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Hostile Nonprofit Takeovers

Dec 2, 08:28 PM

By Pete Vriesenga

The sudden, September exodus of twenty CSO board members will be remembered as a fortuitous change for the better, creating a welcome opening for new and returning leaders who are committed to building the orchestra’s future and maintaining stature as a world-class orchestra. Our community is deeply thankful for this show of support and direction from true patrons of the arts. This was not the case in recent years while the orchestra was under the powerful grip of individuals in pursuit of personal agendas and pointless, anti-union ideology.

The latest twist in this sordid story is a vindictive, politically-charged editorial by resigned CSO board members Heather K. Miller and Bruce Clinton that ran in the Denver Post on November 13. Former board members Martha Clinton, Steve Holtze, Bernard Schotters, Kevin Duncan and Gary Lutz contributed to this editorial that lashes out at the very organization they were sworn to support only weeks ago. In an effort to cover their tracks and personal board failings, they go on to blame the Musicians Union that is “more focused on preserving an unrealistic labor contract than preserving the future of the symphony and their very jobs.”

Miller and Clinton claim that “Under the leadership of former president and CEO Jim Palermo, executive salaries were cut and creative programs were designed to expand the symphony’s audience appeal.” That would be an excellent point if it were true. But the facts show that from 2009 and 2011, costs for orchestra, artistic and chorus declined from 75% to 65% of total costs (decrease of $339,000) while admin/marketing/development increased from 25% to 35% (increase of $1,480,000) during the same period. At the bargaining table we repeatedly asked Palermo for any examples where management executives would be sharing the sacrifice that he was forcing upon the musicians. Palermo gave no example, and in fact responded by saying that he must reserve the right to give his top executives raises as he sees fit.

Miller & Clinton also blame the Union for selectively leaking their in-house “Sustainability Study” to the press, which in of itself was a concerted effort to blame the union for anything and everything that could possibly go wrong with a symphony orchestra. Fabricated charges that the union somehow leaked their Sustainability Study or that the union is protecting an unrealistic labor contract may well have come from the moon. The record clearly shows that these board members were determined to shut the orchestra down regardless of whether the musicians agreed to their demands or not. The shameful truth is that these board members resigned their positions in September as the musicians conceded to their demand for a $530,000 wage concession, not to mention their seemingly impossible deadline to accomplish this within 4 days.

I believe the 20 resigned board members mistakenly assumed the musicians would vote against the wage concession, thus enabling them to point to the union as their scapegoat and excuse for a planned, frustrated departure. Their plan was foiled when they woke up the next day to learn that the musicians accepted their demands, which left the entire community scratching their heads wondering why they walked away from their reponsibilities. The truth is far worse than that. They also took $500,000 of 2011-12 season pledges with them, deliberately sending the orchestra into a cash crisis.

2009 contract negotiations were no better, with repeated threats of bankruptcy and forced lockouts. Bruce Clinton and then board chair Kevin Duncan were on the management side of the bargaining table. Both were voting in favor of bankruptcy during that summer of 2009, even as negotiations were underway and the musicians accepted their mandated 24% pay cut. How did it come to this, and where did this determined effort to shut the orchestra down come from?

The Bricks & Mortar Curse
In November of 2007, Denver voters passed a $550 million bond issue that included $60 million as seed money for a new concert hall, with the understanding that the CSO board had pledged to raise another $30 million. But these same board members who beat the drum for $60 million in City tax dollars were suddenly sitting on their wallets when the economy went south at the end of 2008. Their $30 million pledge to the City never materialized (sound familiar?) and their personal frustrations suddenly turned on the musicians, blaming “union work rules” for the mess that the board created.

The ‘Bricks & Mortar Curse’ has raised its ugly head elsewhere. In San Antonio, TX, aggressive fundraising for their planned $195 million Tobin Center is drawing critical contributions away from the San Antonio Symphony. The orchestra ended the 2010/11 Season with $750,000 in debt and is now relying on advance ticket sales to fund operations. An October 7 story on mysanantonio.com warns the “City may get little or no symphony” and raises the prospect of a the new concert hall opening in 2013 or 2014 without an orchestra.

One of the more interesting examples goes back a few more years, but in many ways hits much closer to home. The Florida Philharmonic Orchestra served a population of over 5 million and was on sound footing with budget and ticket sales when construction of their new Miami home began in 2001. Incredibly, the FPO was forced out of business by the time the $500 million Adrienne Arsht Center opened on October 5, 2006. By no small coincidence in January, 2007, the Cleveland Orchestra began their annual 3-week Miami Residency (est. budget of $3 million) as a means of “fulfilling our promise to the community” while simultaneously playing a direct role in the demise of the FPO and its 43-week season (approximate $9 million budget).

The irony is the death of the FPO arguably came at the hands of board members and leaders within the organization. A June 2007 story titled Harmony & Discord in Cleveland Magazine details efforts of former FPO chairman Daniel Lewis who is now chairman of the Cleveland Orchestra Miami Residency. The Cleveland Residency, in collaboration with the New World Symphony training orchestra, has now replaced FPO while drawing considerably more resources from the community.

The direct link to Denver is through Bruce Clinton, who is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Cleveland Orchestra Miami Residency and also serves on the Board of Trustees of the New World Symphony. Obviously Clinton got just what he wanted in Miami: NWS orchestra members are given a room and $450/week, they have no union contract and must leave the orchestra after 3 years. “It’s all about the kids,” said Clinton during our 2009 contract negotiations. “That’s why I’m here.”

Just how “sustainable” is Bruce Clinton’s Miami model that imports the Cleveland Orchestra at five times the cost per concert over the former FPO? How sustainable is the future of NWS orchestra members who no longer have the FPO as a potential employer because of the actions of these “civic leaders” in Miami? The Miami example shows that a union orchestra can be shut off as easily as a light switch and a non-union or contract replacement can be sold once again as a “promise to the community.” The New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Dallas Symphony will again be in-residence this summer in Vail, so a similar “collaboration” here in Denver is just a phone call away.

Bruce Clinton made his fortune in construction, so he understands the ‘bricks & mortar’ curse that follows the performing arts. Securing naming rights in public buildings will surely promote his business. Moreover, his multiple board positions have become powerful bully pulpits for Clinton, to promote anti-union idealogy within the cultural community. Clinton’s pulpit has broadened in scope and national influence now that he is Vice-President of the League of American Orchestras. The degree to which Clinton has now abused his position with the League is the subject of an opinion piece Collateral Damage from the Clinton Letter by orchestra consultant Drew McManus.

Yes, the shameful resignation of 20 board members was a rare stroke of luck for the CSO. If Miller & Clinton had gotten their way, the sustainability model for the orchestra would be $450/week (or less) as we see in Miami. I still shudder at the thought that Heather Miller would have been chair of the CSO board had she not resigned over her baseless claims about union work rules and orchestra sustainability. Ms. Miller built her career and influence in the banking industry, which of course makes her a specialist in these matters. Are we then to believe the CSO would be more sustainable if it followed the banking model and became solely reliant on other people’s money? A November 27 Bloomberg News story reveals the shocking reality of the bank bailout from 2007 to 2009 and a previously undisclosed total of $7.77 Trillion.

Need I say more?

Pete Vriesenga is President of the Denver Musicians Association

Comment

  1. This needs to be widely read, not just in Denver, but by musicians everywhere…great job…

    Stickman · Dec 3, 09:21 AM · #

  2. Thanks Pete for your always concise and rational responses to what seems to be another manufactured crisis of the nationwide anti-union effort. Unfortunately, we have the Denver Post just today(12/3) publishing yet another anti-musician, anti-union editorial!

    Tom Virtue · Dec 3, 12:37 PM · #

  3. This type of private-agenda structured corruption is, unfortunately, widespread in many areas of our society. Thanks Pete, for turning the light on so all can be properly illuminated.

    D Johnson · Dec 3, 02:18 PM · #

  4. Pete, thanks for this expose. Let’s not forget that these same ex-board members agreed to the very contract which they are now blaming as the root of all the CSO problems.

    N. Tsuchiya · Dec 5, 08:43 PM · #

  5. The former board agreed to the last contract on March 31, 2011 and we celebrated with a champagne toast. In an April 19 press release that same board and administration wrote: “New three-year agreement paves the way for a sustainable future and meaningful programming for Colorado Symphony and the communities it serves.”

    Fortunately there were others writing about the Florida Philharmonic as that story was happening. Former FPO member Christina Fong wrote an excellent piece in June of 2005:
    http://www.sequenza21.com/2005/06/vulture-musicians-and-corporate.html
    Because of this story we had advance warning of the corporatist motives that can quickly corrupt an orchestra board. Thank you Ms. Fong!

    In Solidarity,
    Pete Vriesenga

    Pete Vriesenga · Dec 6, 07:03 AM · #

  6. Great article about the ‘state of affairs’ in a sad and seedy part of the symphony world. Thanks Pete!
    It’s a shame that those resigned Colorado Symphony Board members weren’t focused on using their time in a more ‘creative’, positive manner.

    Richard Sparrow · Dec 7, 01:19 PM · #

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