Columbus schedules a disaster

The management and board of the Columbus Symphony have released a document with the Orwellian title of The Path to Financial Stability and Future Growth. It’s virtually guaranteed not to produce the first,
and, as it proposes to shrink the organization, the only “growth” likely to result is in press coverage of the resulting disaster.

While the document talks at length about how hard it is to run American orchestras today, the most telling passage is this:

As it was being confronted by these shifting financial fortunes, the CSO found itself embroiled in controversy over the departure of it’s long-time Music Director, a development that divided many of its supporters and generated significant negative publicity, further stressing the CSO’s ability to raise contributed revenue and attract concertgoers. Ultimately this led to the departure of the CSO’s Executive Director. From 2003 to June 2006, the CSO operated without either a full-time Executive Director or Music Director.

Translated into English (and with apostrophes used properly), this would read:

The management and board bungled the departure of its former Music Director, the executive director was fired as a result, and the board was criminally negligent by neglecting to fill either position for three years. As a result, the orchestra lost lots of money and even more credibility in the community. The solution to these problems is to screw the musicians.

This is not a financial crisis. This is a governance crisis. No plan that fails to address the real crisis will bring the orchestra to any kind of sustainable financial shape.

The most useful single index of internal financial balance I’ve found is the relationship between contributed income (whether current contributions or in the form on interest on past contributions – ie, endowment income) and musicians’ compensation. It’s informative about a fundamental question: is the community willing to pay the cost of having an orchestra? I’ve long believed that the total costs of orchestras ought to be divided into the costs of having an orchestra and the costs of using that orchestra to provide services to the community. The latter should be paid for from earned revenue.

The community does pretty well by this metric. In 2005-06, the total contributed income (including investment income) was $5,975,000, while orchestra compensation and benefits came to $4,980,000. Clearly the community is willing to donate sufficient money to pay the musicians what they’re making now.

But the management and staff aren’t doing a very good job of controlling the costs of actually using the orchestra. If the musicians had worked for free, the institution would still have needed to raise $1,281,000 in order to break even.

That’s worth reiterating. If the Columbus Symphony were an amateur orchestra, with all the musicians donating their services, it would still need to raise over $1 million in order to be “sustainable.” How can the problem be that the musicians are making too much money? Isn’t it way more likely that the management and board are doing very badly in making operational costs match revenue from operations?

There is no chance that the musicians will agree to cuts of this magnitude. The musicians’ initial reactions aren’t going to change:

Trafford presented the proposal yesterday to six musicians. The group walked out about 45 minutes into the meeting when they learned how many musicians would be let go under the plan.

“We feel completely betrayed,” said Jim Akins, principal tuba player and chairman of the orchestra committee, which represents the musicians in meetings with management.

“For the past two years, we’ve given this board all our support. But this proposed plan was done outside of any collaboration or consultation with musicians,” Akins said.

Nor was the music director very happy:

The plan received no support yesterday from the symphony’s music director, speaking for the first time about the organization’s financial woes.

Any downsizing of the orchestra would be “catastrophic,” Junichi Hirokami said.

He placed primary blame for the symphony’s financial woes on board members, who, he said, have been ineffectual in raising money and community support.

“If the orchestra is reduced,” Hirokami said. “I have no purpose to stay here.”

So much for Japanese politeness and the fabled reluctance to say “no.”

So what will happen? A very similar fight happened in Louisville . It went on for a long time and caused a lot of pain. It also didn’t result in any full-time positions vanishing. The one thing that seems certain is that the CSO musicians will not agree to the elimination of full-time positions except through attrition.

It’s time for someone to take the keys away from the orchestra’s board.

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2 Responses to “Columbus schedules a disaster”

  1. David Thomas Says:

    Thank you for this post. It states our situation clearly and simply. I have been reluctant to write about it on my own blog for fear of “repercussions”. But you have broken the ice in a sensible and reasonable fashion.

  2. Bob Huenefeld Says:

    I have sent one letter to the Editor of the Dispatch concerning the current funding situation.You are absolutly correct in your analysis of where the blame lay.

    I paln to write other letters to the Editor comparing the Indianapolis Symphony and its situation versus that of the Columbus Symphony.

    Indianapolis has a vision and as Bill Belichek describes it “Does their Job”.

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