Seven Suggestions for the Baltimore Symphony…That Aren’t About Money

In January 2008, at the height of a Writers’ Guild of America strike, I watched a moment of television that I will never forget.

That moment came during a landmark episode of The Colbert Report, the long-running show in which Stephen Colbert played a satirical caricature of an idiotic cable news pundit. This particular episode discussed how Stephen’s father, Dr. James Colbert, had just been hired as a hospital administrator when he became involved with negotiating an end to the infamous 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ strike. During that time, Dr. Colbert worked – successfully! – with activist Andrew Young to reach an agreement. Nearly forty years later, in the shadow of the WGA strike, Stephen interviewed Young in-character on his show. Video:

The whole interview is interesting (if dated in certain ways…), but a couple of Young’s quotes lodged their way into my brain and have stayed there for over a decade.

“I was mayor of Atlanta and cities all over America were striking,” he said. “But a Teamster union organizer told me, ‘Strikes are never about money. Strikes are about respect.'” Young also said, “What your father did was be reasonable, and be humble.”

Strikes are never about money. Strikes are about respect.

Be reasonable, and be humble.

Lately much of the discourse surrounding the ongoing Baltimore Symphony lockout has centered around money: shaming of musicians for wanting to be paid a certain amount of money, concerns that money has been spent or distributed unwisely, tut-tutting at donors for not giving more money. And don’t get me wrong: God only knows, money is important! An orchestra can’t function without money, and a lot of it. The role of money should not, and cannot, be ignored here. Everyone, keep following the money!

But! If the Baltimore Symphony administration focuses on money and the bottom line at the cost of everything else – ignoring politicians’ and donors’ and customers’ and citizens’ concerns over governance in the process – that orchestra’s future will be a small and bleak one.

Deborah Borda, currently the superstar CEO at the New York Philharmonic, and unquestionably the best in the business, put it beautifully in this April interview:

“So, we are genuinely a not for-profit organization. When we’re doing great, we’re losing money. So, you have to think of it first of all in that context and really educate your board to understand that, because the future of the orchestras will not be in earning more money. It will be in philanthropy. But I think, in addition to that, the next step is to really build a vision that the institution shares and moves towards. And when people share a vision, they’re inspired by it. They move towards it. You can then put the kind of mechanics in place that can raise the money that you need.”

[my bold]

So, according to the most successful CEO in the business, you need mission and money…and in that order.

The recovery of the Minnesota Orchestra after its historic 2012-14 lockout was not just about money. It was also about institutional change. In Minnesota’s case, that involved a change in leadership at senior administrative levels. But even more importantly, it involved a change in broader institutional culture, and, as Borda mentions, the establishment of a shared mission-based vision that people got behind. I feel like this point isn’t talked about enough, despite its desperate relevance to so many orchestral apocalypses.

So without further ado, here are my suggestions of concrete steps that the Baltimore Symphony leadership could take TOMORROW to lower the temperature of the negotiations and to show they’re serious about strengthening the institution. If the Baltimore Symphony doesn’t want to take those kinds of steps, then, well…it goes to prove how right Andrew Young was. Lockouts are never about money. Lockouts are about respect.

(1) Agree to participate in a series of public forums. Be accessible and transparent in them.

These events would likely be painful and emotional and messy and uncomfortable, akin to the rancorous health care reform town halls of 2010 and 2017…but instituting a lockout is painful and emotional and messy and uncomfortable, so in that respect, the die has already been cast. And because a non-profit is so uniquely indebted to their stakeholders, they need to be courted and folded into the decision making process, even if they’re angry. If you’re in charge, you need to talk them.

Minnesota had two noteworthy forums during and after its labor dispute; they might serve as templates in Baltimore.

One was held during the lockout in August 2013. It was hosted by audience advocacy group Orchestrate Excellence and featured a keynote address by Alan Fletcher, President of the Aspen Music Festival. You can read that address here. I took issue with broad swaths of his speech at the time, and I still do today, but nevertheless it was a psychologically valuable exercise to get hundreds of community members in the same room together to ask questions and network and realize how many people cared. (Ultimately that forum was overshadowed by other breaking news, but I, as a patron, maintain that this was an important event that helped to empower the community.)

The second forum was organized by audience advocacy group Save Our Symphony Minnesota once the new CEO, a man named Kevin Smith, came on board after the lockout. You can read about that series of community meetings here.

A quote from the article:

“Smith was at Southdale Library for the second of two public sessions hosted by Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOSMN). He spoke with refreshing frankness about the orchestra’s past, present and future, taking questions from the audience and listening to comments from people still stung by recent events. That he agreed to the sessions signals a new openness and transparency that didn’t exist before or during the lockout. ‘The culture of the organization was a little enclosed and always worried about who was going to say what and what we should say,’ he said. ‘We’re opening up intentionally and sharing information.'”

(2) Fully understand how business owners and their employees are affected by the lockout.

Hear how a lockout will affect the local economy, and take those words to heart. Board leaders aren’t just charting the future of the Baltimore Symphony; they’re charting the future of a significant portion of the local economy. That means everybody is affected, from wealthy business owners to waiters relying on tips from dining concertgoers.

In February 2013, five months into the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, WCCO wrote:

As the Minnesota Orchestra’s lockout continues into its fifth month, Minneapolis officials are grappling with the economic impact of lots of lost revenue.

CEO Melvin Tennant, of the city’s convention and visitors organization Meet Minneapolis, says the estimate of total revenue lost — including losses due to unsold tickets — could be as much as $2 million over the course of a year.

The impact on these stakeholders needs to be understood and respected, to give a broader, truer view of the horrific impact that an orchestra lockout can have on a community.

(3) Recognize the hard truth that even though the current leadership seems to have the confidence of the board, it does not have the confidence of the musicians or an important chunk of patrons.

Look to other ensembles who have clawed their way out of a trust deficit (especially Minnesota) and see how they were able to make progress on that trust front. Consider elevating new leadership that more people will trust. If CEO Peter Kjome anticipates staying on long-term, have the difficult conversation among yourselves about what that might mean.

For inspiration, and to prove I’m not just a starry-eyed dreamer belching rainbows and unicorns, here’s a must-read piece for all Baltimoreans about what changed – and how – when Kevin Smith took over. The article is titled “How the Minnesota Orchestra Got Its Mojo Back.”

“All parties agree that the key to moving so quickly from so much ill will to so much teamwork was the decision to hire Kevin Smith to replace Michael Henson as the Orchestral Association’s president. Much to the delight of all stakeholders, the word “interim” was dropped from Smith’s title last week.

“The style differences of Henson and Smith couldn’t be more pronounced. Henson tended to be closed; Smith is open. Henson came across as arrogant to both musicians and the fan base; Smith is willing to have a sincere session with anybody who knocks, calls or stops him on the street.

“Of course, there have been other key changes as well. The rehiring of Osmo Vänskä as music director was crucial to keeping the reputation of the orchestra at a high level. The change at the top of the board, from Jon Campbell, who supported Henson’s hard-nosed plan, to Gordon Sprenger, who is open to input from all parties, healed many wounds. The return of most of the key musicians, the continued commitment of the fan base, the willingness of the musicians and board members to not dwell on the past, the fact that the orchestra performed concerts throughout the lockout all are important elements in the turnaround.”

(4) Pledge to read and act on reports from third parties about the performances of other peer orchestras.

In Minnesota, Orchestrate Excellence commissioned a report called A Tale of Two Orchestras, which looked at why Cleveland had been able to better support an orchestra than Minneapolis. (This may be similar to the kind of study group that Maryland HB 1404 was meant to fund, and which the BSO claims they still intend on participating in.) Here’s the cached version of Orchestrate Excellence’s report.

Save Our Symphony Minnesota also assembled an in-depth Powerpoint that dug deep into publicly available information about the Minnesota Orchestra’s financial performance. It ended by suggesting scores of actionable items for all stakeholders, all based on hard data. That’s still available here, and, to my mind, it’s one of the most fascinating documents to emerge from the past decade of orchestral audience advocacy.

(5) Admit past mistakes, and solicit ideas about how to fix them.

No organization has been run perfectly. Every organization is run by humans, and we’re all human! So open your record up to criticism. Be creative about your outreach; make it clear you value feedback from everyone. Make a public statement recognizing that you will need every stakeholder possible on board with any new organizational direction. Pledge to move forward in a more collaborative direction. Give every interested party the information they ask for. Remember: since it is a non-profit, the leadership of the Baltimore Symphony works for the public, not the other way around!

To sum, things clearly aren’t working out right now in Baltimore. What do you lose by letting others into the planning process…besides your pride?

(6) Realize that it’s not okay to discuss using the endowment funds for a successor organization.

Ask yourself before every public statement, does this set the stage for a constructive future? Does letting stakeholders know that their donations might go to a mysterious “successor orchestra” set the stage for a constructive future? No, it does not. So stop believing that this would be helpful. Stop using donations that people gave in good faith as negotiating leverage. Be stern with surrogates who go off-message.

And last but not least….

(7) Study up on what actions hurt organizations during labor disputes, and then don’t do those things. But more importantly, study up on what actions helped organizations to recover, and then do those things. Less of what hasn’t worked; more of what has. This is not rocket science.

Do I think the Baltimore Symphony will actually do any of these things?

Well, no. I’d be delighted to be proven wrong, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate they’re open to radical transparency or inclusion or heck, even compromise. Consequently, the distinctive odor of irrational antipathy towards unions hangs heavy in the air. When politics of that kind are introduced to situations like these, reasonable conversation becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to have.

But! Even if the Baltimore Symphony chooses never to do these things, or things like these things, that in itself is very useful information. It would grant clarity to the motivations of those in control. It would prove that this is about more than money: it’s about respect. (Or lack thereof.)

I’m not saying that everything in Minnesota is perfect nowadays. It’s not, and that organization is currently navigating a series of nervewracking crossroads, the consequences of which, if handled poorly, could echo for a generation.

But during its own lockout, Minnesota was left for dead for months before it ultimately roared back to life, thanks to musician persistence, renewed administrative commitment, and community engagement. At the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual meeting in winter 2018, the outgoing board chair emphasized again and again and again the importance of inclusion of all stakeholders, nicknaming this approach the “Minnesota Model.” Clearly, we’ve learned some things here, and other American orchestras should have, too.

If Minnesota can come back from the dead, then it’s impossible to rule out a Baltimore resurrection. But it will take hard work and good luck, reason and humility, creativity and hope, and everyone who cares will need to apply principled public and private pressure, in whatever ways they can.

Because it’s not just about the money. It’s about respect: not just for the musicians, but for all of us who love orchestras.


Filed under Labor Disputes, The Orchestra Business

10 responses to “Seven Suggestions for the Baltimore Symphony…That Aren’t About Money

  1. Jackie

    Jolly well done. This advice could hold true in almost any situation.

  2. Allie

    Sadly, the Baltimore Symphony management has already violated #7, big-time… So #5 is especially important.

  3. Rivegauche610

    Why would I not be surprised to discover the board chair and members are all rich, old, white, male Trumpanzees?

  4. smarshasherman

    Knocked it out of the park again Emily.

  5. Judy Phares

    This is dead-on. Thank you for writing it.

  6. saveourbso

    Thank you, as always, for a thoughtful and honest analysis of lessons learned from Minnesota’s situation and how they can inform those of us struggling with the lockout in Baltimore. Your insights about the current situation here could not have been more on point. We have already had our share of low moments and fully expect there will be more to come. It’s good to know that even in these dark days, solutions are still possible and that there’s reason to remain positive and hopeful. John W.

  7. Steven Ledbetter

    Once again, you are right on the money. Viewing this whole situation from afar, but with constant hope, I find it increasingly difficult to keep the hope strong. If only the people in charge would show genuine good will — and take your 7 points to heart!

  8. So insightful, well-written and entertaining, many thanks! I think you meant “the dye is cast”, although the word “die” could be frighteningly relevant in this context!

  9. So insightful, well-written and entertaining, many thanks! I think you meant “the dye is cast”, although the word “die” could have some meaningful, frightening relevance in this context!

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