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Orchestra Governance Essays

Here’s a breakdown of who’s who in orchestra governance and how they fit together. There’s no spin here, you get an inside look into the good, the bad, and the ugly behind those who influence how orchestras function.

Who's Minding The Score? The Board

A humorous take on stakeholder stereotypes courtesy of Who’s Minding The Score?

The board’s role is to represent the interests of the community and serve as the guardians of public trust. They are the only individuals granted the legal authority for hiring and dismissing the senior artistic and administrative leaders, typically the Music Director and Executive Director (also called CEO or President). They are responsible for the financial viability of the orchestra as well as approving collective bargaining agreements with the musicians. Most board members must pass through a nomination process to become a part of an orchestra board but they can walk away from those positions at any time. By-laws can regulate the number of years executive board members can serve but there is no requirements for term limits.

There are many reasons individuals join an orchestra board. A love of music and the desire to contribute components of their professional expertise to an organization which provides a valuable community service are the two most frequently mentioned. Many board members contribute significant money and time while others contribute wisdom and professional expertise. Most board members receive no training for the responsibilities they assume and accountability issues vary from state to state.

Boards typically elect several officers (sometimes referred to as trustees), who are charged with most oversight responsibilities related to ensuring that the organization is financially secure and that they are meeting the organization’s stated mission goals. The executive board (also called officers) is typically divided into the following positions:

  • President (or chairperson)
  • Vice President (or vice chair)
  • Secretary
  • Treasurer

Larger orchestras may have several additional officers in addition to the regular board executives. These additional positions usually focus on a particular facet of the organization, such as marketing, education, etc. Generally, when an individual applies to become a member of the board they can expect to delver on one or all of the “Three W’s”: wit, wisdom, and wealth. Board members often pay a membership fee and are expected to participate in fundraising activities or provide a valuable service on a pro bono basis.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Good: Board members are very thoughtful, hard working, enthusiastic individuals that rise to the challenge of fundraising and take an active interest in holding the executive administrator responsible for carrying out their duties appropriately. New board members are welcomed and fresh ideas are actively sought to improve the organization and ensure that it will remain stable for years to come. They allow every constituent equal input in developing the institutional direction instead of always imposing their own will and put themselves in positions assume a certain level of personal risk in order to benefit the organization.

Bad: The reality for some boards is that they are quite often social or political in nature. It is not uncommon for a controlling ‘clique’ to rotate as officers for years at a time. This can discourage new board members and eventually new money soon begins to dry up. 

Ugly: As stated above, most board members are woefully unprepared for the dysfunction that is an orchestra. With the vast majority of board members coming from for profit businesses, many find it difficult to transfer that experience to a nonprofit environment. Some board officers will even use their position to fill the executive management with their friends or to hand out business favors to help increase their personal standing in the for profit realm. They take little to no interest in the stability of the organization or in matters of executive review until it is far too late. 

Orchestra Managers

A humorous take on stakeholder stereotypes courtesy of Who’s Minding The Score?

Orchestra managers are typically individuals with some musical training who have moved into administration positions or academically trained nonprofit marketers, fund-raisers and administrators. These professionals have transferable skills allowing them to move from careers the nonprofit to for profit sector.

Orchestra managers face most of the professional hurdles as do their colleagues in other for profit disciplines as well as additional frustrations resulting from the significant fixed costs and restricted cash flow associated with nonprofit structures. This limits their flexibility to address annual budget shortfalls via cost control methods and increases a reliance on generating revenue streams, both contributed and earned (such as ticket sales). Attracting and retaining highly competent staff, especially senior managers and leaders are difficult due to these issues.

Approximately 20 years ago, the academic world created a dedicated arts administration degree to address the shortage of competent arts administrators. These programs are designed to train arts managers for dealing with the unique environment within nonprofits function.

The typical orchestra administration is organized into the following sections:

  • Executive Leadership: Responsible for overseeing all administrative departments and act as a bridge between board, management, and musicians. Includes the Executive Director and administrative department heads (typically classified as “Directors” or “Vice Presidents”.
  • Development: Responsible for all matters related to fundraising.
  • Operations: Responsible for all matters related to concert production issues. Includes unique administrative positions such as the orchestra librarian, stage manager, and personnel manager.
  • Artistic: Responsible for developing the artistic programming for most orchestra performances and developing new performance venues. They negotiate and hire guest soloists and conductors who perform with the orchestra.
  • Marketing/Public Relations: Responsible for all matters related to advertising the concerts and public/press interaction with the organization.
  • Finance/Accounting: Responsible for monitoring the organization’s cash flow, managing health insurance issues, and all matters regarding payroll and benefits.
  • Education: Responsible for developing a connection to the community and raising public awareness of the organization’s mission. They create in-school programs and may also operate auxiliary ensembles such as youth orchestras. They may work n conjunction with the marketing department to develop public outreach materials.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Good: A well-organized, effective administration with active leadership can create an environment where the respective community views their orchestra as a part of the community in addition to becoming a destination for entertainment and cultural enrichment. They maintain steady expenditures between periods of rapid growth and have well thought defined goals for the organization. Successful revenue enhancement practices from both earned and contributed sources ensure that its coffers are full enough to meet the cash demands of producing world class performances.

Ideally, most members of management are trained in classical music or have been professional performers; therefore, they have an intimate understanding of this unique business. Additionally, they are competent enough in their respective fields that the need for outside consultants is kept to an absolute minimum. All members of staff have a good working relationship with the musicians, which will marginalize an “us versus them” mentality.

Bad: An unfortunate reality is that quite a few senior administrators are former musicians that have lost their edge and have been given a job in management because they are nice people. They are unprepared for the business demands related to their respective administrative positions and end up requiring significant additional assistance, in the form of expensive professional training and consultants.

Contrary to this scenario is the manager who comes to orchestra management with strictly for profit training and experience. Quite often, they are ill prepared to deal with the highly chaotic world inherent to nonprofit governance. They treat the orchestra talent as replaceable “human resources” as opposed to artists which creates a volatile workplace that produces unenthusiastic performances. Unimaginative, inflexible leadership bent on enforcing a mostly for profit business model onto a nonprofit vehicle is one of quickest ways to marginalize an orchestra. If not held accountable by the executive board, the organization will be the victim of unrealized potential.

Ugly: Currently, many orchestra administrators are overwhelmed by today’s negative cultural climate and only concentrate on getting by from concert to concert. The lack of long term vision and strong, visible leadership only serves to make matters worse. Many arts administrators feel they do not have adequate budget resources, proper training, and sufficient staff to successfully reach the organization’s goals. This leads to high personnel turnover, rapidly escalating operational costs, and widespread apathy.

Additionally, there is an enormous leadership vacuum among the ranks of senior executives throughout all size ensembles. Most executive administrators are not capable of properly inspiring their staff to cope with the challenging world of nonprofit administration. They are inexperienced in all fields of arts management, which prevents them from leading by example and they do not satisfy the role of being a bridge between the musicians and the board. Their failure to fully understand nonprofit administration and governance will negatively impact their ability to educate board members about the unique nature of the business. Unfortunately, due to the shortage of executive talent, bad executives have a very easy time moving from one organization to another leaving a trail of financial distress and institutional chaos in their wake.

Music Directors

A humorous take on stakeholder stereotypes courtesy of Who’s Minding The Score?

The function of the Music Director (who also serves as the ensemble’s primary conductor) is to provide artistic direction for the orchestra. They usually make the final decisions regarding programming issues and their interpretation of how the music will be performed is final. Some music directors are residents within their community and conduct the majority of “Masterworks” concerts. Others divide their time between several orchestras with a principal residence in one community while some even reside overseas. In the latter cases they tend to have less involvement in artistic programming and conduct fewer concerts. In each community, the music director is expected to be involved in non-artistic activities, such as fundraising events, outreach initiatives, and all artistic managerial duties such as approving musician leave requests and initiating artistic review procedures.

To give you an idea of the status this individual retains in the orchestra world, take the following example: 50 years ago the music director had the authority to hire and fire any player at will for any artistic reason subject only to their opinion. Patrons adored them and thought saw them as the definitive voice on all issues related to orchestral classical music, thus was born the concept known as “The Cult of The Conductor”.

In order to become a music director individuals must ideally possess an encompassing knowledge of every instrument in an orchestra, be able to read everyone’s part simultaneously, and have a gift beyond the ordinary for interpretation of the music the orchestra performs. The music director is tasked with the responsibility for ensuring the artistic success and quality of the orchestra. They also have the authority to discipline any of the musicians for artistic reasons provided they are founded. They also hold significant power with regard to awarding tenure or dismissing any new musicians. At auditions they usually hold a weighted vote in the final decision.

In the realm of organizational governance, they typically hold considerable influence over the board and members of the executive management. They are also the highest paid member of the entire organization.

Music directors are not represented by the AFM or any other labor union. Once they can afford one, they typically hire personal representation from a prestigious talent firm. They are more closely aligned with the American Symphony Orchestra League since their role as artistic director is more in step with executive management. Most belong to the ASOL as paid members.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Good: A good music director is worth their weight in gold. The great conductors of the past live on in name and memory for decades after their passing. They single-handedly posses a gift almost beyond perception regarding their ability to understand and transform music into an experience that transcends simple listening. They are energetic, outgoing individuals that are entrenched members of their communities and sought after guests for social events. They are indispensable tools for orchestra fund-raisers and are the public voice and face of the organization. They acquire respect and admiration from their musicians by creating a fulfilling artistic work environment and they care for their well being and treat them as artistic equals. 

Bad: Simply take everything above and imagine the opposite. Music directors are easily corrupted into becoming status seeking, power hungry tyrants. They demand salaries that border on the obscene compared to the base musician and take no active interest in fund-raising or public relations. Bad music directors take no interest in musicians or consider their needs or opinions as important.

Ugly: A music director that has succumbed to a “god” complex will cripple an orchestra to such a degree that any attempt to grow another ensemble out of the ashes is nearly impossible. They can drive their players to mental and physical breakdowns using verbal abuse and consider orchestra patrons as nothing more than an uneducated heard of ticket buying cows there to do nothing but admire their greatness. They are unwilling to compromise their personal artist vision to the reality of budgets and willingly drive an orchestra into bankruptcy so long as it furthers their career. 

Musicians

A humorous take on stakeholder stereotypes courtesy of Who’s Minding The Score?

Orchestra musicians are highly trained artists who have devoted years of practice and personal sacrifice towards a career of performing orchestral repertoire. Most musicians relocate to an area specifically to join the orchestra and ultimately become members of the community. They have a significant personal stake in the survival of their orchestra due to the focused nature of their professional training as musicians. As such, they do not have the luxury of being able to transfer their highly trained skills to another filed of business as managers are capable of doing.

For most, performing orchestral performance is their primary source of income and changing jobs almost always involves relocation to an orchestra in another community. The length of tenure with any given ensemble varies based on the ability of the respective ensemble to provide a living wage. Nevertheless, they have long institutional memories and nearly all veterans have witnessed their orchestra survive at least one major financial crisis. Some musicians volunteer enormous amounts of time toward unpaid, non performance related committee work in order to increase the likelihood that their organization will survive and prosper.

Salary based orchestras which provide a living wage employ anywhere between 32-115 musicians whereas per serve orchestras which pay musicians less than a living wage typically employ 30-60 musicians. Musicians make use of collective representation, and therefore negotiate collective bargaining agreement with their board to determine their compensation and benefits as well as establish working conditions. This contract, typically referred to as a CBA (collective bargaining agreement) applies to all of the musicians. Cumulative expenses related to the CBA constitute the single largest expense for any orchestral organization.

Musicians obtain a position in an orchestra by means of an audition. For example, if a position opens in the viola section, the orchestra will place an announcement in trade papers advertising the position. Individual musicians will then send in their resumes outlining their performance experience and an audition committee composed of current orchestra musicians are formed to evaluate resumes and invite a fixed number of applicants to audition for the position. The audition consists of a series of rounds with players eliminated at each stage until a finalist is selected. After a probationary period of one to three years, the incoming member is then offered tenure as a permanent member of the orchestra or dismissed, therefore initiating the entire audition process again. Typically, the music director has a significant amount of input on the selection of a finalist and whether or not that individual is granted tenure, although musician input is taken into consideration. If a musician obtains a position in an orchestra that fulfills their personal artistic requirements as well as providing a reasonable living wage, they will usually remain in that position for decades.

Musicians are responsible for providing and maintaining their own instruments and professional development. For string players this usually means expenditures from $40,000 – $150,000 for a single instrument. For wind players, this figure is from $5,000 – $90,000, although most wind players are required to equip themselves with more than one primary instrument and their instruments are subject to natural degradation and require replacing more often than string players. This expense is almost never subsidized by the orchestra and is entirely the responsibility of the player.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Good: Typically, professional musicians decided to pursue this path since their early teens and by the time the leave their academic conservatory training they already have a decade of dedicated preparation toward their careers. They are highly motivated, hard working professionals that possess advanced training from conservatories which rival the academic training of Ivy League institutions. It is reasonable to compare a classically trained professional musician to an engineer that attended MIT or a physician who attended Johns Hopkins University. They take an active interest in furthering the art of live performance music in and out of their position in the orchestra. Many teach privately, passing on their skills to a new generation of performers and perform in smaller ensembles to help refine their skills. Music is something they live with in nearly all aspects of their life; the nature of their work does not necessitate a “9 to 5″ mentality. They respect and work well with their counterparts in administration and are eager to help promote the organization in any way they are equipped. 

Bad: The pressures of shrinking job opportunities and increased production on the conservatory level has created fierce competition for a hand full of orchestra positions which provide a living wage. As such, more and more musicians are forced to dedicate so much of their time toward performing standard repertoire on their instrument of choice many do not take as active of an interest in the rest of their art as their predecessors did. Over the course of a long career the grinding repetition of performing many of the same works repeatedly causes some musicians to allow their playing to erode and take advantage of the protection afforded to them by tenured status. They become intensely bitter over unnecessarily difficult collective bargaining negotiations and members who volunteer on committees are typically ill prepared for the rigors of serious contract negotiations.

Ugly: Being artists, it is easy for musicians to develop a “prima donna” attitude, making it difficult for managers and board members to deal with them under even the best of circumstances. They treat stage crew and staffers poorly as well as fellow musicians. Unchecked, this behavior can lead to serious artistic degradation in the section surrounding the individuals in question. The complex issues surrounding these problems can lead to bitter disputes between managers, music directors, and musicians when it comes to removing a player that is no longer fit to be a member of the orchestra. Musicians have long memories and once mistreated by management or the music director they are very slow to become trusting and cooperative even to individuals who have demonstrated they are worthy of that trust. This constant state of discord can lead to an implosion of the orchestra at an artistic level and it is not unheard of for minor disputes between players or between players and management to grow into lawsuits. 

Musicians' Unions

A humorous take on stakeholder stereotypes courtesy of Who’s Minding The Score?

Nearly all of the professional orchestral musicians are members of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Within the AFM are two representative conferences which represent orchestra musicians; ICSOM (International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians) and ROPA (Regional Orchestra Players Association). The primary differences between them are ROPA orchestras have fewer salaried musicians, their organizations have annual budgets under $6,000,000, and their seasons typically last less than 39 weeks.

In addition to the conferences, each greater metropolitan area is managed under the auspices of the local chapter of the AFM. For example, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is a member of ICSOM, a conference of the AFM, and represented by AFM local 40-543. This triad relationship is directed primarily by the individual orchestra musicians who won the legal right to self representation in 1962. As such, Local or National AFM officers can not force musicians to accept the terms of a collective bargaining agreement and the musicians may also retain anyone they please to represent them in negotiations.

In addition to the AFM, there is one other union which represents orchestra musicians; The International Guild of Symphony, Opera and Ballet Musicians (IGSOBM, a.k.a. “The Guild”). IGSOBM represents a much smaller portion of orchestra musicians as compared to the AFM, but they have been successfully representing their members for twenty years. Member organizations include the musicians of the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Both unions provide essentially the same direct service to their members, collective representation, which provides the players with a uniform contract covering wages, benefits, rehearsals, recordings, and working conditions for all musicians (with occasional exceptions). Furthermore, since they are both recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, the unions provide a structure for musicians to file grievances against management for infringement of the master collective bargaining agreement.

All of this ensures that the players are treated like professional artists as opposed to an easily replaced “human resource”. To aid in this task, the musicians elect a small committee of their peers to act as the liaison between themselves and management. They also elect an individual member to serve as the union steward whose job it is to make certain that all aspects of the contract are being properly enforced and that management is not compelling musicians to work outside the limits of the contract. This steward can also serves as a liaison between musicians and management regarding individual infractions of the contract, disciplinary issues, and complaints against individual managers or staff members.

Most local chapters of the AFM are organized much like a symphony board. They have a President, Vice President, secretary, treasurer, and a governing board. In some cases, orchestra musicians serve in these positions.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Good: Before union representation, orchestra musicians were traded like cattle and subject to degrading abuse from tyrant music directors. They could be fired for simply having a bad playing day and were paid far less than their actual value. Union representation gave players the ability to feel secure in their positions and settle down in the community. It also provided a way for the musicians to participate when selecting new members of the ensemble, before that time the music director usually appointed a player of their choosing. Currently, the union provides an optional retirement fund for players and access to affordable instrument and disability insurance. They make resource materials and standard performance contracts available to musicians and insure that any recordings are made expressly with musician approval. They also ensure that royalties from recordings are properly distributed to each musician. 

Bad: Like many unions the AFM has grown so large that it can easily be seen as working for its own interest as opposed to the interest of individual musicians. With the exceptions of Right-To-Work states, all orchestra musicians are required to join the union and pay union dues. If the union acts in a fashion that they do not approve of or they feel they are not receiving adequate representation, there is little recourse outside of litigation since they are always the minority membership within their representing Local. The union can be very slow to adapt to their orchestral members changing needs and the typical collective bargaining agreement usually creates protective language after the fact. Insight into avoiding potential problems and installing them in the collective bargaining agreements before problems occur is not standard practice.

Ugly: When the orchestra gets into trouble as an organization (non-artistic reasons), the union can be quick to beat the war drums. In many cases, the union should know these troubles are approaching and do more to prevent the problem rather than having to deal with it during a harsher financial climate. They are late in going to the press to present their side of the issues which, in many cases, makes the highly trained, highly educated, very talented musicians look more like inexperienced “labor” rather than the institutional stakeholders they are.

In some locations, years (if not decades) of neglect and/or woefully inadequate member education plus routine professional development for orchestra committee members, stewards, and the general rank and file has produced a system that is incapable of contributing to positive governance or fending off politically motivated assaults. In the worst situations, these shortcomings are typically addressed by adopting an unnecessarily adversarial approach to managers and board members whether it is justified or not, therefore turning a situation sour without justifiable cause. 

League of American Orchestras

(Taken from the www.symphony.org website) [The League of American Orchestras] provides leadership and service to American orchestras while communicating to the public the value and importance of orchestras and the music they perform. The League links a national network of thousands of musicians, conductors, managers, board members, volunteers, staff members, and business partners, providing a wealth of services, information, and educational opportunities to its members.

Orchestras and individuals pay a membership fee to join the LAMO (a.k.a. the “League”) and in turn are provided access to resource material, political lobbying, grant opportunities, and annual conferences. Although they provide membership to musicians, it is effectively designed for managers and music directors. Their “conventional wisdom” is rarely challenged and they vigorously attack outside criticism. This lack of self-evaluation and professional narcissism typically serve only to make matters within the business worse and unless the leadership of the League can steer the ship in a different course, it is doubtful whether the entire business can weather the new environment in which orchestras operate.

Much like the AFM, the League was founded on solid principals. Sadly, over time the League has grown into a largely authoritative organization with too many concerns for itself instead of serving its members. It has become an exclusive society that does not welcome outside opinions or change and as such its benchmark for measuring success has become unsuitable. Amid current criticism, the leadership of the League has continued to bury their collective heads in the sand and remain out of touch with the changing cultural climate.

Consultants

These individuals specialize in every field related to artistic administration in general and orchestra management in particular. There are entire firms dedicated to nothing but consulting and offering management training services for orchestras as well as individuals that hire themselves out to serve as “interim” executives. They can be paid to analyze an organization or to provide direct support for an individual project.

On the downside, greedy consultants can bleed an unsuspecting orchestra of much of their desperately need cash revenue. They are difficult to hold accountable for poorly delivered services and can intentionally mislead their clients for dubious objectives. On the positive side, they can offer some much needed outside perspective into an organization or provide a specific service for less cost than an orchestra would endure if they attempted to produce the project internally.

“Head Hunters”

Professionally known as Executive Recruiting Agencies, they are hired by orchestras to locate individuals for executive leadership positions. They are usually contracted by members of an orchestra board or Executive Director to screen candidates and present a list of qualified individuals for them to interview.

Unfortunately, “head hunters” can be out of touch and lack vision when screening applicants for executive positions. Given the fact that so many agencies have extraordinarily close ties to the LAO they are, at times, guilty of having a conflict of interest concerning the applicants they present to an organization. Given the volume of business they attract and the lack of qualified candidates available, they are unable to adequately evaluate a candidate’s previous work experience. In attempting to please the clients, they shy away from presenting candidates that occupy either end of the spectrum regarding experience and ability. What is left behind is the dull, middle of the road candidate that everyone can find something average to agree on.

Volunteer Associations

These groups of patrons and classical music enthusiasts offer their services to raise money and awareness for the orchestra. In some cases these organizations operate entirely outside the auspices of their respective orchestras and form their own nonprofit organization and in other cases they are supervised directly by a member of the administration. In many cases, these groups are as much internal social organizations as they are beneficial to an orchestra. Nevertheless, they typically work to keep patrons enthusiastic about the organization and give them a way to express their appreciation for the service the orchestra provides.

Private Foundations and Philanthropic Organizations

They say money makes the world go round and in the world of orchestras the center of gravity is usually the funding they receive from private philanthropic organizations (a.k.a. “Foundations”). Over the decades, organizations such as the Ford Foundation have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars into American orchestras, helping them establish endowments, build performance venues, and develop artistic and non-artistic projects. They even conduct studies of the business with the aim helping it grow and adapt to the cultural environment

As with all things related to money, there are always stings attached. In the case of foundations, they typically insist that recipient orchestras meet very detailed parameters in order to receive funds. In recent times, much to the angst of the musicians’ unions, foundations have even used their economic clout to instill changes in the internal culture of orchestral organizations and musicians associations.

Of all the issues related to their funding, one thing is certain; orchestras would not be where they are today without the money from foundations. Unless the American political climate grows to such a point that orchestras become mostly government funded, orchestras will continue to rely on a steady stream of philanthropic help to meet the financial gap between earned income and expenses.

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