A Texas Brawl Is Brewing

Another day, another orchestra labor dispute.

I have to say, this continues to astonish me. Here we are, yet again, with the classical music ensemble of a major metropolitan area facing yet another labor battle with its management. Once again, the same tired arguments are dragged out, based on the same murky numbers and the same sloppy appeals to conventional wisdom—classical music is dead and there’s no money for the arts.  Once again, we’re told that only by imposing sacrificial cuts on unionized musicians and workers right this very minute can management save the organization from bankruptcy.

It wasn’t enough that we saw this exact same pattern happen with the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera, San Diego Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra, Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Binghamton Philharmonic…

…now we’re seeing it happen in Texas, with the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO).

I’m losing patience. And my willingness to be polite.

A news story in the Ft. Worth Weekly has a useful account of what’s happening now. Allow me to share a few thoughts.

* * *

“FWSO president and CEO Amy Adkins, with the approval of the nonprofit’s board of directors, proposed cutting the concert season from 46 weeks to 43, decreasing artist fees for the Concerts in the Garden series by 25 percent, and eliminating three weeks of paid time off. The loss in wages would mean a nearly 23 percent loss in salary since 2010 once inflation is accounted for.”

I’m intrigued by something here: the number of weeks is listed as falling from 46 to 43. I believe the management’s offer proposes cutting it to 39 weeks. Curious that management is playing with the numbers.

This is a broad point that has frustrated me about nearly all the classical labor disputes of late—the tendency of managements to creatively round their numbers, or employ other forms of obfuscation to hide the real impact of their proposed cuts. And managements’ claims nearly always turn out to be overstated. As I just posted in my comments about the situation with the Philadelphia Orchestra:

…during the Minnesota Orchestra dispute, minutes from board meetings came to light showing that management followed a strategy of fudging the finances to show a surplus when the organization was seeking state bonding money, but deficits when it was negotiating with the musicians. Also, a pair of financial reports to the City of Minneapolis were so flawed that the city was 48 hours from taking over Orchestra Hall. There is also the case of the Metropolitan Opera, where suspicious financial reports completely undermined the position of General Manager Peter Gelb; the dire financial warnings Mr. Gelb made during the dispute were further undermined when the Met announced $1 million surplus this fiscal year. And in the case of the San Diego Opera, General Director and Artistic Director Ian Campbell (with support from Board President Karen Cohn) announced that the Opera did not have sufficient funds to survive, and moved to close it permanently… before being ousted by other board members and a new leadership team who proved the company could survive quite well, thank you very much.

After these and many similar cases, it’s quite clear that managements’ statements of financial doom need to be taken with more than a few grains of salt, and closely examined to ensure they are literally true, and not just ideological position pieces.

Parallel to the above examples, Union President Ken Krause reported that ticket sales are up 13% and that subscriptions are up 5% from last year. When asked about this discrepancy by the Ft. Worth Weekly, management didn’t respond. Again, curious.

Adkins did not respond to interview requests by the Fort Worth Weekly, but in a recent story by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, she said she and her employees have been actively fundraising. ‘My staff and I focus on dozens of fundraising efforts throughout the entire season,’ she said. ‘Our approach is targeted and ongoing, and we are raising money every single day. Last season, we succeeded in raising $5.2 million from generous individuals, companies, and foundations. This was $300,000 more than the previous season. The results speak for themselves, and I am proud of what we have accomplished.’ ”

Yes… a bit of growth is good. But what was the budgetary goal? More important, what was required? Companies get hammered all the time when they don’t meet Wall Street’s expectations, despite showing some level of growth. If the CEO of a for-profit business made this same statement, what would happen to that company’s stock? Or to the CEO?

“Ticket sales, Adkins said, are on the rise but are still $200,000 less than seven years ago.”

This is highly problematic. Is the FWSO leadership basing its ticket revenue projections off of the totals from 2008? Is there any business, either a non-profit or a for-profit enterprise, that uses metrics from seven years ago to build its current budget? Most companies, and non-profits, have scaled their projections to match current realities and current trends. Ms. Adkins, I’m sorry ticket sales aren’t as high as they were seven years ago on the eve of the Great Recession, but what were you expecting to earn this year in ticket sales? How does that current number fit in the rest of this year’s budget? Faced with the identical financial environment, other arts organizations around the country have reorganized their budgets and scaled their operations to match current expectations.  And they’ve thrived—many have reported banner years. Why do you seem to be so singularly less fortunate… and surprised?

“Scott Jessup said his fellow musicians have seen inconsistent fundraising efforts at best and no long-term development planning from administration. Jessup claims that in one day, North Texas Giving Day (September 17), the Dallas Symphony Orchestra raised about $135,000. By contrast, the FWSO raised $34,315.”

It’s not just that the Dallas Symphony Orchestra right next door so thoroughly outshone the FWSO… all sorts of other organizations did too. A casual look at the stats on North Texas Giving Day’s website reveals that the Feral Friends Community Cat Alliance raised $36,852 and Bat World Sanctuary raised $35,100. A total of $33,092,687.13 was raised on North Texas Giving Day… I’m surprised such an important cultural institution didn’t do better.

“Jessup said all that he and his comrades received was ‘one Facebook post.’ (A quick look at the orchestra’s page reveals two, however.)”

Personally, I feel this is actually worse than it sounds. I don’t know how it is in Texas, but leading up to Minnesota’s “Give to the Max Day” we are bombarded—bombarded—with messages from every non-profit in the state. If we’ve ever so much as hovered a cursor over its website, we get emails. And not just pleas for funds, but contests, updates, special offers, touching stories… everything. Most organizations have resigned themselves to the fact that the only way to be heard over the general din is to shout even louder.

So… only two messages? One on the day itself? That feels hugely inadequate, and like a lost opportunity.

* * *

Look… its hard running an arts organization. You have to constantly be raising money, raising your profile, and reaching the community. That said, lots of groups are doing it, and enjoying tremendous success. International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSO) Chair Bruce Ridge has recently provided a run down:

In 2014-15, for orchestras in all budget ranges, there were many successes:

The Atlanta Symphony announced that it ended the season with a surplus, and raised $13 million [see Orchestra Newslets]

The Arizona Opera exceeded its fundraising goals

The Buffalo Philharmonic saw record season ticket sales and subscription revenues for the third consecutive year

The Charlotte Symphony received a $2 million gift

The Cincinnati Symphony raised over $26 million and signed a new contract that adds 15 new musicians over the next five years [see the July 2015 Senza Sordino]

The Dallas Symphony achieved a balanced budget and received a $5 million gift

The Detroit Symphony raised $1.4 million in one evening

The Houston Grand Opera exceeded its fundraising goal, raising almost $173 million

The Houston Symphony received a $5 million donation, the largest gift in nearly a decade

The Indianapolis Symphony saw ticket sales increase 15%, and subscriptions rose 24%.

The Memphis Symphony received a $1 million gift for education programs

The Minnesota Orchestra received $6 million in special gifts and embarked on a historic tour to Cuba [see the July 2015 Senza Sordino]

The Nashville Symphony set fundraising and ticket sales records [see Orchestra Newslets]

The Omaha Symphony saw record attendance

The Oregon Symphony set records for ticket sales and contributions, and its gala raised a record $700,000 [see Orchestra Newslets]

The Pacific Symphony’s gala raised a record $1.6 million

The Richmond Symphony received a $1 million gift for outdoor concerts

The Rochester Philharmonic reported a 19% increase in single ticket sales

The St. Louis Symphony received a $10 million gift

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra saw its highest attendance in 20 years


With all this in mind, it is deeply depressing to see a great orchestra in the great state of Texas being so thoroughly overshadowed by the competition.

* * *

So here we are again.

Ft. Worth, I’m keeping an eye on you… and a lot of other observers are doing the same.



1 thought on “A Texas Brawl Is Brewing

  1. Pingback: 2015: A Year in Review | Mask of the Flower Prince

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