Orchestras in Crisis Need a Little Love.

English: Conflict Resolution in Human Evolution

English: Conflict Resolution in Human Evolution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s face it, we need new models in the world of arts administration. I had a really great conversation with my wife last night about some of the finer points of not-for-profit organizational management. She always helps me to keep my mind open and avoid shutting out the perspectives I don’t want to or can’t see. Our conversation last night drifted over to the world of orchestra management as I have been following the stories of dire straits, strikes, and financial instability of orchestras across the country. I’ve been mulling the thoughts for this post around for awhile and I have been hesitant to enter the debate surrounding the orchestra world,. But, I cannot deny the fact that this epidemic is related to the mission of Tuxedo Revolt, to make the performing arts relevant to audiences. So, I will begin with my (slightly irreverent) disclaimer:

If you are a musician or arts administrator involved in a dispute with an orchestra or labor union, and you are in no way willing to set aside your views for just a moment in order to entertain a new perspective, then please close this tab on your internet browser. If you cannot set your views and beliefs aside, then you will gain nothing from reading this. I wish you the very best, and I hope your dispute is settled in a timely manner and with little damage to your organization.

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, and you have decided to lend me your ears for just a little while, I’d like to introduce a different approach to solving the myriad of problems that are cropping up across the classical music world.  I want to (attempt) to transcend all the arguments, financial situations, opinions, contracts and emotions that dominate the debates and negotiations these orchestras are experiencing.

Much like in yoga, I would like you to calm yourself and assume the mental position of namaste. First and foremost, we are all people, human beings. We all have concerns for our welfare, for our art form, for our livelihood, for our families, and for our freedoms. In that respect, whether we are performers or administrators, we are all the same. I would like to see everyone in the arts take a moment and identify with this thought.  While this may seem a bit altruistic, we all need to fully identify that our orchestras and their administrations are made of real people. Just dwell on that thought for a moment.

Our heads are clear, we are breathing deeply, and we have identified each other as fellow human beings and nothing more. Now we come to our ideas about conflict resolution.

Let us start by realizing that negativity, brings more negativity. Accusations beget accusations, and slander begets slander. Before negotiations begin, we decide that we must assume a position of optimism, creativity, and willingness– on both sides. We must abandon our historical perspectives about “how these things” work. We must think about building stronger connections from musicians to administrators and vice versa. The hierarchy of old  is dissolved, it means nothing. Musicians assume equal rank with administrators and administrators work like an orchestra of their own, with different sections (Education, Development, Marketing), principals (the directors of each department), and a conductor (the Executive Officer). We promise that we will avoid the word “no” as often as possible. Only then, can we begin as peers and professionals. This is our first and foremost priority

The next step to productive negotiations involves 100% transparency on all financial data from an organization. It should provided to both parties by an independent auditor. Nothing is kept private, nothing kept from either side of the table, and all members of the organization–absolutely everyone in the organization– is required to sign a legally binding non-disclosure agreement. Both sides are protected from bad press and inaccurate accusations that can harm the integrity of the organization or reveal any sensitive information about donors or philanthropic campaigns.

Ticket sales, endowment earnings, salaries, individual giving, pension plans, corporate support, cash-flow analysis: they all involve the interpretation, reporting, and accounting of money,  Alone, they are numbers. Numbers are quantitative by nature. They are neither good nor bad. They are completely neutral. Once there is a crystal clear financial snapshot of the organization laid out for all to see, the numbers will help to paint a picture of the organization’s fiscal health. Based on the same data, both administration and musicians should be able to come up with an official proposal from their constituents. Preliminary proposals should have no limits to the shape they take or how they are structured. It is an opportunity for both sides to express how they can envision the solution working and the organization stabilizing or growing.

Along with these proposals, each side is required to bring to the table five commitments that they are willing to make to help the growth of the organization both fiscally and in the context of the community and audience development. These must be tangible, concrete actions with clearly defined outcomes. I like to call these commitments, auxillary opportunities, as they extend beyond the current scope of work for both parties and would require some creativity to generate. They are outside of the proposal as they intend to improve the organization’s health in the time-span between now and the next negotiation.

This is a break from the current climate of the administration making an offer to the musician’s union, the musicians promptly rejecting it, and rinse and repeat.  The more offers rejected, the more quickly tensions escalate. Rifts begin to form, and alliances for power-grabs are eminent. This is not healthy or wholesome for the organization or the people in it. This is about progress, optimism and growth. How wonderful would it be for the bargaining parties to generate ideas to increase income and audience engagement instead of publicly tear each other down?

I do understand that bargaining agreements, unions, finances, and arguments are complicated seven-headed Hydras. But perhaps we make them more complicated than what they really have to be.  Do our demands of the other party align with our organization’s mission? Do they align with good moral practice? Are our demands financially feasible– meaning that they are sustainable as defined by an accurate reporting of the organization’s fiscal health? Are we being greedy? Are we putting the mission first?— I’ll ask it again—– Are we putting the mission first? How do our demands help us bring music to more people and in a way that will encourage them to  value our art? Are our demands realistic when compared the public’s support of our organization? If not, are both parties working to solve those problems with as much vigor and passion as they do the problems concerning the collective bargaining agreement?  These are all very real questions. To get the full picture, we need to entertain them all.

Now you can go back to embracing your beliefs, and I thank you for taking a moment to listen to mine. I hope that you will encounter your conflict resolutions with optimism, and that you will present solutions to many problems, not just those that concern you. I hope that you will join me in believing that if we change the way we do business, we won’t go out of business.

Stay tuned,

John-Morgan

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