Barbara Nielsen  

Musician Involvement in the Governance of Symphony Orchestras: Will it Increase Organizational Effectiveness? Part I

Barbara Nielsen
February 22, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Barbara Nielsen has an unusual perspective on the symphonic world, having worked as a professional violinist, held several senior positions with the AFM, and currently works on the "management" side of labor relations at the Metropolitan Opera. She recently completed her Masters in Labor Relations at Cornell, and has graciously permitted Polyphonic to publish an adaptation of her Masters' thesis - a comprehensive overview of musicians' involvement in orchestral governance.

Barbara made extensive use of the archives of the Symphony Orchestra Institute's journal Harmony, located on this website, in researching her thesis.

- Ann Drinan


The world of classical music is under increasing pressure to create and sustain effective organizations that can survive into the future as well as remain relevant to its communities. Orchestras can no longer rely on a rich benefactor to write an annual check to cover the ever-growing deficit. Donors increasingly demand financial accountability before making any substantial donations. Consumer spending habits are evolving; patrons of orchestra concerts are less inclined to buy season subscriptions in favor of single ticket purchases. Music education in the schools has all but disappeared. The graying of the American audience is repeatedly confirmed in audience surveys. Tower Records, the mecca of classical music lovers in New York City, has closed its doors. So what, then, is the future of classical music and the institution of symphony orchestras in 21st century America?

Leaders in the field agree that there are many serious issues challenging the relevance of symphony orchestras in the present and future. However, they do not agree on how to reverse the downward spiral. One theory involves increasing the involvement of symphony musicians in the governance process of the orchestra. A leading proponent of this theory is the founder of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), Paul R. Judy. Under his leadership, SOI was dedicated to fostering “improvement in the effectiveness of North American symphony orchestra organizations, to enhance the value they provide to their communities, and to help assure their preservation as unique and valuable cultural institutions.” As stated in SOI’s publication Harmony, SOI believes that one method for achieving its stated mission is through musician involvement in the governance of symphony orchestras. It is the foundation’s belief that “musician involvement increases the effectiveness of symphony organizations.”

Has worker involvement in the governance of for-profit organizations been successful? Can musician (i.e., worker) involvement in the governance structure of symphony orchestra’s result in greater organizational effectiveness?

The Structure of the Orchestra

The governance structure of American orchestras has remained relatively unchanged throughout the years with a traditional model of governance. The New York Philharmonic was established by Ureli Coreli Hill in 1842 as the Philharmonic Society, and it is the country’s oldest active orchestra. Initially, the musicians used a cooperative model to govern the orchestra. In the cooperative, the musicians held the decision-making power in the orchestra, including the choice of repertoire to be performed, the hiring of conductors, and who to include in the membership of the orchestra. Eventually, the musicians were receptive to the reorganization of the Philharmonic to gain some financial security and a steady salary. In 1909, two wealthy patrons reorganized the governance structure of the orchestra into its current traditional management style. They established a Board of Directors that would finance the orchestra and retain the music director/conductor. (1) In 1942, the Philharmonic Society merged with the New York Symphony to form the present day New York Philharmonic.

Within the traditional governance structure of symphony orchestras, the economic model was first established in 1881 when Henry Higginson founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Henry Fogel, president and chief executive officer of the League of American Orchestras (the League, formerly the American Symphony Orchestra League) and former executive director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, states that Higginson “proposed a guideline that, astonishingly enough, we still use today: 50% of the orchestra’s income would come from the ticket sales; the rest would have to be contributed in some form. Higginson, in fact, proposed the first orchestra endowment fund.” (2) This economic model addressed the non-profit status of symphony orchestras. An orchestra will not earn a profit, and revenue from ticket sales is insufficient to cover expenses. (3) Total earned income only accounts for 45% while contributions are 55% of the total budget. This economic model is different from that of European and Canadian orchestras, which receive a high level of subsidy from their governments. In recent years, however, Canadian and European orchestras have also been experiencing a decrease in government subsidies.

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