Among the more remarkable turns in the recent evolution of the American Symphony Orchestra movement is a growing presence of orchestra-elected players on board-level committees. It may be awhile until generalizations about this phenomenon are really possible; but meanwhile, during the present developmental stage, it seems that all orchestral constituencies might find an exchange of ideas and points of view stimulating.
At the outset I should admit maintaining a personal fondness for the traditional orchestral model in which musicians play, management manage, and board members enable and support.
By and large, that’s still the case in the nation’s largest orchestras. As long as the status quo works to everyone’s satisfaction, it’s likely best to leave it alone. As far as orchestral musicians are concerned, board involvement is one of those “two-edged swords” that should not be assumed to be a panacea.
In many situations where there is musician board representation, that representation came about as a result of challenges to the musicians’ collective bargaining agreement. (Perhaps it’s easier/cheaper to put up with musicians in the boardroom than it is to surmount financial difficulties?) At least this was the case with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in 1992, when I began my semi-career as a musician board representative.
I’d love to be able to say that things have steadily improved since then for the orchestra and its musicians…but I can’t. On the other hand, our orchestra is still playing, and the musicians are still employed, a situation that might have been far different without a lot of extra-musical volunteering on the part of many MSO colleagues.
Musician board representation is hardly a quick fix for orchestras, but it does have the potential to gradually improve situations. Having engaged in this process over a number of years, I’ve noticed that orchestra board-level decisions made without musician input seem significantly less likely to prove effective.
Mindsets in the Boardroom
Why is musician input so significant to the process of orchestra operation? Because, by and large, even well motivated board members and management operate with a host of misconceptions about the realities of an orchestral musician’s life. (In fairness, it must also be admitted that few musicians actually know much about the social/business structure that it takes to run an orchestra.)
Among the more benign cases, there are those board members whose perceptions arise from having enjoyed playing an instrument in their youth, before redirecting their efforts in pursuit of an undoubtedly more remunerative livelihood. This group is usually the most appreciative of a professional instrumentalist’s accomplishment, but often assume that the professional musician experiences only a heightened sense of the joy and fun they recall from their own musical activities.
Another board mindset is composed of civic/business leaders who tend regard an orchestra’s activities primarily as an economic tool for community/business vitalization and development. Pragmatic guardians of the bottom line, they are more likely to thrill to a balanced budget than to the excellence of an orchestral performance.
There are also those board members who seem to be “single-issue voters,” nearly exclusively interested in their particular orchestral aspect, such as education, pops concerts, outreach programs, a particular conductor, personal career enhancement or public esteem.
Finding board members particularly interested in learning about orchestral musicians’ points of view seems rare to the point of being non-existent.
A newly elected musician walks into the boardroom, charged by his/her colleagues with improving their situation. In that same moment the board members and management are hoping that once this musician representative sees the problems from their vantage, they may serve as a means to stem the musicians’ incessant nattering about salary, benefits, and working conditions.
If this doesn’t sound too hopeful, what can be done?
A Bevy of Pointers
Regard musician board representation as a learning experience (from all perspectives) and not as a substitute for contract negotiation.
Although board members and management may display little sensitivity, respect, or understanding of musicians, don’t leap to the conclusion that they’re stupid. Keep in mind that even musicians are quite capable of similar kinds of interpersonal gaffs.
Generally, board members tend to have a mindset about orchestral musicians. While they may not be considering them quite the level of staff or laborers, they may well regard them to be of a lower class (after all, musicians belong to a union and apparently subjugate themselves to conductors for vastly inferior compensation). While it may not be possible to change attitudes about this, musicians can take care to avoid reinforcing these misperceptions.
Undoubtedly it varies from group to group and time to time, but usually most work is done in committees, before actual board meetings. Often, musicians can learn more and have better effect in committees than they might gain by attending board meetings while reports are read.
Don’t be too quick to assume that you or your colleagues’ ideas are “golden.” There is a lot that one might not learn in music school about marketing, bookkeeping, budgeting, social conventions, and law.
Ensure that your comments are well considered and to the point; the most effective board members are those who rose to prominence by quickly recognizing good, feasible ideas. They tend to be dismissive of flawed notions and those who propose them.
Even if your ideas are really good, don’t insist on taking credit for them. It’s often far more effective if a board member adopts and promotes your idea.
It often seems to me that the most effective communication takes place on peer levels: board to board, management to management and musician to musician. Communication between these levels tends to be spotty at best, but is really valuable when it’s good.
Remain patient if your good idea is not acted upon; ideas seem to have a particular time, place, and group in which they will work best. Many good ideas have occurred to people long before the time was right. Just because a good idea works doesn’t mean that it would necessarily have worked at an earlier time.
Keep your fellow musicians informed. Strive to maintain consensus among musicians.
It seems unlikely to me that sundry prejudices about orchestral musicians will ever completely be overcome, but it’s quite possible that musicians can evolve them to an extent greater than many think possible.
From the board perspective, it can be quite stimulating to have musicians on board committees. Musicians tend to energize meetings while providing insights about operations and situations unavailable from other vantage points. On the other hand, some board members may always have reservations about “the inmates having the run of the asylum.”
The Voting/Non-Voting Question
In 1992, when MSO musicians first gained the contractual right to be elected by their colleagues to board committees, we decided that we would begin with musicians participating in a non-voting capacity. Questions about the wisdom of this decision regularly resurface, musicians assuming that they’ll have greater influence if they can vote, board members believing that voting musicians will assume more responsibility for the financial liquidity of the organization.
I remain persuaded that the non-voting route is somewhat preferable. Voting representatives give rise to some thorny legal questions in relation to the employer/employee relationship. There is an increased risk of a voting musician representative being co-opted away from promoting the musicians’ best interests.
Boardroom victories achieved through musician representative votes are likely to be illusory. Elements of musician interest tend to be more enduringly achieved through a process of contract negotiation.
In situations where musician representatives have board votes, my sense is that the representative must use his/her best-informed judgment to advance the cause of the majority orchestra opinion. It’s unrealistic to expect that any group’s opinion can be totally represented through the vote of one person on any individual issue.
There are potential situations in which a representative may feel that they are being forced into a no-win position; in those cases, one may invoke the right to abstain. I’d like to think that votes passed through coercion are rarely long-lived.
The best opportunities for meaningful musician representation on boards lies not so much in the realm of voting, but rather in areas of discussion, insight, persuasion, and shared enthusiasm.
In a best of all possible worlds, board members, management, and musicians might operate in their own realms of talent, interest, expertise, and comfort. However, America is still a young country, filled with cities in which community leaders’ attitudes and traditions are yet not fully evolved to an enlightened level capable of supporting arts institutions. In many of these places, it’s possible that professional symphonic players may be able to advance the cause by finding ways to work effectively in the boardroom.