Flanagan (the beta version)

The Flanagan report is, in many ways, merely the latest iteration of
the symphonic artform known as the “self-inflicted wound.” By no means
the earliest such report was one cited in an earlier post on this blog (which I
believe was a study done by SRI, although I can’t find any
documentation for that). The most recent was “The Financial Condition
of Symphony Orchestras,” known fondly throughout our business (perhaps because of the aptness of the author’s name) as “The Wolf Report,”
published in 1992.

Douglas Dempster, Interim Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Texas, wrote a very good article for Harmony on the Wolf Report, its lack of success in predicting the future, and its possible role in averting the future it did predict:

In 1990, The Wolf Organization, Inc. was contracted by the League to do an analysis of the economic status of the symphony orchestra industry. Everyone knew that the analysis was not likely to bring good news: orchestras had struggled through the 1980s with many labor disputes and financial challenges. By design, the analysis by Wolf and his associates was intended as “Phase I” of a three phase reform program instigated and led by the American Symphony Orchestra League. The Wolf Organization’s report—which is formally titled “The Financial Condition of Symphony Orchestras,” but has been known since its completion as the “Wolf Report”—was to be followed by a more forward-thinking investigation of ways that the industry might reform itself. This second phase was completed and the results were published as Americanizing the American Orchestra. These first two phases were intended to provide the research and The Wolf Report and Baumol’s Curse blueprint needed for a third and final phase that would lead to sweeping reforms supported by external funding.

The strategy never came to fruition. The Wolf Report and the Americanizing document touched off such controversy that no major, national funding initiative grew out of the effort. A feel for this controversy can be found in reactions to the Wolf Report. Some, like Deborah Borda, then managing director of the New York Philharmonic, read the Wolf Report as a call to arms for the industry:

Therein lies the first and crucial step. The “Holy Deadlock” that exists today between most boards, orchestras, and staffs must be broken. If we can’t find a more productive way of working together toward genuine change, we will eventually drive off that cliff. For any of the valid issues and questions posed by Wolf to be addressed so as to create meaningful change in our industry, we must begin to consider some fundamental changes in our governance functions. We must create a new protocol.

Older hands like Peter Pastreich, then executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, took the unflappable view that crises come and go; that orchestras need to respond, but not panic:

We do have a critical financial problem. The orchestras are spending more than they are taking in, and if they don’t stop doing that soon there will be some disrupted seasons and lowered living standards for musicians and administrators. But the situation is not critical, not serious, and music will survive. What we don’t need to do is to allow the financial problems which have developed from over optimism, poor management, and admirable generosity to drive us to “solutions” which are worse than the problem. What we do need to do is balance our budgets: take in more money and spend less. And continue to be an innovative, living force in the American cultural scene.

The reliably cranky critic Samuel Lipman had this to say in the New Criterion about the League’s efforts through the Wolf Report and Americanizing the American Orchestra:

[S]o great is this disgrace that it provides ample grounds for the dissolution of the American Symphony Orchestra League. The League clearly does not have in mind either the interests of our beloved symphony orchestras and their audiences or the future of great music.

Dempster concluded by writing:

Where does the orchestra industry find itself 10 years after Thomas Wolf’s address to the League? For the 1999-2000 season—the season for which the Wolf Report projected a $64 million deficit—the industry posted, according to the League, an estimated $84.5 million surplus (extrapolated from 203 responding orchestras to approximately 1,800 orchestras). Total revenues and expenses for the season were, respectively, $1.267 billion and $1.183 billion. The Wolf Report projected 2000 revenues at $946.5 million and expenses at $1.01 billion, greatly underestimating the prospects for growth in the industry.

The Wolf Report’s surplus/deficit projections were clearly mistaken. Given the controversy that swirled around the report, that’s the outcome that will matter most to many reading this article. However, it could easily distract us from a more important, if less salient, prediction: the report was remarkably accurate in predicting the scale of growth that the industry enjoyed through the decade of the 1990s:

…The Wolf Report clearly anticipated the trend toward decelerating growth, which may, in the end, prove far more significant to the industry than its periodic slumps into modest deficits…

 

…the Wolf Report, and the subsequent Americanizing report, very likely
did much to frighten the industry into fiscal sobriety. Looking back to
the American Symphony Orchestra League’s national meeting of 1992 and
the exchange between Thomas Wolf and various orchestra representatives,
Peter Pastreich’s veteran advice seems to have called it closer than
anyone. The industry was facing a challenge and not a crisis;
orchestras were spending more than they were taking in. In Pastreich’s
sober judgment, they would all have to cut that out. Not a paradigm
shift, but shrewder management; more aggressive marketing and
fundraising; program innovations; cost controls; and more efficiency
where efficiencies were possible. More and better concerts; better
programming; better business.

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