News & Analysis: JSO Board Needs to Do Its Damn Job

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This is a big weekend coming up in Jacksonville. The administration for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra has said a previously scheduled production of The Nutcracker with the First Coast Ballet will go on even though the orchestra's management locked out its musicians three weeks ago. JSO musicians have gone without paychecks since then.

Drew McManus, an expert on orchestral management and host of Adaptistration, has been tracking the developments as well as doing original reporting on the situation. Today, he reports that a mediator has been brought in to broker an agreement between management and the musicians' union representatives.

That meeting, McManus writes, is set to take place Friday at noon. (Read more on the background of the lock-out here, here, here and here.)

Traditionally, the Jacksonville Sympphony has produced The Nutcracker using live music by the JSO musicians (and it has been marketed as such every year), but Alan Hopper, the executive director of the orchestra, said publicly that the show will go on even if they have to use recorded music. JSO musicians on have threaten to picket the this weekend's performances if they cannot reach a settlement before the weekend.

Some background

The old labor contract in Jacksonville expired in August. Negotiations for a new one started in September. Until a new contact was ratified, musicians decided to continue playing under the terms of the old agreement with no intention of going on strike. In lieu of guarantees, they would keep performing.

When the proposed contract was offered three weekends ago, musicians felt the terms were not in their favor. The proposed contract asked them in effect to take a pay cut (in the form of reduced pension contributions and less pay for part-time players) even though they had already taken pay cuts in 2002 and 2004 with the understanding that they were giving management the breathing room it needed to make necessary financial changes.

Management, meanwhile, said the orchestra's deficit is too big ($3 million). To meet yearly financial goals (i.e., cleaning up red ink), management said there was no choice for the musicians but to accept terms of this new five-year agreement. And they weren't going to take no for an answer: The proposed contract was "the last, best and final offer," according to McManus, who interviewed Hopper, the orchestra's executive director.

Some analysis

I don't know much about the internal mechanics of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. So should not comment on its organizational attitudes, infrastructure issues, or civic ideology. I do know, however, that similar developments occurred along similar themes and issues with the Savannah Symphony. In 2003, the Savannah Symphony was among five orchestras nationwide to have work stoppages, labor disputes, or financial woes that led to bankruptcy. But it was the only one that did not come back over the next few years.

I was living as a cultural journalist in Savannah during the time of the orchestra's demise. I saw firsthand what happened, but only understood what happened with the passing of time. And what I came to understand in Savannah is what I sense is happening in Jacksonville. That is, an attitude, a dangerous and perhaps ubiquitous attitude, among board members and key positions in the JSO's administration toward the orchestra's musicians.

Remember: The musicians had already committed to playing. On the Tuesday after negotiations stalled, however, they found the doors to the concert hall locked. There would be no rehearsals that day or the immediate future. Later, management announced it had canceled the following weekend's concerts, and the next weekend after that, and that future concerts were to be decided on a weekly basis.

As Matthew Westphal noted in PlayBillArts on Nov. 19, it's unusual for an orchestra's management to cancel concerts if the musicians have not gone on strike. The implication here is that if the management locks out its musicians, it's forcing their hand in contract negotiations. In other words, if you want to work, take the offer. If you don't take the offer, you can go without a pay check and we'll see how long you wait to change your mind.

As I said, even though musicians were willing to play, management locked them out and canceled concerts. Surely for political reasons, both Hopper and Jim Van Vleck, chairman of the board, went to great pains not to appear like they were not pushing to musicians to make a decision. Hopper and Van Vleck told Jacksonville reporters that musicians had not gone on strike and they were not being locked out, even though they were — literally.

So the lock out seems to be the board and JSO management's strategy for getting the musicians to accept the new deal. But even if they succeed, there's still something rotten in Jacksonville. And that still might threaten the future and future credibility of the organization. Unsavory as the lock out is to impartial observers, the framework of the rationale behind the strategy is even more so.

Some shit talk

Van Vleck said musicians were asking for too much. He told reporters that if JSO musicians wanted to keep the orchestra going, they'd need to concede.

"I really do respect our musicians," he told the Florida Times-Union, "but there's something about a 37-week year and 20 hours a week that doesn't seem too onerous."

This "onerous" comment suggests he doesn't understand the lives of professional musicians and doesn't understand nonprofits. Worse, he doesn't fundamentally value what musicians do. It's an attitude that can, once it becomes rooted, damage an orchestra or undermine the value of having one at all.

If that statement wasn't bad enough, Van Vleck expounded on his point of view in an op-ed piece on Nov. 16 in the Times-Union called "New Realities Require Change." In it, he says that the amount of money it takes to pay musicians is larger than the amount of money generated by the symphony.

As a result, operating deficits have occurred in eight of the last 10 years and maintaining the contract at the current level continues to produce significant deficits in the future.

This is utter nonsense. If an orchestra's board can't raise the money it needs to pay its musicians, it's not doing enough fund-raising. That's the bottom line.

There are no new realities. This is what board do for arts nonprofits — raise money.

If you don't like it, don't serve on the board. The arts don't pay for themselves. Tickets sales, everyone knows, don't pay for the cost of producing concerts or theater productions or dance ensembles. You fill in the difference with contributed income, do your best with earned incomes, and hope by fiscal year's end that your income-expense balance is zero.

That's the reality, a reality Van Vleck and others, one presumes, don't get. And they don't get it, because they don't see the value of what the orchestra is and what the orchestra's musicians do for the board, for the organization and for the city. If they did, they wouldn't be locking out musicians over pennies. They'd get cracking on paying off that debt.

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