A Curious Letter from Fort Worth

Yesterday, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published an interesting letter regarding the ongoing Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) strike.  It came from Mark G. Nurdin, chairman of the executive committee for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Association (FWSOA).  This is, essentially, the voice of management.

And I found it to be, well… problematic.

I have no interest in smearing or attacking Mr. Nurdin… a man I’ve neither met nor corresponded with. But as someone who has worked in nonprofit management—particularly arts nonprofit management—for many years, and as someone who serves as President of the Board of a music group here in Minneapolis, I feel I must respond to his points.

* * *

“The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra has four pillars: generous benefactors, loyal patrons, talented musicians and dedicated management.”

Right from the first sentence, this piece goes off the rails.

Let me point out that in some ways, this list bears a superficial similarity to my own views on the top four “pillars” of an arts organization—pillars that I have discussed extensively here on my blog.  In my list, they are: artistic development, financial development, audience development, and administrative development.  A quick summary:

  • Artistic Development. For an arts organization, this should be the fundamental area of concern: at what artistic and programmatic endeavors must we excel, in order to succeed? At a fundamental level, this is what arts organizations do. Because it is so central to the organization, it should be systematically looked at, considered, evaluated and re-evaluated. What activities do we do, and why? A strong arts organization will nurture the artistic passion of its artists, creating work that challenges them, poses questions of them, makes demands of them, and lets them grow as artists.
  • Financial Development. At the same time, there is another critical question an organization must ask itself: what resources must it marshal and steward effectively to insure the artistic vision is fulfilled? This is obviously a question many bedevils many arts groups—some of whom never successfully address it.
  • Audience Development. Every arts group needs an audience. Audience development asks the question of how relevant an arts group is… how is it meeting the needs of its customers, stakeholders, and the community at large?
  • Human Resource Development. And finally, an arts organization has to have the capacity to fulfill all the above plans. The primary question here is how can the workers, board members, and volunteers from across the organization effectively perform their duties? And how can they learn, improve, communicate, and collaborate? It is not enough to say people should do their jobs… do they have the resources to do them effectively? Do they have the required expertise, or do they require additional training? How do they interact with each other, and can these interactions be more positive? More efficient? How is institutional memory maintained—are there succession plans for artists who move away from the organization, staff members who resign, or board members who rotate off the board?

Each of these four areas is critically important for an arts organization, but to achieve greatness an organization has to manage each of these four in connection with the others.  In short, it must do these things simultaneously.

That said, one of these is first among equals: artistic development.  Art is the reason the group exists.  A group isn’t simply raising money, it’s raising money for the art. It isn’t just trying to “right size” the staff, but to build a staff appropriate to do the art.  And so forth. If a group doesn’t keep the art central to its thoughts and actions, why do any of it?

And so looking at Mr. Nurdin’s four pillars, I admit I shudder.  Note that his list starts with “generous benefactors.” In both placement (first on the list) and wording, this is completely wrong.  Perhaps “benefactor” is a non-weighted regionalism in Texas, but to me the word implies a level of ownership. It implies a dominant and submissive role, where a benefactor is a guardian angel with all the resources and power, and the beneficiary is a passive supplicant hoping for favor.  Like the relationship between Miss Havisham and Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.

For this exact reason, I bristled at the similar views expressed by Karen Cohn, the former board chair of the San Diego Opera.  In particular, I was dismayed by her claim that the board “provided” opera to the city.  My response to her works well in Fort Worth, too:

The wording here deeply disturbs me, implying a clear sense of ownership and entitlement… you state that you provided the Opera to the public. You most certainly did not do so, nor should you have. This was not a private enterprise. You were a key source of support to the Opera so that it could fulfill its mission, but you were hardly the only source of support. Does board giving eclipse ticket sales? Does board giving surpass non-board giving? Board giving without these additional sources of support would not begin to be enough to keep the Opera running, so I find it odd that you feel you were “providing” the Opera to the community.

But another aspect of Mr. Nurdin’s pillars troubles me—they are based on personal roles, rather than being task-oriented or outcome-oriented.  The result is that people are locked into one category or another.  But of course this isn’t true.  For example, let’s look at my hometown band, the Minnesota Orchestra. For a long while, the Minnesota Orchestra’s administration had similar categories and locked people into fixed roles; but in the aftermath of the Orchestra’s disastrous 16-month lockout, these discrete categories were completely blown away.  Musicians became much more involved in “administrative” and “fundraising” duties, helping with planning, logistics, and fundraising initiatives.  And of course, they are huge donors to the Orchestra.  Similarly, community members are not simply ticket-buyers; they have taken on “leadership” roles (with audience advocates moving onto the board itself) and similarly led various marketing and fundraising initiatives. And so on.

A healthy organization encourages this kind of cross-pollination as a way to make use of everyone’s talents, get more people invested in its overall success, and to amplify its existing, organizational capacity.

“The executive committee for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Association is committed to the long-term viability and sustainability of a first-class orchestra.”

The problem is that the executive committee’s working definition of “sustainable” is far too narrow… focusing exclusively on a particular, financial criterion. Plus, it is inappropriately using an understanding of the term derived from the for-profit arena, and trying to graft it onto a non-profit’s organization. And in the end, the committee is trying to make the FWSO “sustainable” by imposing a simplistic set of solutions to the problem: sharp cuts in the compensation packages of their union musicians and workers.

With respect, this is no way to build sustainability. On the contrary, this is a recipe for disaster.

Last year here on my blog, I proposed a different way of looking at sustainability—using more holistic criteria that can better ensure that arts organizations can, in fact, thrive into the future.  As it turns out, this ended up being one of my blog’s most popular posts, which has been re-printed in a variety of trade publications including here at Nonprofit Quarterly.

In brief, my conclusion is that to truly be sustainable, arts organizations need to ensure that their mission is sustainable. People don’t buy tickets or donate money to an orchestra so that it will be financially strong… they do so because they are inspired by the music and see the impact it has in their community. Think about this on a broader scale—do people buy movie tickets to support the studio’s bottom line? Do they eat at restaurant because of its business plan? Of course not.

It is only after the mission is made strong that the organization can work on other critical areas of sustainability, including financial, organizational, and programmatic sustainability. These three areas are important, but they must be put in service of making the mission strong. Again… otherwise, there is no reason to do any of it.

“Yet funding of nonprofits (especially those in the arts) seems more challenging than ever.”

This is demonstrably false… and I’m growing tired of nonprofit leaders who continue to propagate this falsehood.  The 2016 Giving USA report shows that total charitable giving in 2015 was a record $373.25 billion, which averaged out to more than $1 billion given each day. Moreover, contributions to the arts have grown wildly over the last five years, with record growth in 2015.  I’ve done a rundown of some of the major successes classical music ensembles have enjoyed over the last year; Douglas McLennan form ArtsJournal has posted a list of recent successes, too.  Plus, the FWSO musicians have pointed out to many fundraising successes going on in Texas broadly, and the Fort Worth area specifically.

If funding is so challenging, why do so many of the FWSO’s peers—even in Fort Worth—seem to be making things work?

“We’ve been transparent with the musicians’ union and bargained in good faith for over a year.”

I find Mr. Nurdin’s use of the terms “transparent” and “good faith” here to be… novel.

“Transparent” usually suggests a complete sharing of information, particularly mission-critical data that would impact decision-making.  But over the last 15 months of negotiations, the musicians did not receive critical information that they repeatedly requested from management. This is the antithesis of “transparent.”

And I’m not sure how “good faith” factors in here.  Since October 2015, the FWSOA stated that its demand of 8.7% pay cuts were non-negotiable; it subsequently refused to budge on these demands despite intervention from federal mediators.  As part of zero-sum negotiations, any changes to that base demand would have to be offset by proportional cuts elsewhere.

Look… a salesperson asking you if you want to pay for an item via cash, credit card, or check does not mean the two of you are engaged in good faith negotiations about an item’s price.

And the revelations about FWSO President and CEO Amy Adkins’s email that urged board members to ignore concerned community voices, and which included a bit of untrue slander about one of the voices who was reaching out to board members, makes the argument about “good faith” negotiations laughable.

 “It’s regrettable that they initiated a strike that has caused the cancellation of concerts.”

This reveals a flawed understanding of cause and effect.

After 15 months of anything-but-good-faith negotiations, there was a significant and imminent threat that the FWSOA would simply declare an impasse, and thereby be able to impose a punitive contract that would win for them all the concessions they couldn’t gain at the negotiating table.  So in a very real and understandable way, the FWSOA forced the musicians’ hand.

And the FWSOA further muddied the waters by preemptively cancelling concerts well into the future, thus eliminating any chance at further negotiations.  This is very different from the situation with the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose musicians also went on strike at around the same time.  There, the management was jarred into activity, and returned to the negotiating table—and the strike was over in less than 48 hours.

It is not the FWSO musicians’ fault that the FWSOA didn’t do the same.

“The musicians are exceptional artists and deserve every dollar and every benefit the organization can afford. At the same time, the orchestra absolutely must be managed in a fiscally prudent manner.”

No. The FWSOA landed a concessionary contract from their musicians just a few years ago, and promised to use that as an opportunity to jump start the organization’s fundraising and marketing efforts.  And to launch a new capital campaign. Despite these promises, the FWSOA never followed through with any of these things.  As I’ve noted, the FWSOA actually cycled through five VPs of Development in five years.

So no… I’ve seen nothing “financially prudent” here, which makes it difficult to ascertain the true amount the FWSOA can “afford.”

“When the musicians want to once again pillar the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, we’ll gladly continue discussions.”

Curious that the FWSOA has set itself as the arbitrator of how/when the musicians are considered to be a pillar of the organization, and thus worthy of negotiations.  Beyond being breathtakingly patronizing, this statement further reveals just how laughable the FWSOA’s claim that it’s “negotiating in good faith” really is.  Essentially, the FWSOA is saying it will only agree to negotiate with the musicians… when the musicians are ready to end negotiations and capitulate to the FWSOA’s demands in full.

All in all, quite the statement.




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