Orchestral boards gone overboard

September 17, 2023, 7:34 PM · Over the past decade there has been a marked increase in boards of orchestras making decisions that seem counter to the mission of the ensembles.

The latest example is frok the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, whose board has cancelled all activities for the coming season, just before it was to begin. The purpose of the institution is to perform. To stop such performances is just mind boggling.

I understand that there are financial concerns. However, the finances should be spent to continue operations. If there are no more funds so be it. However, one would think the board would inform the various parties long before the funds run out.

Boards have taken other actions which undermine the mission of the organizations. Reducing pay, decreasing the number of concerns, shortening seasons, etc.

If you want your local arts organizations to thrive, ensure they are not run by people who approve of such actions.

Replies (33)

September 17, 2023, 8:41 PM · Looks like the associated youth symphony was canceled as well. With four levels of ensembles and running since 1966 I expect it's a very important part of the youth music community. I hope someone can quickly assemble a volunteer-based program to work with the kids while this gets sorted out.
Edited: September 17, 2023, 8:45 PM · Well, it's easy to say that the board overstepped, but my guess is that the first obligation of any board of directors -- of any organization -- is to make sure the organization doesn't go bankrupt. If every concert brings in X and costs 1.1 X to put on, then either you increase revenue or you decrease expenses or you find some way to change your operations to effect both outcomes, or you stop operating. And you can't just continue to operate until your balance is zero because there has to be some operating money to cover the "costs of change." I don't know what happened with Kitchener-Waterloo but it strikes me that one possibility is that they stopped operating rather than ask their musicians to take a significant cut in wages.
September 18, 2023, 10:06 AM · This is an issue almost everywhere and it has led to the downfall of many an orchestra. I watched it happen to my own local orchestra, where the board constantly made terrible choices in procedure and programming that alienated both the players and the audience. Unfortunately a lot of the people who hold those positions are doing so as a means of personal gratification and resume polishing, and not nearly enough of them have an understanding of music or the willingness to listen to those who do understand.
September 18, 2023, 10:10 AM · I appreciate that there can be financial difficulties. However, it seems irresponsible to not inform interested parties when funds are low. To cancel a season without warning just before it would start is just not acceptable. Would you handle your own finances this way? Oops, looks like funds are low, no money for groceries or rent next month. This type of management is unacceptable.
September 18, 2023, 10:17 AM · If the people in charge can't make the organizations run financially, instead of taking it down with them in their march to failure, they should resign and let someone else who can actually do the job step in.

It typifies the selfishness and narcissism of the "I got mine" crowd that can't seem to see beyond their own limitations.

September 18, 2023, 10:50 AM · I remember when board membership for an arts organization was an almost honorary position that expected them to raise money or give generously.
September 18, 2023, 11:15 AM · This is what happens when you appoint the emperor of France to helm your board.
Edited: September 18, 2023, 12:00 PM · I was put on the board of our community orchestra in 1963, shortly after I moved to California, and remained on the board for a few years. In 1990 I again joined the board as its president and remained in that position for a few years, then acted as the orchestra's "manager" until I moved away in 1995. (I was a player in the orchestra all the intervening years.) During my tenure as president I also had the experience of attending a meeting of California symphonies that included those with annual budgets ~4,000 times greater than our low 5-figure budget.

One thing was fairly clear - we all had the same kinds of problems to solve, but during those years the problems were fairly consistent. However, our community was fairly stable with a population of about 30,000 humans and one very large federal organization with over 5,000 employees - a company town with reasonable salaries and reasonable costs. This probably made us fairly stable even in times of general economic uncertainty.

What we did not have were the kinds of problems unique to the era of COVID and its economic and psychological effects. Organizations that have depended on audience attendance for survival since 2020 have had unique problems.

I don't think it is useful to thumb our noses at the board members faced with unique problems of this era. (When I lived in that community the Concert Series had 6 annual concerts performed by such as Mischa Elman, Pinchas Zukerman, the LA Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta, the Julliard String Quartet. Last time I checked I could not find a true classical concert in a season's schedule.)

Why not hire Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga?

Why not blame the fossil fuel industry?

Edited: September 18, 2023, 3:33 PM · What's really striking is how abrupt this is. Normally the public would have heard months of urgent appeals for funds. They were promoting their concerts just two days before they shut down. Youth orchestra members were emailed a reminder about the first rehearsal less than 24 hours before it was canceled. They signed a new CBA that gave musicians a 3% raise on August 14. They even announced on social media that they were hiring staff less than two weeks ago.

Orchestras don't shut down this suddenly without some serious mismanagement.

September 18, 2023, 6:17 PM · The KW orchestra is my local major orchestra and this closure is going to hit hard on the respective professional musicians. It was abrupt and it is worrying - however, I think we have to wait to hear the back-story before rushing to conclusions or making any judgements.

Note: they cancelled the season, they did not say (yet) that the orchestra has been terminated. Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope?

Edited: September 18, 2023, 8:34 PM · One of the problems is that board members of all types tend to fit a mold; in other words, there are people who just like the feeling of being on a committee. I know a lot of people like this, and many of them have no real experience with the actual work of the organizations they represent. This is not confined to orchestras. It’s found in all kinds of places, like theater groups, schools, museums, and libraries, just to name a few.

I would say it’s still a common thing for people who make significant donations to end up on boards, but this ends up undermining the organizations, because it turns into a way to buy into authority without really caring about the mission statement.

That is not to say that all boards and board members are corrupt, just that it is a common issue. This reminds me of a scene in Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt” where the idea of an orchestra is pitched in a meeting. It is brought up as a way to make the town look more high-brow, and the way it’s openly brought up as a means to an end is hilarious while also being devastatingly accurate.

Edited: September 18, 2023, 8:44 PM · The abrupt decision to cancel the season was clearly not in the best interests of the musicians but may have been in the best interests of the organization as a whole. Had management announced, back in February, that there's a 50-50 chance of cancelling the 2023-2024 season (based solely on finances), then they could lose so much of their talent that the decision would be effectively made for them anyway. By holding their cards close they may have given the orchestra its best chance to avoid cancellation. Of course it's now too late for the musicians to find other employment, and that's quite a hardship.
September 18, 2023, 10:52 PM · An abrupt cancellation is never in the best interest of a professional orchestra. Not only is it devastating to the musicians (and guaranteed to make them very very angry) but it also angers and alienates ticket holders and donors, guest artists, and all the ancillary businesses (performance hall, local restaurants, the youth orchestra). It burns bridges - no, it incinerates bridges and then gathers up the ashes and stomps all over them.

I have some experience with bad boards. I am guessing that this is some kind of ill-advised power play by one or more people with a lot of power and absolutely no understanding of the industry.

September 19, 2023, 1:43 AM · From my perspective, once the music stops playing, the organization has failed in its mission. Period. Sure, someone could argue about a temporary break, etc. However the stoppage has consequences. To audiences, donors, musicians etc.

From what I have seen recently it seems these boards are simply undermining these organizations.

There is a fundamental lack of humanity, common sense, and charity.

September 19, 2023, 1:44 AM · From my perspective, once the music stops playing, the organization has failed in its mission. Period. Sure, someone could argue about a temporary break, etc. However the stoppage has consequences. To audiences, donors, musicians etc.

From what I have seen recently it seems these boards are simply undermining these organizations.

There is a fundamental lack of humanity, common sense, and charity.

September 19, 2023, 5:50 AM · I don't see a way back under the current board, after what they just did. I doubt that musicians with other options will want to play in an orchestra that waited until the last minute to cancel a 38-week season, and audiences will be very wary of buying tickets in advance for an orchestra that refused to refund ticket purchases and youth orchestra tuition.
September 19, 2023, 12:55 PM · Will have to be a new board, making something from the ashes. Variants of this have occurred in San Antonio, Colorado Springs, New Orleans (I think)...
September 19, 2023, 1:38 PM · Abruptly putting the season on hold (update: I guess they have fully cancelled the whole season and everything else the organization does) does not necessarily indicate mismanagement but it likely does indicate some kind of big financial surprise, or a board perhaps afraid to act earlier. Notably, this immediately puts management on hold (and now out of work), not just the musicians, and normally the management (administration) would have full-time round-the-year jobs.

It's possible that the board has discovered that season tickets or even individual tickets for concerts are not selling as much as expected. A big expected donation could have failed to come in. A needed grant might be withheld (because the granting organization is having issues, or the orchestra is having trouble complying with the grant conditions). There are plenty of possibilities when orchestras are in a fragile state -- which most are, postpandemic.

This one doesn't look like a union-busting attempt. I suspect cancelling the whole season instead of doing part of a season is the result of the way the orchestra's contracts are written. Likely there are fewer penalties to pay if the whole slate is cancelled before the season starts.

It looks like the KW Symphony's board consists of various minor pillars of the community, but they seem more akin to the type of people who get involved in their HOA than the type of people who are the movers and shakers of the city. I would guess that this situation is probably over the head of most of the board members, and out of their realm of experience.

September 19, 2023, 3:57 PM · I was talking with a piano player (once soloist with the KW Symphony) last night and he was devastated with the end of the orchestra. According to him some newly hired musicians moved from other towns, rented their places and now they are not even eligible for unemployment insurance as they haven't played any concert yet.
Edited: September 20, 2023, 7:22 AM · We received notice of the cancellation on Saturday night, three days before the start of the season.Management is heading towards insolvency.Needless to say we' re gutted by this.At least Im at the end of my career but Im heartbroken for the younger players with families.
Lydia, your last paragraph is totally accurate.
Of course I read about the San Antonio Philharmonic and read Mary Ellen's posts carefully but thought somehow we would survive.Who's next?
Yes AC, all those points are correct.I know those people you mentioned.
September 20, 2023, 4:09 PM · Thank you Mary Ellen for your generous donation! I know you have been down this dark road before.
September 20, 2023, 4:26 PM · You’re very welcome. I’m so sorry that you and your colleagues are forced down this path. My hope for you is that you are able to find a way to continue making music together with the support of your community.

I don’t know if it’s allowed to post a go fund me link in the discussion here, but for those who may wish to express their support for Peter and his colleagues in a tangible form, a search for “Support Your KWSymphony Musicians” on the Gofundme platform should do it.

September 20, 2023, 4:33 PM · Thanks for that Mary Ellen.
September 21, 2023, 6:42 PM · The Kitchener Waterloo Symphony has filed for bankruptcy.I would have been playing a concert in 20 minutes tonight.
September 21, 2023, 7:04 PM · So sorry Peter.
September 21, 2023, 7:19 PM · Thanks Elise.
Edited: September 21, 2023, 7:55 PM · OK, this is terrible news, but the musicians might want to sequester a big chunk of the gofundme money with the idea of eventually purchasing the music library from the bankruptcy trustee. That will make a huge difference if you try to start a new orchestra.

Also, I’m very sorry to hear this news.

September 21, 2023, 8:47 PM · Sad news.

One would think the library would have little value. Orchestras are going under, not buying sheet music. Same goes for colleges. That and the change to digital. Who would bid on it?

Edited: September 21, 2023, 11:56 PM · Oh my goodness, the music library of a professional orchestra is extremely valuable. The estimates I heard for ours were around $1.5 million. The music library also contains a lot of institutional knowledge and history for the organization, in the markings in the parts and scores.

When we successfully bought back our music library, it was one of the best things that had happened up to that point. I can’t tell you how amazing it is to be performing using the same music that I have been playing from here for over 30 years – my own bowings and fingerings in the parts.

September 22, 2023, 4:18 AM · I understand it's value to musicians, and 1.5 million may not be that much for an institution, but who is buying? Individuals, no. Colleges, maybe. But that is a big purchase in and age in which such things are being cut. Even music departments are being cut in their entirety. It wouod need to be budgeted. Other orchestras? Again, financial difficulty. Larger orchestras probably already have much of it. Groups in smaller cities are having the most difficulty.

So in theory it is worth a lot. Practically, I do not see a lot of bidders.

Bankruptcy is a bad sign, as it means there is debt, as opposed to funds running low. However that debt may be the contracts to pay the musicians.

Edited: September 22, 2023, 6:39 AM · The music library was one of the topics last night at our emergency Zoom meeting.Mary Ellen is absolutely right.We need that library.I , along with others have been bowing these parts for thirty years.I will pass along your advice Mary Ellen to the Players Committee.
Would you be available Mary Ellen to be a guest speaker at one of our Zoom meetings? Your knowledge and hard experience would be valuable to us.
September 22, 2023, 2:37 PM · Yes, of course. You should be able to find me on Facebook – please send me a message through messenger – I will respond with my personal contact information.
September 22, 2023, 2:43 PM · Got it.Thank you.

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