No sooner had I returned from a whirlwind three-day visit to Jacksonville—a trip that saw a settlement of the egregious lockout of the musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra—than we heard disturbing news from the Midwest. The board and management of the Columbus Symphony had secretly devised an insidious “plan” to decimate that great orchestra and turn back the progress of a 56-year investment the citizens of central Ohio had made in their orchestra.
But first, the good news.
On December 4, ICSOM issued a Call to Action to our members to help save the Jacksonville Symphony (JSO), and, once again, you responded. In a five-week period that encompassed the holiday season, the musicians of North America sent nearly $100,000 to assist the JSO Players’ Association in their battle. Ninety-four percent of ICSOM orchestras participated in this campaign, and support was also sent by our friends in OCSM, RMA, ROPA, and TMA.
This latest Call to Action again demonstrated the power of collective action and sent a message far and wide that wherever an orchestra is in need, the members of ICSOM will rise to their aid. The donations and letters of support poured in from across the United States and Canada, making an irrefutable statement to the management and board in Jacksonville that this was indeed a national issue.
But the real heroes are the musicians of the JSO and the citizens of Jacksonville. Time and time again the audience turned out for benefit concerts as they evinced a belief in their orchestra. The musicians stood with their leadership through many difficult moments, and they can now look ahead to what should be a very bright future.
Everywhere I went in Jacksonville I met citizens who professed their pride in their orchestra, as well as their desire to see that orchestra grow so it can serve all of Northeast Florida in new and innovative ways. There was tremendous support for the musicians, and winning the public relations effort was key to the settlement. The citizens were tired of the negative portrayal of the future of the arts in their city, and they were hungry for the positive message from the musicians and ICSOM.
Crucial to this effort was the support of our ICSOM orchestras. Had our member orchestras not answered the Call to Action, there was a very real possibility that the JSO might have met its demise as the orchestra we have come to know. Instead, the JSO is returning to the stage of their beautiful concert hall and is working toward a better future as it builds on its historic past.
In my address to the delegates of the 2007 ICSOM Conference in Minneapolis, I said: “We should be ever vigilant in seeking opportunities to implement our network of activism. Whenever an orchestra is in need, let us all respond. Wherever a musician is in need, let us all respond.”
In ICSOM’s Call to Action for Jacksonville, we included these words: “…unfortunately, there can be no doubt that we will issue similar Calls to Action to assist other orchestras in the months and years ahead.” I assure you, we did not intend this statement to be so immediately prophetic.
It was on January 17, less than 48 hours after my return from Florida, that we learned of a “plan” from the board of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) to cut their budget by $3 million, to implement a pay cut of 30 percent for the musicians, and to fire 22 of the 53 full-time musicians. While there are many unprintable words I could use to describe this “plan,” for the purposes of this article, I think I will go with ghastly and absurd.
Again we find ourselves disputing false and negative claims. Again we find ourselves asserting this inherent truth: offering an inferior product to consumers can never be the basis of a viable business model for an orchestra. In fact, far from solving any problems, this ludicrous “plan” would most certainly sentence this cherished cultural institution to extinction. The unified musicians of the CSO, the citizens of Columbus, and every musician in ICSOM will simply not allow this to happen. We will all rise once again to shine the national spotlight on the failed policies of a board and management that would appear to have been derelict in their duties as community stewards.
We ask the board that devised this scheme to explain themselves. Why, at this time of promise for the arts in America, are they spending time and money producing a glossy document in a futile effort to convince the citizens of Columbus that their city is not world class, instead of exploring new avenues of support for the growth of the institution they are charged with maintaining?
In a time when the Fort Worth Symphony is receiving rave reviews for its Carnegie Hall appearance, the Florida Orchestra is announcing gifts totaling over $3 million to their stabilization plan, the Nashville Symphony is winning three Grammy awards, the Buffalo Philharmonic is aggressively building its endowment, the North Carolina Symphony is recording the works of Pulitzer Prize winning composer Christopher Rouse, the Oregon Symphony is announcing a 20% increase in attendance, and the New York Philharmonic is receiving more press coverage than the Oscars, why does the management of the CSO profess that the arts in Columbus are not sustainable? To even contemplate making such a claim one would have to ignore the fact that the non-profit culture industry in Greater Columbus results in over $330 million in economic activity every year.
In the coming months, we all must direct our attention to Columbus. It is our hope and belief that this situation will be resolved and that a positive message will be heard, as it ultimately was in Jacksonville. I am convinced that the citizens of Columbus will demand that the board and management that devoted more time to this plot than to nurturing their institution must explain themselves.
I have no doubt that the Columbus Symphony will endure. And I have no doubt that if another Call to Action is needed, the members of ICSOM will once again rise to the aid of their brothers and sisters.
The ICSOM Call to Action issued for Jacksonville went on to say: “…if we effectively respond to every call, we will demonstrate the power in collective action. We can and will make a powerful statement to our managements and boards as we work to spread the positive community message of the musicians of ICSOM.”
There are truly more positives than negatives to report about symphonic music in America, and I wish I could spend this column exclusively recounting the many successes. But, as we rally to the cause in Columbus, we must also turn our attention westward, where the musicians of the Honolulu Symphony are engaged in a struggle of their own. You might have read reports that headlined, “Honolulu Symphony Bounces Back.” But those reports are premature. The musicians there are facing serious difficulties. You can read about them in the Newslets in this issue of Senza Sordino. It is a different type of battle, one not so much with their management, but rather with the perceptions of a community weary of ongoing financial difficulties. There, as in many places, we must convince the citizenry of the orchestra’s relevance.
All too often, and in far too many places, we must be our own advocates for our communities. In places where the bastions against progress stand silent when confronted with fallacies, and where the purveyors of negativity are blind to the opportunity that investment affords them, we must ensure that they hear our voices as well as our music. Our audiences are eager to hear the positive message that we offer, and they are ready to reject the rhetoric of those who would suggest that their cities cannot achieve all that they deserve. Let us never rest in this cause, and let us remember that with every victory a new challenge awaits.