A Strong Self Image for Columbus

symphonystrong.png A relatively new grassroots website has done a great deal for the Columbus Symphony. Symphony Strong has helped the musicians feel the support of all of Columbus. We need all the help we can get since, tragically, little or no support has come from our local newspaper, the Dispatch. (One has to wonder what they are thinking.)

However, Symphony Strong and others like it, which formed to garner support, have struggled to break through deeper issues preventing a real blossoming of solutions. The bigger picture looks like this. The face of Columbus is not one or a few people, but a culture of all of us, our self-perception and how others outside the city see us.

Let's say that I, David Thomas, see myself as a dashing, statuesque model, while others (unwilling to pop my bubble) see me as a craggy, half century old man. Who is right? I need to look closely at myself and find a positive overlap between those two views. I may not be a young model, but I can certainly enhance my image by spending some money on a good suit and a fine haircut and a fresh attitude. Then I can really like myself without self-deception.

Recent developments have quelled the CSO's immediate financial crisis, with a generous gift to us tide over for the next few months. Yet the problem has not changed. In yesterday's Dispatch article Gift lets Symphony finish, but after that... the leadership continues to insist on a one sided solution:

Management says support for the symphony -- both from patrons and corporate donors -- isn't what it used to be and that the symphony needs to shrink. In January, managers announced a plan to reduce the budget to about $9.5 million, down from $12.5 million this year.

After musicians objected to that (first) plan, the board proposed a new contract keeping all musicians at a reduced salary and schedule, and requiring musicians to pay more of their health benefits. Musicians unanimously rejected that plan last week, leading to the impasse.

Judging from all the supportive letters of the past several months, many believe that high quality culture and music are important facets for a vibrant downtown and that Columbus currently achieves that status. Since January, none have accepted the proposed cuts as viable solution. Jan Ryan said in her Jan 28th letter to the Dispatch:

Anyone who attended Saturday evening's CSO performance would agree that is was magnificent and we are not music critics but simply people who recognize the greatness of this orchestra!

Jerrie Cribb wrote in a Feb 5th letter:

You apparently do not realize how long it takes to build a superb instrument like this and what will happen if you cut it down. The best musicians will leave as will the fine conductor and we will be left with a mediocre chamber group

Betty Meil wrote on Feb. 7th:

Having moved to Columbus a few years ago from Cleveland, Ohio (which has a magnificent orchestra), I was very pleased to hear the excellent quality of the Columbus Orchestra -- a first-rate orchestra.

But the vision to continue that high quality of music making on a scale representative of a city this size has not been tapped. Our (the city's) self-perception and that of others is skewed by misconception. Much as we dislike it, we may be viewed as a cow town. Do we need to look in the mirror? The evidence is there, as shown in the April 4 Dispatch article entitled Grim reality: Perception is that city lacks in arts.

Supporter Donald Good, gave an ominous warning in his March 26 letter to the Dispatch:

I think it's fair to say that if this orchestra, as it is now constituted and as it must remain in terms of permanent personnel (i.e. not a pick-up band), goes under, the rippling effect for the arts in the city, and the city's reputation as a forward-looking entity, also will be widely affected.

One letter expressed frustration, such as Ann Elliot's Jan. 24th letter, which ends:

Come on, Columbus! We must stop this madness and encourage the board to find other avenues to achieve fiscal security. As a start, we as a community must support our orchestra by consistently filling the house.

Other articles have furthered this honest self-exmination, such as Andrew Oldenquist's Like NetJets, CSO is worth keeping in the city. Or, another analogy, almost a cliché now; if the Buckeyes needed money, we'd all fess up, even if we didn't like football. In the orchestra's case, it's not about the music, but the City's pride.

Bruce Ridge, Chair of ICSOM (International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians) put it eloquently in his letter (unpublished) to the Dispatch:

The question for Columbus should not be "can we continue to afford to support our orchestra", but rather "how can we afford not to?" Too often lost in the discussion of orchestras in America is the simple fact that the arts are good business. The non-profit culture industry provides over 5.7 million jobs and accounts for over $166 billion in economic activity every year, including over $330 million in Greater Columbus alone!

In order to support the appropriate level of quality arts, Columbus leadership needs to face that it entails not only a lot of work, but also cooperation and coordination of forces. They also need to believe it's all worth it. Here's where the leadership needs to open their hearts. The people of the City trust those in power to do the right thing. We are ALL part of the Columbus identity, but only a few have the power to make our city's dreams come true.

The public obviously supports a proud cultural downtown, but a gridlock of certain attitudes, in defiance of knowledge and opinion to the contrary, has prevented a creative solution to the apparent impasse in the Symphony negotiations. Healing needs to happen before we can see ourselves in a balanced and healthy way.

I see visionaries in Columbus who don't have the clout. I see hard workers wishing to volunteer with no one to guide them in how to help, and I see money that needs some vision. What I don't see in Columbus is all sides putting their heads together to make it happen.

Erich Graff of the Utah Symphony wrote to the Dispatch Feb. 5th:

In Utah Symphony negotiations some years ago, the musicians' posture was that Salt Lake City deserved an orchestra that was a "Cadillac." Our Board Chair responded publicly that "maybe the community deserves a Cadillac but can only afford a Chevrolet." What happened? Neither the community nor the musicians agreed and instead they rallied—it is now more than a decade later... and the musicians' base salary is 50% higher and the Board is far more committed to the growth of the organization.

This is where Symphony Strong could come in. It has tried to remain neutral, a commendable position, and one which is potentially constructive. However, I hope the site's creators will begin to take some risks by seeking more commentary from all sides. Perhaps several in depth (and "informal") interviews with board members, musicians and the community are in order. I volunteer. A tally of ideas and solutions could be published there for the perusal of all. We could even vote on which solutions would be most desirable.

I believe there is some movement behind the scenes to shift leadership toward a more constructive path in the negotiations. But those parties with good intentions may fear a backlash from others in power. The musicians have made it clear they more than ready to negotiate in good faith, a phrase too often used without appreciating its gravity. But they are wary, with good reason.

A healthy arts organization takes a lot of work. It used to be done by its board and management. The new trend, however, is to involve the musicians much more in the tasks of running the organization. I propose that and more; include the community even more in the discussion. They have made it clear they wish it so.

Let's get a new attitude in Columbus so we can look at ourselves and know we are the best!

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