Work Together or Lose Orchestra

Andrew Buelow, the author of the comment which I have posted below, is the Executive Director of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra. His bio is HERE.

Reading Steve S.’s comments on the post "Today's Dispatch Article" and Cameron Kopf’s reply, I am struck by the tragic polarization evidenced in the situation in Columbus. I have been through a very similar happening in the past at an orchestra where I worked, and the rhetoric is eerily similar on both sides.

Steve’s rhetoric typifies the “Musicians are whiners” point of view; Kopf’s response is a classic “blame the Board and management” response. Within these rather extreme stances, both make very valid points. Neither acknowledges the root cause of Columbus’s situation, and the true tragedy of orchestras in American society: that professional musicians, as highly trained as the most skilled doctors and attorneys, are marginalized and under-valued (even more so than teachers) to the point, in many cases, of bare subsistence.

In many European countries, Hirokami, Beadle and the musicians would be city employees with substantial government subsidy. In the U.S., orchestras are almost entirely privately funded and even though structured as nonprofit organizations, they must operate as businesses in a free market economy based on growth, expansion and inflation. But an orchestra by its very nature has little hope of keeping pace with the economy. It takes as many musicians to perform a Brahms symphony in 2008 as it did in 1890, and if an orchestra in 2008 truly charged for its tickets what the concert is costing to produce, few could afford to attend. So a great portion of its budget — generally upwards of 60 % — must be funded by contributions. Expenses rise faster than revenue. The Development Director’s job gets more challenging every season as corporate or foundation giving either diminishes or remains static. Meanwhile, musicians naturally need and want pay increases, at minimum to keep pace with rising cost of living. Everything else that goes into putting on a concert — from hall rental to the office postage meter machine — gets more expensive every year as well.

Is the situation hopeless? Not at all, it’s damn hard. As evidenced by the struggles of orchestras all over the country, coming up with a model for sustainability for an orchestra in any given community is a tremendous challenge, and requires the clearest of thinking, the most intense passion, and the strongest willingness for diverse stakeholders with diverse agendas to come together cooperatively.

I have seen the results of polarization first hand, and I can promise everyone in Columbus one thing: it will not take you where you want to go. The only hope you have is in the adage “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” It may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but let go of your righteous anger, take a deep breath, and come together — musician, Board, management, community — and try to come up with the hard solutions that will lead the Columbus Symphony out of this impasse. It will be hard enough if you all work together. If you don’t, you haven’t a snowball’s chance in hell.

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4 comments for “Work Together or Lose Orchestra

  1. Bob PFeifer
    August 8, 2008 at

    Hi Kate…start here for volunteering opportunities:

    Donna Gerhold []

  2. kate mcandrews
    August 4, 2008 at

    Can someone please tell me how to get in contact with the volunteer group that is working to try and resurrect the symphony?

    I would like to help in some way.

    E-mail or phone of the right person would be great!



  3. Nancy Raabe
    August 2, 2008 at

    What an insightful essay by Andy Buelow, who I remember with respect from my days at the Milwaukee Sentinel. His injunction to understand first, before seeking to be understood, is well taken.

    But based on the sequence of events as they have unfolded here (e.g., did people notice how halfhearted the “season announcement” was back in February?), and how the CSO management has refused time and again to entertain any initiatives by musicians or members of the community which might help improve the orchestra’s finances or establish better relations with potential donors — not to mention management’s current insanity of keeping crucial equipment, including percussion, stands, chairs, and the music library under lockdown during the current series of fundraisers by which the musicians are trying to sustain themselves since their pay and benefits were cut off — I continue to surmise that Beadle and Trafford are merely following orders from some higher echelon in the city’s corporate power structure to either shut down the orchestra or severely restrict its scope of operations.

    If so (and one can only ask in horror, WHY???), then any sincere attempts the musicians might make to try to understand management’s position will be fruitless, because Beadle, Trafford et al. are not being allowed to engage in open, honest discussion.

    I wish that those in our local news media would ask some hard questions along these lines.

    Nancy Raabe
    Bexley, OH

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