Barbara Nielsen  

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

Barbara Nielsen
April 7, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

In Part II of her article, Barbara Nielsen explores the nature of musician involvement in the governance of orchestras. The traditional and more common approach has been for one or two musicians to serve on the board of directors, representing their colleagues. However, a few orchestras in Denver, New Orleans, Tulsa, St. Paul, and New York City have adopted a self-governing, cooperative model of governance. Barbara explains the history behind these cooperative orchestras, and discusses whether musician invovlement will make a difference.

- Ann Drinan

What Has Prompted Musician Involvement?

Musician involvement in orchestra governance has evolved through several diverse paths. The most frequent scenario for enabling such involvement occurred in the 1980s when the door was opened slightly to allow musicians to participate in certain aspects of orchestra governance. The most common scenario, musician representation on boards, started in the 1980s.

After years of growth and balanced budgets, orchestras in the 1980s were struggling financially. Orchestra managements were reopening contracts mid-term and/or demanding pay freezes or pay cuts at the negotiation table. After several years of concessionary bargaining, the musicians began to demand something in return (i.e., a voice in the governance of the orchestra). The specific form of musician representation took several different forms.

In a few cases the musicians formed a self-governing / cooperative orchestra, often because the predecessor orchestra went bankrupt. The most prominent examples include the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Denver Symphony), the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (formerly the New Orleans Symphony), and the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra (former the Tulsa Philharmonic).

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a self-governing orchestra that did not rise out of the ashes of a bankrupt orchestra, is a unique case in that it was formed by freelance musicians in New York City who wanted more control over their working life.

Types of Existing Musician Involvement

Musician involvement in the governance structure of 21st century orchestras can be divided into two general categories:

  • The musicians are absorbed into the traditional three-pronged structure.
  • The musicians form a cooperative/self-governing orchestra where the musicians own and run the orchestra.

It is important to note that the cooperative orchestra still uses the same governance structure of the traditional orchestra: a board of directors, an executive director, and a music director (with the exception of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra). The musicians are the owners of the orchestra and have control, through the orchestra’s bylaws, over the selection of the board members.

The traditional method of incorporating musicians into the current governance structure has been executed in numerous ways and with divergent results. The basic premise is that the musicians will gain a voice in the governance of the organization by serving on decision-making committees.

Representation on committees started slowly in the mid 1980s. Musician participation began by appointing a single non-voting member of the board with the goal of explaining the decision-making process of the board and the financial limitations of the institution, and with the hope that the musician board member would share his/her perspective with colleagues. This representation arrangement was either explicitly outlined in the collective bargaining agreement or existed as an informal verbal arrangement.

During the ensuing years, many variations of representation have developed. In some cases the number of musicians serving on the board has dramatically increased, and many have obtained voting rights. For example, in 1992 after a year-long work stoppage, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO) established that 10 musicians would serve as full voting members of the HSO board, in addition to membership on all standing committees. Six of the 10 musician board members (the duly-elected members of the players’ committee plus the ROPA [Regional Orchestra Players’ Conference] delegate) also serve on the HSO executive committee, where they now constitute one-third of the committee members.

Musician representation has expanded beyond the board to include seats on standing committees such as Artistic, Finance, Public Relations, Marketing, and Search Committees for music directors. In two cases, the San Antonio Symphony and the North Carolina Symphony, musicians served as chairs of the Music Director Search Committee, and the Hartford Symphony’s Search Committee was co-chaired by a musician. At this time, no board committee is off limits from musician representation.


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