A new post regarding adaptive innovation in the performing arts has been released over at ArtsFwd, EmcArts’ online think tank.  In it, I try to synthesize some of the oft-mentioned challenges facing orchestras today. But instead of dwelling on the current crisis (is it a crisis? read on to find out…), we present some important organizational lessons gleaned from recent success stories.


Anyone who follows the ebbs and flows of the performing arts knows that many organizations have struggled to survive, let alone thrive, given the current economic environment.  The challenges facing symphony orchestras are particularly acute, due to the significant costs associated with a large resident ensemble of skilled musicians and the staff needed to fund, produce, and present concerts.  Nearly all of the major music critics and bloggers (here, here, here, and here)have opined whether the current state of affairs constitutes a crisis, and if so, what possible alternatives might exist. Is inadequate funding and limited public support to blame, or corporate greed and mismanagement?  Has the conservative and intransigent stance of musicians landed orchestras in hot water, or are these institutions “built to fail,” encumbered by an organizational structure that begs for drastic alterations?  The breadth of these questions reflects the field’s divergent perspectives, but they don’t offer an explicit solution to the core challenges facing orchestras today. Instead, we must identify the routines and assumptions motivating these challenges, and heed some notable success stories that question the status quo.

One of the most visible developments indicating “crisis” is the recent string of bankruptcies and musician strikes. Since 2009, no fewer than six orchestras have filed for bankruptcy, and several others have experienced lengthy labor disputes or work stoppages. To summarize: the Honolulu Symphony filed for bankruptcy in 2009, forcing the organization to liquidate all of its assets due to mounting debts and limited local support.  The orchestras of New Mexico and Syracuse followed suit in 2011, while the Detroit Symphony Orchestra survived a 26-week strike that concluded with a more than 30% pay cut for musicians and potentially irreparable damage done to musician-management relations.The Louisville Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in December 2010, and recently issued an open call for auditionsafter failing to come to an agreement with its regular union musicians. In Philadelphia, the orchestra is in the midst of using bankruptcy to erase structural debt and renegotiate disadvantageous contracts with various vendors and partners, including Peter Nero’s Philly Pops and the musicians’ pension fund.  And, earlier this fall, two-thirds of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s board resigned following stalled negotiations with musicians, leading to a series of finger-pointing articles that captured the attention—and the ire—of musicians and patrons while foreshadowing talk of a “new business model.”

I have argued elsewhere that bankruptcy might be interpreted as a form of “innovation through annihilation,” but the quick succession of these events suggests a boiling point has been reached, exacting concern from even the most seasoned orchestra executives. Despite the tremendous artistic achievements attained by today’s orchestras, little doubt remains that they are in the throes of a longstanding organizational crisis that demands adaptive solutions…

[Go here to read the rest of the post and tell us what you think!]