Michael Kaiser was right

I don’t find myself in agreement with Michael Kaiser very often, but he sure hit the nail on the head when he wrote this a few days ago:

It is difficult to see a way out of a chronic deficit, and board members — who are volunteers after all and rarely sign up for a board expecting to deal with this sort of crisis — feel pressured, scared and responsible.

What is frustrating to me is that in so many of these instances board members, who are so very knowledgeable about their own businesses, enter these difficult decisions without an understanding about what it takes to run a successful arts organization.

I have lobbied for twenty years to increase the training available to arts managers. In this difficult environment and at a time when so many arts organizations are facing life and death issues, it is crucial for board members to receive some training as well. Board members must understand why good art is central to financial success and how cutting back on the product weakens the fiscal structure of the organization. They must understand how marketing affects fundraising and why a comprehensive institutional marketing campaign is more effective than a cost control effort. They must learn how building a strong committed family of audience members and donors ensures a base of support. They must appreciate how building a new theater is not as important as building a strong annual program of art-making.

As it happens, he was riffing off the recent resignation of many of the members of the Colorado Symphony board. It didn’t take long for two of those board members, Heather Miller and Bruce Clinton, to prove his point:

Nonetheless, the symphony once again finds itself in a dire financial situation. It has a 1950s-era business model in a dramatically changed 21st century economy. It is a model characterized by high fixed costs and little flexibility either to control core expenses or to increase revenue.

Consider the following work rules that the musicians union is pledged to protect:

(long laundry list of pretty standard orchestra contract provisions)

There is not a single businessperson who could successfully run a company under these conditions.

Without a more flexible and nimble business model, the financial integrity of the symphony cannot be sustained.

We are not picking on the musicians or their professionalism. We are criticizing the underlying financial structure that the union — the Denver Musicians Association — has consistently refused to revise.

I don’t know Heather Miller. But I do know Bruce Clinton from serving with him on the board of the League of American Orchestras. His dedication to the American orchestra is unquestionable, as is his history of involvement with, and generosity to, the Colorado Symphony. Both of those, ironically, add force to Kaiser’s point.

There’s a lot more to write about the substance of what they wrote. But even what little I quoted demonstrates that, on a very deep level, there is a clash of cultures between those that work in the for-profit sector and those of us who have spent our lives in the non-profit world, which is problematic when the former run non-profits. This can be especially difficult for non-profits which, like orchestras, can look on a day-to-day basis like a very inefficient business, instead of what they really are, which are service agencies.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

Leave a Reply