“Or Its Accredited Successor”

You know, in my many years as an arts administrator, I’ve seen my share of wrong-headed thinking about the arts. I’ve seen ideas that seemed good at the time turn out to be disastrous. I’ve seen great ideas languish because too little effort was done to make them work.

But the last couple of weeks watching the leadership of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) flail around has been truly awe-inspiring.

This week, the true extent of this galactically bad thinking was laid out in an article in the Baltimore Sun. An article where supposed leaders of the organization openly muse on folding up a 103-year old organization and (maybe) creating a replacement.

This isn’t a case of not being able to see past blind spots. This isn’t a case of being overly ambitious.

No, this is a case of willfully embracing a wrong-headed strategy solely on ideological grounds, and being willing to burn down an existing organization to possibly create a hypothetical new one more to their liking.

To be blunt, this is an example of astonishingly short-sighted thinking, warped by ideology, presented by way of a bad-faith argument, that shows profound ignorance of how the world works, and is setting up the organization for an epic failure.

Let me draw directly from the article to explain.

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Classical Music to Celebrate Summer

Summer is here!  Well, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere….  Summer is almost always portrayed as a life-affirming season, if an occasionally lazy one, where life is to be savored to its fullest.

“Midsummer Eve,” c.1908 by Edward Robert Hughes


I’m tempted to hang up a “Gone Fishin’” sign myself and run off to the lake… but instead, let me share a few classical works from a variety of genres that perfectly embody summer in all its hedonistic glory.

Cheers! Continue reading

Weak Messaging from the BSO Management

Well… it’s déjà vu all over again. In fact, it’s so déjà vu all over again that there’s no point in trying to come up with a different cliché to describe what’s going on.

For those who had not heard, the management of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) has locked out its musicians, following a pattern of strong-arm tactics that has attempted by the leaders of several other classical music organizations all over the country.

At this juncture, it’s fair to wonder aloud why a management would attempt this same tactic. Famously, this bit of hard-ballism failed spectacularly in places like Minneapolis, Atlanta, and elsewhere.  But it was more than just some tactical failure—again and again, as other voices/actors in the community really started paying attention, and began digging into the justification for the strong arm tactics, these justifications fell apart. Deeper analyses revealed that the managements’ positions were frequently built on shady finances, bad-faith negotiations, short-term thinking, and groupthink, and primarily driven by simple hostility to unions. Again and again, the realization that these various managements were being less than candid about their tactics and grand strategies led to a ferocious backlash from the community. And again and again, this community backlash led to the forced removal of the managements that tried to play hardball in the first place.

Simple self-preservation would suggest that managements would drop strong-armism as a tool in their toolkits.

Alas, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

I’ll be keeping my eye on this dispute as it unfolds—the eye of an interested outsider who has seen this play out way too many times before, and has lost all patience for this kind of nonsense.

On that note, a few comments about the self-serving message the BSO management sent out to the orchestra’s supporters. Continue reading

False Equivalencies in the BSO Dispute

Last week, an editorial came out in the Baltimore Sun that weighed in on the burgeoning labor dispute between the management of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and its musicians.

And I feel a response is necessary.

Let me say off the bat that I do not pretend to have any insider information into this dispute, and I have no direct ties with any of the parties involved. And I hardly want to start a fight with the Sun’s editorial staff—I readily concede that the editorial goes out of its way to point fingers and keep a measured tone. Curiously for an editorial, it doesn’t… well, editorialize.

And for me, that’s a bit of a problem. Maybe this reticence is due to the fact that they don’t want to call out anyone unless there are clear indications of misbehavior. Maybe they want to give everyone the benefit of a doubt. This is a noble sentiment. But one of the key frustrations with the Minnesota Orchestra dispute (which was happily resolved years ago, thank goodness) was that again and again, reporters and other observers relentlessly tried to push some form of “well on one hand, but on the other hand” balance in their descriptions about what was happening. There was such a dedication to the principle of “balance” that they ended up creating hugely inappropriate false equivalencies.

In my own mind this is artificial… and ultimately dangerous. There is a massive imbalance in a situation where one side of dispute has the power to make unilateral decisions to weaken the other side. There is a massive imbalance in a situation where one side is arguing in bad faith. There is a massive imbalance in a situation where one side is acting out of bounds, and engaging in destructive activities as a negation strategy. So, the editorial’s attempt to smooth everything over into a “he said/she said” kind of piece feels… off.

Let me explain. Continue reading

Should the BSO Prioritize Cost Savings or Quality? The Cautionary Tale of Howard Johnson’s

One of the recurring refrains of the many classical music labor disputes has been the need for the organization to cut costs. The imperative to save money—Save Money!—is widely regarded as self-evident, obvious and somehow immune to challenge. When an arts organization runs into financial trouble, there is a natural reaction among many in the community, and many from the ensemble’s leaders, to instinctively reach for the budget scissors as the first and only solution.

And now the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO) management is throwing their hat into the ring, with this same argument. They are (again!) making the case that they need to cut their way to prosperity.

From my own experience as an arts administrator, the former Board President of an important arts organization here in Minneapolis, and as keen observer of far too many classical music labor disputes, I say the following: although the mantra of budget cuts is a natural reaction, it may not be the best reaction. Why so? Just look at the instructive example of Howard Johnson’s. Lewis Carbone, a respected business consultant who was on hand during the HoJo’s tumultuous last days, has documented the fall of this once-mighty company and the lessons it provides about the dangers of prioritizing cost savings over a customer’s experience and satisfaction.

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A Disastrous Decision in Baltimore

What on earth is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s management thinking?

As you all know, I’ve weighed in on my share of classical music labor disputes over the years. I was, obviously, deeply involved in the Minnesota Orchestra’s lockout… and over that year-and-a-half disaster, I pretty much saw it all. I had hoped that the lessons learned in Minneapolis would keep organizations from going down a similar path, but alas that was not to be the case. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, MET Opera, San Diego Opera, and too many other ensembles decided to take a similar path of trying to impose brutal new business models on their organizations in the name of “fiscal responsibility” or “sustainability.” And similar to what happened in Minnesota, they got burned as a result.

And now the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) management has taken up this misbegotten fight.  And they did so with gusto; they chose to preemptively cancel the entire summer season, which had only been announced just five weeks ago.  More surprisingly, they did so days after the announcement that Maryland’s General Assembly had promised $3.2 million to stabilize the BSO’s finances while all sides worked to build a comprehensive, shared plan to rebuild the organization’s fiscal health.

Based on decades of work as an arts administrator, board member, board president of an arts organization, and a classical performer myself, let me say unequivocally that the BSO’s decision is a disaster. Well, “disaster” hardly covers it—one could argue that it’s a hot mess of a train wreck careening toward a wheel-less bus parked next to a red-flag factory.

In one fell swoop, the BSO administration is threatening to blow up relations with all its key stakeholders… simultaneously. I fear the potential fallout could be immense. Continue reading