The new CEO hire at the symphony might keep the Cutters at bay

Interpreting what the hiring of Scott Showalter by the Oregon Symphony means

The Oregon Symphony has a new President and CEO—Scott Showalter.

The Oregon Symphony has a new President and CEO—Scott Showalter.

The news arrived yesterday that the Oregon Symphony had hired Scott Showalter from the Los Angeles Philharmonic as its new president and chief executive officer.

Showalter comes from the fundraising side of things at the LA Philharmonic, where he was vice president for development and supervised a staff of 25, so the immediate conclusion was that the symphony had landed an ace money wrangler who could do some donor-whispering tricks to corral more cash in the arts fundraising badlands of Oregon. In the lead of his story about the hire, The Oregonian’s David Stabler called Showalter a “heavy-hitting fundraiser,” for example. (Didn’t he get the memo that we were using Western metaphors, not baseball or boxing terms?)

A better way to think of this hire, though, is in the context of the battle going on at nearly every symphony in the country, the battle between Cutters and Re-inventors. At the Oregon Symphony, Showalter represents a victory for the Re-inventors, one that I wouldn’t have predicted last fall when it looked as though the Cutters on the board had the upper hand.

The Cutters have gained control at several orchestras. Their triumph at the Minnesota Orchestra led to a bitter lock-out that nearly scuttled the symphony altogether, and to similar outcomes at the big orchestras in Detroit and Philadelphia. Basically, Cutters believe that the musicians union needs to be broken and salaries reset far lower than they are now, so their solution to any financial problem is to cut musician salaries. If the Oregon Symphony has a hard time meeting a budget of $13 million, Cutters say, let’s trim it to $10 million by cutting salaries.

Cutters think that if you cut the salaries so deeply that musicians leave, they can be easily replaced by younger, cheaper players. At the Oregon Symphony, where last fall the musicians were told that cuts amounting to more than 25 percent of their salaries might be needed to balance the budget, according to sources who have to remain anonymous, we might very well have seen that happen. (When I asked for confirmation or denial of this line of negotiation from the symphony in February, I received the equivalent of “no comment.” Transparency—the willingness to answer hard questions about your organization—is a problem I hope Showalter will address.)

The Cutter position is ideological, not practical: It’s hard to point to success stories among American orchestras that started with breaking the unions or began with cutting musician salaries and didn’t also include a major re-invention of the way the orchestra does business. And yes, last fall and even into early spring, as negotiations with the musicians over a new contract stumbled along, I was pretty sure that the Cutters were going to win, and we’d be facing either a lockout or a strike by the musicians.

Scott Showalter

Scott Showalter

The hiring of Showalter, though, is the latest in a series of events at the symphony that I find very encouraging. It started last summer, oddly enough after the musicians had to sacrifice $315,000 in salary, more than two weeks’ worth, to balance the symphony’s budget. In return, they received promises in a Memo of Understanding that they could participate at a deeper level in the management of the symphony.  At their prompting, several special concerts were held, including the very successful New Year’s Eve Beethoven Nine and the recent John Williams concert, which helped reduce the projected deficit and propelled orchestra ticket sales to new records.

The symphony also embraced its education and outreach mission, in some cases building on the outreach success of groups that the musicians had formed outside the orchestra (which Brett Campbell detailed here). And then the musicians on the board, search committee and beyond embraced Showalter as someone they could work with: Stabler quoted concertmaster Sarah Kwak to this effect and some of those anonymous sources chipped in a thumbs-up, as well. A key aggravating component of the disasters in Philadelphia, Detroit and Minneapolis was the enmity between the CEO and the musicians.

Showalter’s most recent home, the LA Philharmonic, is known for its dynamic programming and its high profile in a city dripping with mass media superstars and Big Time cultural institutions. We can’t compare the challenges of an orchestra in Los Angeles to those in Portland in a meaningful way, but I’d at least suggest that it’s possible he will be able to bring the LA Phil’s culture of change here. Ultimately, that will be more important to his success than his fundraising acumen, not that the two aren’t linked: It’s a lot easier to raise money for an organization that is on the move than one that’s static.

The thorny issue of the new contract for the musicians hasn’t yet been resolved. Everyone is expecting cuts of some sort, but if those are paired with a renewed commitment to reinvent the way the symphony does business, then maybe those become more palatable, even if it means that the musicians are going to have to be more flexible about how much they are paid for their services (such as accepting less money for recordings in return for a cut of the proceeds, UPDATE: Which they already do in their current contract). If the musicians see a way back to their current levels, that makes it a lot easier to accept a trim—though a 25-percent demand would be hard to meet.

Now maybe I’m all wrong. The Cutters could still win the day. But we’ve seen enough progress at this point to hope that won’t happen. There are lots of interesting experiments to conduct.

Read more by Barry Johnson.
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2 Responses.

  1. The OSO has some outstanding musicians, including the principal conductor. The orchestra, which is barely larger than a chamber orchestra, has its own style, more laid back and cooperative than the Germanic style typical of the big orchestras in the US. We always enjoy hearing them so much. I hope that a way can be found to support these musicians, including financially, so they can stay in Portland.

    Your article didn’t mention it, but one of the present operating methods seems to be to include more and more pops concerts. Do these really bring in a bigger audience?

    • Barry Johnson says:

      I completely agree: This small symphony punches above its weight, as measured by budget and salaries, and discussions about it should start with the idea that maintaining and then increasing salaries and budget is of prime importance to the organization.

      The rise in the number of popular music concerts at the symphony has been very noticeable the past few seasons, and it must be deliberate. The symphony doesn’t talk about its programming decisions, including how this expansion figures into their mission or philosophy, and I haven’t seen the ticket numbers or receipts on those concerts. I THINK that those must be more volatile than the classical series concerts, and that’s a little worrisome.

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