I had the opportunity to watch the opening segment of the League’s Red Alert! plenary session which consisted of a speech from League CEO Jesse Rosen. He read a list of current orchestra bankruptcies (Philadelphia, Syracuse, Honolulu, New Mexico, & Louisville) and defined them as “critical situations” that have “erupted” since 2008. He said they are not the result of cyclical economic cycles but are structural in nature, but that’s not what the League was saying several years ago…
In response to the series of bankruptcies following the 9/11 recession, this is how then League CEO, Henry Fogel, framed the situation to the Kansas City Star in an article from 6/15/03.
“The downward trend, Fogel pointed out, is happening in other sectors of the economy. Hockey, for example, is in far worse shape, he said. The three out of 30 teams that have filed for bankruptcy represent 10 percent of [the NHL]: In contrast, only six ensembles out of the 900 ASOL-member orchestras have declared bankruptcy.”
Two year later in 2005, Fogel revised the details a bit but delivered the same basic message to the Cincinnati Post (republished resource).
The view that American orchestras are on the brink of a precipice is incorrect, Fogel said. “In the last five years, when the economy has been really down, we’ve had nine orchestra bankruptcies, but that’s not a lot. There are over 350 professional orchestras in America. In what other industry is the percentage better?”
In the same month, Fogel had a similar point of view for the Salt Lake Tribune (source).
Since 2001, there have been eight bankruptcies among approximately 350 professional orchestras, and five of those have rallied and are still performing, Fogel said. “It’s not a bad track record. It’s better than the airline industry.”
In 2006, we examined those perspectives in an article that took Fogel to task over failing to “[identify] the fundamental problems which actually plague the business [even though] it does take public notice of the gorilla in the corner.”
However, the gorilla referenced in 2006 had everything to do with organizations that have suffered under a string of ineffective leaders, lack of accountability, and poor business decisions, not unlike what Michael Kasier recently defined in his Huffington Post article from 6/6/2011. Yet in Rosen’s speech, he cites that the current round of problems is structural in nature and is the result of outside forces.
So when did the shift in League thinking take place and how did it develop?
How did it go from talking about nine bankruptcies over four years as groups who have “rallied and are still performing” to mentioning five bankruptcies over three years without even hinting that two had zero or minimal interruptions to their performance schedules (Philadelphia and Louisville), one has already been replaced by a 501c(3) orchestra (Honolulu), and the remaining two are already within the “rallying” process of musicians, local supporters, and former board members forming replacement ensembles (New Mexico and Syracuse)?
I wish I had answers to those questions but based on the content of Rosen’s speech as compared to Fogel’s numerous comments from 2005, there seems to have been a fundamental shift in the way the League views its role. Moreover, Rosen’s speech projects an image that the League is breaking industry taboos by talking about some very real downward trends; but in reality, Rosen isn’t taking the time to examine or discuss why or how the League came to those conclusions.
As such, Rosen’s remarks might fall under what Bill Moyers was telling Jon Stewart on 6/1/2011 when he said (paraphrased) that institutional leaders have increasingly embraced language designed to conceal as opposed to revealing their thinking. They aren’t willing to engage and instead, they focus more on trying to make sure you don’t understand exactly what they are trying to say even though they may use simple words to express it.
For a plenary session that hyped up the notion of speaking openly and frankly about today’s challenges, Rosen’s portion felt far more like what Moyers described when he said (exact quote) “People don’t want to keep their opinions hidden but they want to keep the facts hidden.”
Admitting that revenue and audiences are declining is not a grand gesture of transparency when you fail to address issues of accountability and explore why those trends have occurred. This is precisely what Kaiser was getting at when he wrote the following.
But the key issue is: why has revenue fallen so far for so many arts organizations?… It is impossible to blame unions for the lack of revenue for arts organizations when so many are doing such a poor job of managing themselves.
Are there plenty of issues musicians need to come to terms with regarding institutional stability and managing debt? Of course. But if this business hopes to pull itself out of the current economic downturn sooner rather than later, it’s going to have to look in the mirror as much as it looks across the table when it comes to speaking openly and frankly about today’s challenges.
Postscript: Beyond Rosen’s portion of the Red Alert! session, I have watched most of Steve Wolff’s component and none of Susan Nelson’s. Based on how often Wolff mentioned that institutions and their leaders need to adapt and change, I almost thought that the tag line for the session was “Adaptistration” and that due to a bureaucratic SNAFU, they failed to notify me. If nothing else, it’s nice to see the rest of the business get on the road we’ve been on since 2003. If they can manage to stay on that path and not corrupt a good premise with old agendas, then they might end up someplace better than where they began.