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The Orchestra’s bankruptcy and the Pew connectionBY: Dan Rottenberg 04.25.2011
What’s more dismaying— a Philadelphia Orchestra board that abdicates its responsibility to its creditors, or a major arts funder that shrinks from making artistic judgments?
The Orchestra’s failure
“You realize what this means?” shouted James Stewart, as the desperate George Bailey, in the 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. “It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison!”
That was then. Robert Morris, who signed the Declaration of Independence and helped finance the American Revolution, may have languished for three years in a Philadelphia jail for failure to pay some $12 million in debts, but nowadays bankruptcy is perceived as just another business tool to be utilized with impunity by the rich and the shrewd. Donald Trump and/or his companies have declared bankruptcy four times without apparent damage to Trump’s standing as a successful real estate developer and potential Presidential candidate.
And on April 16 the debt-ridden Philadelphia Orchestra’s board— consisting, as the St. Joseph’s University treasurer reminded us Monday in a letter to the Inquirer, of “some of the brightest minds in the business community”— jumped into the act, seeking bankruptcy protection on the theory that doing so will release the board from its burdensome obligations to its musicians and its landlords and consequently allow the Orchestra to make a fresh start.
It’s easy to take potshots from the sidelines at a financially troubled pillar of the Western cultural establishment, much harder to wrestle with the pillar’s grim socioeconomic realities. That said, please permit this sideline commentator a few observations.
Bankruptcy is indeed no longer a disgrace. It’s the relief that a humane society extends to people and organizations suffering from crushing debts that they can’t reasonably hope to pay off. It can happen to any of us. Still, at the very least, it’s an admission of failure. As Jack Farber, the Philadelphia-based corporate turnaround specialist, dryly notes in his forthcoming memoirs, bankruptcy at the very least reflects poorly on management.
A persistent problem of the Philadelphia Orchestra since my return to Philadelphia in the early ’70s has been its inability to project the confident aura of a winner— a necessary ingredient for attracting funding and audiences alike. Filing for bankruptcy merely exacerbates that problem.
Division of labor
When Robert Montgomery Scott was president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Anne d’Harnoncourt was its director in the 1980s and ‘90s, Scott described their division of labor this way: “She sees [the museum] as one of the great art institutions of the world.... I view it as one of Philadelphia’s major civic problems. Nevertheless, we wind up with the same priorities.” The Philadelphia Orchestra similarly consists of two teams, albeit less successfully. The musicians are responsible for making beautiful music. They’ve held up their end of this bargain remarkably well; many knowledgeable observers think the Orchestra sounds better now than at any time in its past.
The Orchestra’s management and board, on the other hand, are responsible for supporting the musicians and insulating them from financial distractions. This responsibility they have largely failed to discharge. Blaming this failure on shifting musical tastes and changing demographics is a cop-out at a time when other major orchestras (like those in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco) have successfully surmounted the same challenges.
Check your brains at the door
The Orchestra’s board consists of 75 people, many of whom are indeed “some of the brightest minds in the business community.” Unfortunately, (a) none of those 75 has a financial stake in the Orchestra, as the musicians do, (b) with such a large and unwieldy group, few board members feel personally responsible for the Orchestra’s fate, as many of the musicians (and even some of the managers) do; and (c) many of the board’s supposedly high-powered business minds are so dazzled by the Orchestra’s prestige that, as one board member put it to me, “They check their brains at the door.”
I’m old enough to remember a time, as recently as the 1960s, when the Orchestra’s board consisted of just 16 trustees. Those 16 constituted a tight, snobbish, provincial and often bigoted circle, but they proudly identified themselves with the Orchestra and perceived themselves as its owners and protectors. These bluebloods, and Bob Scott too, were the kind of folks the late Penn sociologist E. Digby Baltzell had in mind when he said, “I believe in inherited wealth. You’ve got to have some people who are above it all.”
When Leopold Stokowski, in the 1920s, reproached his audience from the podium for objecting to his programming, one dowager scolded back, “Young man, you’re hired to lead the band. Play on!” That comically boorish response to a great conductor nevertheless articulated a refreshingly clear philosophy of management: When we hire musicians, we abide by the terms of the contract and expect the same in return.
The cost of going ‘world class’
Only four Philadelphia arts institutions today can be classified as “world class,” in the sense that they attract global constituencies: The Orchestra, the Art Museum, the Curtis Institute and the Barnes Foundation. The cost of maintaining world-class standards is exponentially higher than that of other arts organizations. A savvy entrepreneurial manager like Bernard Havard can consistently balance the Walnut Street Theatre’s books because his theater’s artistic demands are a notch or two below world-class. In crunch times, a community orchestra, theater company or dance troupe can cut salaries, lay people off or ask its artists to sweep the floors. (I know of one local theater company that, during a financial crisis, asked its development director to clean the toilets.) But a world-class organization can’t do such a thing without jeopardizing its world-class status.
Ideally, world-class arts organizations attract world-class audiences and world-class profits. But life rarely works that way. On the contrary, the world’s greatest artists, from Leonardo to Wagner to the Metropolitan Opera, have usually been subsidized by passionate princes, patrons or philanthropists who cheerfully accepted the notion that great art is rarely self-supporting. Which brings me to….
The elephant in the room
The Pew Charitable Trusts, which is by far Philadelphia’s largest foundation as well as its largest arts funder, has been conspicuously absent from discussions about saving the Orchestra. Because the Pew declines to draw distinctions between great art and lesser art, it has largely bypassed the Orchestra lately in favor of other arts organizations with better business plans and/or greater perceived community impact. The Pew’s “Index of Organizational Health,” adopted in the late 1990s, consisted of nine criteria for awarding grants, none of which involves artistic merit and most of which equate “health” with operating in the black.
That’s the Pew’s prerogative, of course. But it needs to be pointed out (as I’ve suggested before) that the Pew’s guidelines largely constitute an abdication of artistic judgment. As some local wit has observed, if Mozart had to compete for a Pew grant against a savvy (albeit musically mediocre) bureaucratic tactician like Salieri, the grant would go to Salieri.
I ask you: Where is the bold Philadelphia Orchestra board member, executive or development officer who will stand up and say: “Dammit, I’m going to persuade the Pew Foundation and the rest of the world that we’ve got a winner here”? And where is the bold Pew program officer (or any other philanthropist) who will stand up and say: “Dammit, great art is worth supporting, even if it isn’t run like a business”?
A voice from the past
Scant hours after the Orchestra board filed its bankruptcy petition on Aprill 16, I found myself at a Drexel family reunion dinner, seated next to Dorothy Fell Farrelly, a great-granddaughter of Sarah Drexel Fell Van Rensselaer (1860-1929), who with her second husband Alexander Van Rensselaer and a few upper-crust friends and relatives launched the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1900 and nurtured it through many a crisis over its first three decades. How, I wondered, would this imperious grand dame have reacted to that Saturday’s dismal bankruptcy announcement?
Having written a biography of her father, Anthony Drexel, I think I know the answer. “The word bankruptcy is not in my dictionary,” Sally Van Rensselaer would declare. “You provide the glorious music, and we’ll provide the money. Play on!”♦
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