in size and stature. This gentleman, who was so disengaged that he couldn't possibly have inspired anybody to donate to his "lost cause," refused to acknowledge any other potential viewpoint. And, he was sitting with a manager who admitted to me that he had not even read Michael Kaiser's book on arts management. How someone who makes close to $400,000 a year in the field of arts management can not even be bothered to read the most important book on his profession in a decade is simply bewildering to me.

But we must acknowledge that those who seek to make their name and elevate their insignificant presence in music by tearing down our nation's greatest cultural and educational institutions are having some successes. Most notably this year we have seen their negative footprints in the sand of Honolulu, in the Battery of Charleston, and on the streets of Detroit.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the city of Porgy and Bess, in a state where the arts generate over $700 million in annual wages, in a community that has successfully hosted the Spoleto USA Festival for over three decades, the board that is charged with protecting the Charleston Symphony has declared that the community will not support their great orchestra.

I was a member of the Charleston Symphony back in 1986, and I know how important that orchestra is to the community. Its current economic difficulties are not a result of a lack of relevancy or sustainability, but rather the byproduct of a management that is unwilling (or unable) to articulate an inspirational message to a city that is eager to hear a positive message of hope for their orchestra. The only thing that is surprising about the situation in Charleston is how, in one of our country's most beautiful cities, the management, board, and artistic leadership have not been able to lead the orchestra to a new period of growth.

In Honolulu, our colleagues continue to bravely fight for the preservation of one of our nation's oldest orchestras, an orchestra that was founded by the community and protected by the community for a century. For many years it seemed that nothing could finish this resilient orchestra, nothing that is until their current management team took over.

Once again this year the musicians of ICSOM responded to our Calls to Action. Over $120,000 was contributed to assist the musicians of Honolulu following their bankruptcy filing. This means that in a period of just over 26 months, despite the economic downturn that has left us all hurting, ICSOM managed to raise over $340,000 for musicians in need. The generosity and solidarity throughout ICSOM is a constant source of inspiration for me and your Governing Board. More than most, the musicians of ICSOM seem to innately understand that we can truly accomplish more together than we ever could apart.

But, there are more causes ahead. This month, in Detroit, the musicians there are rallying together to present a message to their community that their management seems unable to articulate. That powerful message is that not only can the Detroit Symphony be saved, but that there is a reason to save it. The management and board members of the Detroit Symphony should not be spreading a message that asks "how can we continue to afford to support our orchestra?" But rather "how can we afford not to?"

It is not the music that has failed the citizens of Charleston, Honolulu or Detroit. It is the managements of those orchestras that have failed. What other business tolerates such failure, and what other business uses its failures as examples to promulgate a so-called "new model?"

We must now work against the latest managerial catch phrase of "the new model." I have absolutely no idea what that means. It seems that every year or so, a meeting must be held in some conference room to determine a new catch phrase. For the last year or so it was "The New Economic Reality." But they must have somehow come to realize that recessions are cyclical and that their slogan made no sense, because we haven't heard it as much lately. For a while the slogan was "structural deficit". And now it is "The New Model" as if there could ever be such a thing. Each orchestra has a different mission in a different community and faces a different set of issues. To even contemplate the notion that there could be a "one size fits all" solution is to demonstrate not only a fundamental lack of understanding about just what our orchestras do, but also a fundamental misinterpretation of the current culture in America and how ideas are marketed in this media age.

In this promulgated negative sloganism, we often hear that the problems in our field stem from overpaid musicians, and that in this time of economic recession in our nation there just isn't enough money. So, when LeBron James signed his contract with the Miami Heat, I couldn't help but do a little math. Based upon his performance throughout his career, and my performance throughout mine, Mr. James will earn my annual salary for pulling down less than two rebounds in his first game. And while I understand that the comparison between the sports industry and the cultural industry is not especially apt, I nonetheless could not help but notice that I would have to perform for over 367 years in order to earn what Mr. James will make in his first year with the Miami basketball franchise, playing in a city where board members insisted there was not enough money to save the Florida Philharmonic.

In 1965, the arts and culture industry in America was a $3 billion marketplace. Now, it represents over $166 billion dollars in economic activity every year. This is the message our orchestras should be expressing in times of economic difficulty. The arts should be recognized as the growth industry that it is.

There is no crisis in classical music. The crisis lies in arts management.

If only our field could be as successful at promoting our orchestras' successes as it is at promoting their demise, imagine what we could accomplish together.

But let there be no doubt, that together the musicians of ICSOM have indeed accomplished a lot, especially this year, and especially at this time.

Our members came together in an unprecedented way to make our voices heard at this year's AFM Convention in Las Vegas. We asked for your support to help us defeat onerous proposals, and you responded by supplying us with literally thousands of signatures. Over 86% of ICSOM orchestras sent petitions to their local convention delegates, and when I testified before the convention committees, it was with the voice of every member of the Chicago Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, the Virginia Symphony and many more, with signatures on petitions in my hand. With such a unified voice we could not be ignored, and we were successful with every one of our initiatives regarding recommendations and bylaw changes. The outcome of this convention would have been very different if not for each and every one of you, and the success belongs entirely to you and your colleagues.

The Governing Board would also like to acknowledge and thank ICSOM-president emeritus Dave Angus, who as the delegate from Local 66 advised the ICSOM team on many issues on the floor of the convention. And we also thank ICSOM Chairman-Emeritus Robert Levine, who as well offered invaluable advice, and also informed the membership of the activities in Las Vegas through his live convention diary where over 5000 followers watched the unifying events unfold.

While our union still faces difficulties ahead, we have a new president and a new International Executive Board who already have demonstrated how deeply committed they are to working with us, and to hearing our ideas. We are humbled and honored to welcome the IEB to our gathering here in Houston, and we are so pleased that they decided to hold their first meeting concurrently with our conference. This gesture of solidarity is deeply appreciated. We will all have a chance this week to truly join together in friendship, conversation, and open debate. We extend our congratulations to every member of the new IEB, and to President Hair we offer our thanks, support, and best wishes as you embark on this endeavor. We are certain that we will accomplish great things together.

The members of ICSOM have indeed achieved many things, and we have contributed so much to our orchestras, and our communities. The Governing Board has asked for your help and at every request you have all responded. But, there is more to do, and this week we will be asking even more of you. This conference is titled "It's Time to Embrace the Future" and we believe that this meeting will truly be about the future, even while we always seek to honor our historic past. Of course, we also titled it that to contrast it with the League of American Orchestra's conference theme, which was "It's Time to Take On the Future." We felt that "take on the future" was indicative of the recent confrontational style of our managements, and in ICSOM, we don't feel the need to articulate the future as a pugilistic endeavor, but we prefer the positive message of welcoming the success that we know can lie ahead.

But it is truly time for us to embrace the future, and many decisions about the future direction of ICSOM will be made here and in the weeks to come. There have already been many decisions made this year, very tough decisions, and they have extracted a great personal toll. I do not doubt that not everyone has agreed with all of the decisions we have made, and I know that not everyone will agree with all of the decisions left to come. But I also know we will move forward together and in unity, with open discussions and debate, ready to take on any new challenge, and eager to articulate a positive future for our children, our music, and our cities.

The musicians of ICSOM have accomplished great things, but now we must do more. We must recommit ourselves to the advocacy that is so needed. At this time in America's history people are eager for the message of hope that we provide, and they long for organizations that truly aspire to quality. They seek organizations that create pride in their cities and restore the belief that they can have what they deserve for their children's future. Our orchestras fulfill all of those aspirations, and more.

But we each much ask ourselves "have we done enough?" We must take this message back to our colleagues. We must ask them to do more. We must continue to explore our partnership with Americans for the Arts. We must continue to build our press contacts so that the truth about the arts in America can be heard. We must continue to build relationships with the communities that surround our orchestras. The field looks to those of us in this room for leadership, and we will answer that call.

We must be our own advocates. It is abundantly clear that no one is going to do it for us.

This year ICSOM lost an ardent advocate. Jaime Austria, a bassist with the New York City Opera Orchestra, passed away in May. Jaime accomplished many things in his persistent efforts to support the arts, perhaps most notably creating a petition calling for the creation of a Secretary of the Arts position in the Obama cabinet, a petition which amazingly garnered nearly a quarter million signatures. Upon learning of his passing, I reviewed the 200 or so e-mails that he had sent me since I became ICSOM Chairman, and on one I found a signature tag that struck me as especially indicative of his activism, and of a philosophy we all should seek to emulate. It was a Brazilian proverb which read "When we dream alone, it is only a dream. When we dream together, it is no longer a dream but the beginning of reality."

I must take a moment to recognize your governing board, as they truly are the most dedicated group of people I have ever known, and they have worked together in this year in a unique and remarkable way. No amount of praise from me could ever thank each of them enough for everything they have done for ICSOM, and for me personally. We all would also like to acknowledge our interim counsel, Mike Okun as well. He has been absolutely extraordinary in his efforts on our, and your, behalf this year and nothing we have accomplished would have been possible without his absolute dedication, integrity, and expertise.

I truly believe that ICSOM has never been more unified then we are today, and this accomplishment belongs to each and every one of you, and to my friends and colleagues who serve you on this board. But we must be ever vigilant in seeking out new opportunities to unite in support of each other and in support of the arts in North America and beyond. We must provide inspiration to our communities when our managements do not. We must believe that every crisis is an opportunity, and in this crisis before us we can offer hope and service where others offer only uncertainty. Let us leave here after this week inspired and rededicated to the mission that is before us, and let us never doubt our success.

I thank you for the honor of allowing me to serve as your chairman, and I look forward to visiting with you all this week.

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