Last month Thomas Cott linked to a piece on Classical Music Magazine’s website by Catherine Arlidge where she suggested symphony musicians be more effectively used to evangelize for their art.
The one part of Arlidge’s piece that really caught my attention was when she mentioned the longevity of with the City of Birmingham (UK) Symphony Orchestra and how six members had been with the ensemble for 40 years and 59% had been with the organization for over 10 years.
It struck me that many of the symphony orchestras in the U.S. could probably claim similar statistics–or at least could until the recent trend of management-musician contract conflict which has degraded the membership of so many ensembles.
Arlidge’s point about the “employee retention” rates of these groups being among the most stable compared to most other industries made the recent slow dissolution seem all the more tragic.
Arlidge mentions the pros and cons of governed and self-governed orchestras and then goes on to suggest:
But could there be a third way, a ‘John Lewis’ vision of our UK orchestras, where players and staff are employed and are members? There may not be profits to share, but there would be a vision to share and a collective sense of ownership. If we could combine the best qualities of both orchestral governance models we could create a structure that serves our art better.
John Lewis, by the way, is a department store/supermarket/services company based in London that became employee owned in 1929.
In the context of the aforementioned conflict, a governance structure where everyone in the organization, both staff and musicians, were seen as equal members, has a great deal of appeal. It has appeared that a fair bit of the acrimony that has arisen in situations like the recent Minnesota Orchestra contract negotiations has seemed to be based on a view of the musicians as being subject to the goodwill of the board and administration rather than partners in the organizational goals.
Everyone having more equal standing with equal responsibility for contributing to the organization’s success may change the dynamic enough to avoid those types of situations as well as help the organization evolve to meet changing audience expectations.
Changing the dynamics wouldn’t be easy or quickly accomplished. There would be a lot of historical and cultural inertia resisting efforts. One issue not mentioned in Arlidge’s article is the role and composition of the governing board.
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has one, in case you were wondering if it is different in the UK. Though given the arts funding model in England, the board-artist relationship is likely much different than in the US.
One of the benefits possessed by the John Lewis Partnership Catherine Arlidge cites is a strong founding constitution which set much of the culture from the outset.
Still, the idea that management was in charge and above all others was not easy to discard. Even as late as 1957, John Lewis’ son, Spedan, whose idea employee ownership was, insisted it was important that management be concentrated in a single pair of hands, even though he hadn’t been the owner in nearly 30 years. (Granted, the company survived and expanded through the Great Depression and World War II.)
I am aware of some theater ensembles that operate in a membership focused manner similar to the one Arlidge proposes, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, comes to mind. It is fairly common for visual artists to form these type of associations. I have a vague recollection of some dance companies, but none immediately come to mind.
I was wondering if there were any orchestras in the U.S. organized in a similar manner that might serve as a good example. I am not as familiar with the range of ensembles.