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Michael Kaiser

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Board Members Need Training, Too

Posted: 11/07/11 07:51 AM ET

Like so many other American orchestras, the Colorado Symphony appears to be turmoil. Twenty-three board members recently resigned when musicians would not agree to a pay cut. An internal review has suggested that there is a possibility that the Symphony will go bankrupt in the next two years. Donor fatigue was cited as a reason for the financial problems the Symphony faces as well as the absence of a longer term vision for the orchestra.

While I am not privy to the inner workings of the Colorado Symphony, I have witnessed financial meltdowns of so many arts organization and can only imagine the scene in the board room: Typically different factions emerge. There are the 'arts lovers' who worry for the health and happiness of the musicians and the quality of the orchestra. This group is passionate about the mission of the orchestra; they argue that more money must be found for the symphony and that any diminution in number of musicians or their salaries will result in an unacceptable reduction in quality. Unfortunately, this group typically has the fewest resources to contribute which reduces their power in board room discussions.

In fact, they are barely tolerated by the 'financial realists' who believe that only radical restructuring of costs can save the symphony. They favor smaller orchestras, per-service contracts and lower wages for musicians. One or several of them may even offer a large contribution if the cuts they demand are enacted and threaten bankruptcy if their 'solutions' are not accepted. These realists typically turn a deaf ear when the musicians argue that the management of the organization does not know how to market and fundraise; in many instances, they actually think of the musicians as enemies.

While it is difficult to imagine how one can truly support the mission of the orchestra while thinking of the artists as the central impediments to success, I am sympathetic with all sides of the argument. It is difficult to see a way out of a chronic deficit, and board members -- who are volunteers after all and rarely sign up for a board expecting to deal with this sort of crisis -- feel pressured, scared and responsible.

What is frustrating to me is that in so many of these instances board members, who are so very knowledgeable about their own businesses, enter these difficult decisions without an understanding about what it takes to run a successful arts organization.

I have lobbied for twenty years to increase the training available to arts managers. In this difficult environment and at a time when so many arts organizations are facing life and death issues, it is crucial for board members to receive some training as well. Board members must understand why good art is central to financial success and how cutting back on the product weakens the fiscal structure of the organization. They must understand how marketing affects fundraising and why a comprehensive institutional marketing campaign is more effective than a cost control effort. They must learn how building a strong committed family of audience members and donors ensures a base of support. They must appreciate how building a new theater is not as important as building a strong annual program of art-making.

Those arts patrons, corporations and foundations that care passionately about the future of the arts in America must encourage members of arts boards to seek the training they need and must invest in the training programs required.