Most of the people who read this blog know about the prolonged challenges that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has faced over the past few years, culminating in a nine-month labor strike that received a lot of press and reflected unprecedented animosity between musicians and management. Perhaps more importantly, the strike—and the contract negotiations undergirding it—represent a broader tension concerning the value of traditional orchestral concerts in downtown Detroit. Although we’ve remained mum up until this point, we haven’t been hibernating underneath a rock. As former residents of Ann Arbor who are deeply invested in the continued vitality of the orchestra in general, we care about the continued success of the DSO and its musicians.  Now that the orchestra is back performing concerts and the dust has (relatively) settled, we wanted to share a few thoughts on what has turned out to be one of the most acrimonious strikes in recent memory.

I won’t take space here to give a blow-by-blow timeline of the strike and its resolution (local music critic Mark Stryker did a fine job of that for the Detroit Free Press), but suffice it to say that things got ugly and stayed ugly for a very long time. To summarize, the disagreement stemmed not only from musician wage concessions but also the inclusion of community engagement activities as a contracted responsibility. Musicians saw this is an attempt by management to overreach its artistic role and redefine the role of the orchestral musician in general, while management insisted it was simply trying to put the orchestra on firm footing for a sustainable future. Although the orchestra’s musicians continued to perform as a separate entity throughout the strike, the DSO’s regular subscription concerts in Orchestra Hall were uniformly canceled, as musicians and management did their best to dismantle the credibility of the other side. Claims of ineptitude quickly entered the mainstream press, and some board members began to waver in their support of the orchestra’s direction.  Senior management stayed out of the fray for the most part, but with the recent announcement of executive director Anne Parsons’ new contract extension, tension within the DSO is still very much alive. The concertmaster and a handful other musicians have left Detroit for other opportunities, and the future of the orchestra remains uncertain.

So why did this happen, and what can we learn from it?  Can all of this really be explained by broader economic circumstances or, as the musicians claim, gross mismanagement on the part of the administration?  Could the complex and sometimes paradoxical world of orchestra labor relations be to blame, or was the strike just a symptom of a larger problem concerning the DSO’s relationship with its potential audience?

Besides a handful of vocal supporters from the city’s wealthiest suburbs, much of Detroit remained relatively unaffected when the DSO stopped presenting concerts.  Despite all of the noise created by the strike, people in Detroit were concerned with other issues that they felt had a greater impact on their daily lives.  Every orchestra would like to say that it’s an irreplaceable cultural asset to their city, but what if its concerts only reach 5%or lessof the community’s populace?  How can the DSO and other orchestras move forward, both artistically and organizationally, without a broader base of support?

In order to begin answering these and other questions, I would invoke some basic “rules of the road” that can help organizations move forward in a healthy, sustainable way:

1)    Decide who you want to serve and seek to understand their needs

2)    Cultivate a continuous, open and honest conversation with your audience

3)    Dislodge arbitrary industry standards and define your organization’s success—and its relevance—in consultation with the community you wish to serve

4)    Form substantive partnerships with other organizations in order to provide top-notch programming despite the economic and cultural realities of a shrinking city with scarce resources (just as Mayor Bing is doing more generally for the city of Detroit)

We understand that these are not easy things to do, but we believe they are imperative for the survival (or revival) of any cultural institution. The principles listed above are predicated on the notion that it is better to have a healthy, happy, and relevant orchestra with a smaller budget than an inflexible and injured orchestra whose large budget comes with the mythical title of a “top ten” ensemble.  In other words, lean and mean is far better than overweight and out of touch. To be clear, we’re not necessarily supporting wholesale pay cuts or a reduced concert season. But before the DSO can really move forward, all of its stakeholders must take a long, hard look—both inward and outward—to take stock of untapped resources and collaborators that might promote positive growth and development in the years to come.

Postscript: Some early indicators suggest that the DSO has begun securing significant community investment in the form of both increased ticket sales and annual giving, while others suggest that a divisive atmosphere continues to breed mistrust between orchestra musicians and management.

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