AUGUST 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 11

AUGUST 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 11
July 30, 2020 leonard slatkin

“If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.”
—John Cleese

It has been two months since I began writing about the impact of the coronavirus on the world of classical music. Sometimes, I have been prompted by developments in the news, and other times I have shared general ideas for potential future use as the industry recovers.

Until now, I have not really addressed an important group: the staff. These are the people who mostly work behind the scenes. You don’t know their names or even what their jobs entail. However, without them, an orchestra cannot function. As opposed to the musicians, many of these workers need to continue doing their jobs while the crisis continues. That presents a real problem, one that every organization faces.

What jobs are essential and which of them can be temporarily suspended? Are we approaching the time for a complete reassessment of what is necessary to run a successful arts organization? How will the orchestral landscape be changed when the time comes to reopen?

We know that in almost every orchestral institution, drastic cuts have been made over these past few months, including salary reductions. Some workers have been furloughed without pay. And jobs have been eliminated, as it is unclear whether or not those positions will be viable in the future.

For the time being, I am leaving the boards of directors out of this discussion, as they are volunteers. At the same time, they are most certainly reexamining every aspect of the organizations they serve. After all, it is up to them to be the prime drivers of the economic vehicle.

At the head of every orchestra is an executive director. This person is the conduit between the orchestra and board, although more answerable to the latter. It is a difficult job, one that is needed to balance the fiscal and artistic needs of the organization. Clearly you cannot have an orchestra without the non-artistic head. And the executive director must work to assist in fundraising, negotiations with the orchestra, and communication with the patrons.

Next in the chain is the general manager. The Berklee College of Music has a very good definition of this position: “The general manager of an orchestra oversees its human and financial resources, and is responsible for scheduling and production; negotiating and fulfilling contracts with musicians, venues, and vendors; and managing the details of the orchestra’s recording, electronic media, and outreach projects.” Clearly this role is needed during this time, because things change week by week.

Artistic administrator is next. Here we theoretically have the person who is the liaison between the music director and, well, everyone else. These days, this individual is becoming a de facto music director, making decisions for the overall musical health of the organization. He or she is the one who picks up the phone to secure artists, programs, and even educational events. Again, because the landscape is always changing, this is another job that is needed now.

Raising funds has to be very difficult at this time. Orchestras have no idea when they can return and in what form. There is very little they can do to reassure contributors, other than emphasizing the need to look out for the future of the orchestra. What they are finding is that many people are directing their capital toward other priorities. The overall economic picture for individual communities, much less organizations that these people head, needs to come first. More than likely, some of the jobs overseen by the CFO as well as development departments have had drastic cutbacks.

Public relations and marketing clearly are on hold. There is little to promote and limited avenues for getting the message out to the public, so few employees are needed in these areas. Of course, orchestras need to be ready to announce a plan, depending on which scenario gets implemented. Once things are up and running, a reconsideration of which jobs are crucial and which are not will have to take place.

Event planners, media directors, stage crew and so many others are redundant at this time. They will be needed again but not until performance activities resume, in whatever form. Everyone is concerned about the financial impact. It is doubtful that the cutbacks in salaries will disappear for quite a while.

The budgetary steps that have already been put in place most likely should stay at those levels for three months or more. Only after a thorough examination of the fiscal realities can organizations start to recover. And much of that will depend on not only the donors, but also the audience. If the revenue stream is significantly lower than anticipated prior to the pandemic, it will not be possible to fully pay the staff and orchestra.

Throughout this series, I have stressed the importance of long-range thinking, not so much having to do with the next five weeks, but rather the next five years. Short-term fixes might ease financial burdens for the time being, but they might also cause the loss of the organization altogether down the road. Although we must be creative, it cannot come at the expense of losing the orchestra.