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Some thoughts on Hartford

0 Robert Levine

The Hartford Symphony has been in the news recently, and not in the way that orchestras want to be:

Behind the two-year dispute between the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and the musicians union over a new labor agreement is the symphony’s effort to remake itself to appeal to changing audiences and tastes.

The orchestra says it’s “severely undercapitalized” and struggling with annual deficits of more than $1.3 million, a fully-drawn $2 million line of credit, falling subscriptions and ticket sales that are flat.

An approach that capitalizes on video, different types of performances and intense competition from other forms of entertainment is imperative, said David Fay, president and chief executive officer of the orchestra.

“We need to become more market-driven, more market-oriented,” he said.

Michael Pollard, a violinist and member of the American Federation of Musicians negotiating committee working to hammer out a contract, said the orchestra is emphasizing almost anything except those who perform.

“There’s no commitment to musicians,” he said. “They’re trying to balance the budget on our backs.”

…[AFM President Ray] Hair blamed the trouble in Hartford on the orchestra’s management agreement with the Bushnell Performing Arts Center. The orchestra and the Bushnell agreed to a two-year agreement in 2014 for the Bushnell to provide financial reporting and management, human resources management, office space and clerical and information technology services.

[Steven] Collins [Director of Artistic Operations and Adminstration] their and Fay, who heads both the orchestra and Bushnell, dismissed the criticism, saying the agreement saves money and helps the orchestra’s programming and financing.

In addition, the management wants more flexibility in scheduling:

…All the musicians do other work — individual lessons, free-lance performances, university teaching or sometimes public school teaching. Currently, the top tier musicians have to be available for rehearsals until 1 p.m. weekdays, and everyone is promised that rehearsals will end by 6 p.m. Saturdays, so they can do other performances if there isn’t an HSO concert that night. The more part-time musicians only have to attend rehearsals after 6 p.m. weekdays.

Pollard said management wants the flexibility to schedule rehearsals at any time, which will make it impossible for many musicians to stay with the symphony because it would conflict with their full-time jobs.

There are a few things to note about this negotiation. The first is that management’s proposal to drastically reduce the minimum guaranteed  musicians’ income while simultaneously making it much harder for them to earn the rest of their living does not appear to be a proposal that’s intended to result in a contract. To put it more bluntly, it doesn’t look like a proposal made in good faith. Anyone with the least experience in concessionary bargaining in our business knows that getting one economic concession of this size from musicians is hard enough; getting two, both of which would severely impact musicians’ ability to earn a living, is not going to happen without a work stoppage.

(The services that were guaranteed in past agreements but would not be guaranteed next season are apparently morning educational small group services. This past season, the number of such services actually performed was a  fraction of what had been done in past seasons. Management’s unwillingness to guarantee such services - much less use the ones they were already paying for -  is hardly likely to result in an increase in the HSO’s educational outreach, which is sad in itself.)

The second is that there is no hint of what is known in musician circles as “shared sacrifice.” Neither the (nominally) interim CEO, David Fay, nor Carolyn Kuan, the Music Director, appear to be taking any haircuts. (Kuan, in fact, is the recipient of a new 6-year contract that the musicians believe is very rich indeed.) That too suggests management is not really serious about this proposal; such shared sacrifice, even if mostly symbolic, is generally a bottom-line requirement to get big concessions from the musicians, especially when the need for such concessions appears to come from leaderships’ actions (see the next paragraph).

The third is that the Hartford Symphony’s attempt to outsource its management to its venue in 2014 was a big mistake:

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra has entered into a major partnership with the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. It is called a “management services contract” and it ushers in a new era for the HSO.

According to the contract, the administrative structure of the Symphony will be absorbed into the Bushnell’s. At this point it is unclear exactly how many jobs will be lost, but it was announced Wednesday that the HSO’s president and CEO Carrie Hammond will step down next week when the contract officially starts. David Fay, the CEO of the Bushnell, will oversee both organizations. The HSO offices will move to the Bushnell.

Talks of partnering with the Bushnell have been going on for seven years, according to James Remis, chair of the board of directors for the HSO. He said the administrative restructure will change nothing about the orchestra. “The HSO stays in business,” he said, “the HSO board retains all of its fiduciary responsibilities. The HSO board employs the music director and the musicians, and the HSO staff are employees of the HSO, the HSO committee structure stays in place, and so forth.”

…What will change with this partnership is the HSO’s financial outlook. Greig Shearer, principal flute for the HSO, said this move could save the HSO, which has struggled financially in recent years. “It’s frustrating,” he said. “Ever since I’ve been in the orchestra, it’s been touch and go financially. Going it alone didn’t look like it would be stable for us in the future. I think it is a good move.”

The Bushnell’s David Fay agrees. He said the deal is merely is an extension of existing synergy between the HSO and the Bushnell. “The overlap that takes place in a lot of our activities are much easier for us to look at providing for a company like the HSO,” he said. “It’s a win-win. It puts us in even a closer working relationship to try to support Carolyn’s vision for the classical arts and classical music here in our community.”

Why did this produce barrels of red ink and the near-certainty of a work stoppage in a little over a year? (It’s worth noting that almost the entire HSO staff quit when the announcement of the “management services contract” was made. It’s also worth noting that the HSO continues to pay rent on an (unneeded) office in downtown Hartford, which can’t be cheap.) I can only speculate, but I’ll bet it’s got a lot do to with the inevitable conflict of interest between running the orchestra while simultaneously running an independent venue with lots of weeks to book. It seems that the conflict of interest was resolved entirely in favor of the Bushnell. This looks less like a “management services contract” than it does a take-over of the Hartford Symphony.

And why is that bad? For two reasons at least: not only are the institutional priorities of the Bushnell different from those of the HSO, but so are the mindsets of those who run venues from those who run orchestras.

Running a venue means managing a relatively small group of staffers, along with an even smaller group of unionized stage technicians (as well as security and janitorial personnel). The only role of performers in that mindset is to come in and make money for the venue, usually on a one-off basis. If they’re too expensive, cheaper performers can always be booked. The CEO of the venue has no responsibility for the performers aside from sending their management a check as late after the gig as the CEO can get away with contractually. The CEO has no interaction with the performers, except possibly with the stars of whatever show is in the venue that night. The CEO, and the venue, have no real relationship with the performers; certainly no long-term relationship. The performers are no more than the feedstock for the ticket-selling and rental-generating machine that is the venue.

The mindset of someone who runs an orchestra needs to be very different. The obligation of the CEO, and the Board, is to the institution, and the heart of an orchestral institution are the musicians who comprise the orchestra. The job of the board and staff leadership is to ensure that the institution succeeds as an orchestral institution, however the terms of such success are formulated. A core component in that success is understanding that the CEO and Board must respect, not only the staff, but the musicians as well.

That’s not to say that the musicians’ interests must come first. But those interests can’t be completely off the table either. Michael Pollard noted that “there’s no commitment to musicians” in the current proposal made by the HSO (which is to say Bushnell) management. But why should anyone expect the CEO of a venue to have any commitment to musicians? Why should anyone (including the HSO board) expect someone who runs a venue to believe in collaboration with performers, especially when those performers are skeptical about that person’s grand ideas? (Apparently, all of the musician members of the HSO board voted against Fay’s Strategic Plan at a recent board meeting.)

The Hartford Symphony was one of the most interesting experiments in musician / staff / board collaboration in the industry, especially with musicians comprising close to a quarter of the voting membership of the board. But, when the CEO of the venue took over, the concept of collaboration was defenestrated, with seemingly no resistance on the part of the rest of the board. It takes a long time to build a culture of collaboration; one of the lessons of Hartford may be that it takes very little time to destroy one.

(Drew McManus and Steve Metcalf have recent comments on the Hartford situation as well.)

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