Whatever happened to treating people with at least a modicum of respect or civility and to elevated discussion and behavior? I wonder, too, what has happened to bargaining in good faith or negotiating at all?
I have become more and more disturbed by the behavior of orchestra boards and managers in the past few years as they use threats and strong-arm techniques to coerce musicians to accept their “proposals” (AKA ultimatums) to cut weeks, salaries, and orchestra size—or, in more than one case, to “fix” the problems they, not the musicians, have caused. Far too many boards are holding musicians accountable for the mistakes made by the managers boards have hired.
In the last year more than one orchestra manager has cancelled the musicians’ health insurance due to an impending work stoppage. In one situation, the health insurance policy was cancelled retroactively without notifying the musicians, additionally prohibiting these same musicians from being able to take advantage of the only option normally open to the unemployed, COBRA. Another refused to allow their musicians to pay for their own insurance during a labor action.
Meanwhile, these same managers continue to receive their sizeable salaries during strikes, lockouts, and bankruptcies; yet they are doing next to nothing, since there is no orchestra or concerts to oversee. So why, I have to ask, do boards continue to pay inflated six-figure salaries when their managers are doing nothing? In Honolulu, the executive director, whose hiring was forced upon the musicians and who was engaged for three years instead of the one year promised by the board, has bled away what little money remained while doing nothing because she shut the orchestra down during the first week of their newly negotiated concessionary contract.
In Detroit, the governor and ranking senator called upon both sides to end a strike that had lasted more than four months. The musicians, admitting it might erode what they had been trying to protect for the institution, still agreed they would be willing to make the effort to meet and try to achieve a settlement. And what did management say? No, we just can’t raise any more money than we’ve been saying we could raise over the past few months.
When the Detroit management finally did agree to mediation, little had changed from their initial proposal. For instance, they claimed to have segregated monies designated for community engagement services, yet a clearly defined vision of these services has been a moving target. Meanwhile they have glossed over their intractability about proposals to remove tenure provisions. (Removing peer review would essentially equate to that, whether they are willing to admit it or not.) Sadly, far too many board members involved in this dismaying situation have bought this bill of goods.
I’ve also watched the situation in Louisville with great interest and concern. As someone who lived through an eight-month shutdown and bankruptcy (in Nashville, the bankruptcy filing actually came nearly four months after they laid off the entire orchestra and staff), I was delighted to see a bankruptcy judge finally see through the actions of the Louisville Orchestra’s board and management. The judge refused to set aside the collective bargaining agreement because musicians offered proof of available assets. He also reportedly disagreed with the board’s slash and burn methods as the only alternative to address the orchestra’s financial problems.
Time and again an orchestra enters negotiations in good faith but the management and board dig in and never move from their initial offer. The board decided early on that they are only willing to raise a certain amount of money and no more. In Detroit, this take-it-or-leave-it mentality meant there was no option but to strike because management and the board went that extra step and implemented the regressive contract. The musicians had only two options: strike or accept the unacceptable contract terms.
What has been most disheartening is something I have long been concerned about, a lack of education and understanding about our institutions, how they work, and how they are funded. I have just finished reading Michael Kaiser’s Leading Roles: 50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask, and I have learned a lot. It explains a great deal and just reinforces, in my opinion, the very desperate need to educate our boards about how our organizations work and their role as caretakers of our orchestras.
Those of us lucky enough to have heard Mr. Kaiser in person, or who already have read his previous book, Art of the Turnaround, know that our orchestras cannot “save their way to health.” Cutting programming and marketing, and later orchestra size and wages, inevitably will fail and in many cases will destroy both the soul and the reputation of the organization. This is especially true for those orchestras that make their financial crises public because no donor wishes to waste money or time on a failing institution—especially if those responsible for caretaking the organization are the same ones proclaiming its failure! Kaiser recommends that an organization in crisis come up with a single plan and prove to the public how it will resolve the financial situation, incrementally, while continuing to provide and build quality programming. A positive attitude is also crucial during this period and these incremental improvements give constituents hope and morale improves.
One of the saddest observations is in regard to the mission statement of an organization. Many board members, because they come from the for-profit world, do not understand or agree with the non-profit business model and have difficulty believing (or supporting) the idea that producing quality performances is more important than making money or breaking even. Some even believe the earned income/contributions relationship is nothing more than bad business practice and a “new model” can somehow “fix” the problem to increase profits. Further, board members are often unaware of all the skills necessary to be an executive director, and, rather than hiring someone who can create revenue, they hire someone who only understands discipline and financial control, so they measure the financial problem instead of solving it. Add then the perception by some board members that the staff must be incompetent because otherwise they would have much better paying jobs in the for-profit/corporate world; so why would the board listen to the advice of these unsuccessful, second-class people? Of course, what these same board members don’t understand is that many staff members work for our orchestras because they love what they do, just as we musicians do.
Leading Roles is filled with incredible advice for boards, but it is equally as interesting from the artist’s perspective because it explains things like running endowment and building capital campaigns and the preparation needed to be successful. I believe that musicians and board members should read this book.
In Louisville, the board refused to meet with Mr. Kaiser and decided instead to file for bankruptcy. Once again the board has taken up the call to reduce the size of the orchestra, not realizing they are actually destroying the orchestra because they will have a much harder time hiring subs and extras with a reduced core. Yet, the orchestra is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary, and a recent movie focuses on the incredible recording work this orchestra accomplished as it championed new American compositions. Why the board is not taking advantage of these gifts is unknown.
The very sad fact is that there are very few really great executive directors out there. Even rarer still are the boards that truly work as a community to support their orchestras. I’ve spoken with a number of conductors and managers in our industry who could point to those orchestras who have failed for the simple reason that their boards have decided they absolutely know what’s best for their orchestra and are unwilling to listen to any advice, even from proven industry leaders. We need to encourage directors who truly want to support their orchestra and are willing to work toward that support.
Some board members are neither subscribers nor donors, and they’re certainly not making an effort to get their friends involved. And a few boards may even have a majority of directors who do not genuinely love their orchestra or care to support it. These boards have set the bar so low that they have diminish the amount of effort it requires to sustain their great orchestras, which leads to a destroyed morale and a product that, over time, suffers greatly making it less attractive to supporters. This has to stop.
I call on the League of American Orchestras to develop an orientation program in consultation with ICSOM, ROPA, and the AFM, for all incoming board members of our institutions. Further, I call on the League and all our boards and managers to stop this aggressive, negative rhetoric that further threatens the tenuous relationship between management/board and musicians. We must work together to end this destructive, negative behavior and help our leaders lead.