Surviving the Downturn – Together

Melia Tourangeau

The Economic Downturn was a stressful and painful time for the U.S., taking many Americans by surprise, including many Utah Symphony musicians. In the summer of 2008, we actually felt like we were at the beginning of a new growth phase in the orchestra. We were in the first year of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which contained the first real growth in wages in several seasons and things seemed to be looking up. Just a few weeks later — in September, 2008 — the Symphony office would announce to the Musicians plans of mounting a $100 million capital campaign, meant to ensure our stability and growth well into the future.

Then, within a single ten day period later that same month, America’s economy seemed to suddenly implode upon itself. Both the housing and the stock market plummeted, remaining in the tank for years afterward while unemployment, bankruptcies and foreclosures soared with seemingly no end in sight. Many Americans fortunate enough to retain their jobs and their homes during the downturn watched helplessly as both their home equity, and their retirement savings, seemed to simply vaporize. The downturn’s stifling effects were felt at the Utah Symphony just as they were in most U.S. orchestras, and indeed, throughout the entire non-profit sector.

I sat down with our CEO, Melia Tourangeau, in her office recently to get her take on the downturn as well as its impact upon the Symphony, now that much of this can be viewed from the rear-view mirror. I asked her to think back to 2008 and recall which single event — on a National, then a local basis, then from within the Organization — stopped her hardest in her tracks to fret about the economy and its effect on the Orchestra (some of her response may surprise you at first glance.)

Nationally: the fall of Lehman Brothers.
Locally: listening to the first post-crash KUER-FM radio (NPR) fund drive, and how over several days it seemed that no one was calling in.
Within the USO: noticing such great fear in the eyes and voices of EVERYONE to whom the organization looks for support or guidance: Board members (past and present), patrons, foundations, state and local Legislators.

Melia was hardly the only American Orchestra CEO to feel the pinch and the uncertainty brought about by this recession. The leaderships of all American orchestras were left reeling to one extent or another, and the various ways these organizations chose to respond to the crisis would make for an interesting article on its own.

During this time, a number of pundits from the press, academia and even from within our industry, slapped together statistics (on fundraising, concert attendance, and even classical recording sales) from this and the post 9-11 recession, using them to proclaim that classical music and the American Symphony Orchestra were dying. (Interestingly, there are published articles drawing the same dire conclusions that date back to the early twentieth century.) As late as last year, the CEO of the Metropolitan Opera repeatedly went on the record to denigrate his own art form, even publicly predicting Opera’s imminent demise during the Met’s contract negotiations. Similarly since 2008, orchestra musicians in an increasing number of cities found themselves – and their contracts — under attack and blamed as their orchestra’s actual problem during the downturn.

Salt Lake City, most of us would agree with pride, is a very unique place and on many levels. We take particular pride in our performing arts scene and with the amazing support our community – and our State – extends to the arts. We can also take great pride in how actions taken during the downturn — from Utah Symphony Musicians to Management to Board — stood in contrast to those of a number of American Orchestras.

First and foremost was the way both sides of the table worked together to address Management’s financial needs in getting through the recession. In lieu of re-opening the entire Collective Bargaining Agreement to negotiation, Melia and Board Chair, Pat Richards, agreed to the Musicians’ proposal to enter into less formal contract waiver discussions, which mandate those discussions cover only mutually agreed upon (beforehand) sections of the master agreement. They also agreed to Musician proposals to continue extending the length of the existing contract, with the intention of gradually restoring compensation to pre-recession levels by the final year of the agreement.

When I asked Melia about their agreeing to extend – and gradually restore — the contract only utilizing temporary waivers to compensation, she asserted, “I didn’t come here to blow things up… (and was) grateful for the cooperation of the Symphony musicians during the recession.“

Both Musicians and the Board looked to one another to assess how the other would agree to be part of the solution. Ultimately, each side was encouraged to repeatedly step up over these difficult years owing, in part, to the contribution and commitment of the other side. In the end, the Musicians conceded a total of $3.5 million dollars in salaries – in four separate negotiations – covering a five and a half year period: painful, but ultimately doable. Furthermore, the pain from these concessions was shared across the board as the entire Management team, including Melia and Music Director Thierry Fischer, also took hefty salary cuts. Finally, last September the Board and Management held to their part of the bargain by ultimately restoring – even slightly surpassing – musician compensation to levels agreed upon in negotiations prior to the recession.

In this collaboration, the Utah Symphony Board and Management never felt compelled to hastily cobble together an untested, new business model but found ways to increase the donor base, allowing the existing model to function more effectively. And in this entire period, neither the Musicians, nor our Union nor our Collective Bargaining Agreement were ever scapegoated as the problem. It was simply The Recession, and everyone was clear on it.

Melia e-mailed me the other day as a follow up to our interview, concluding it with these parting thoughts with which I heartily concur and with which I will also conclude. She said, “I believe our success then was due to building a culture of trust, transparency and authenticity. I am grateful to have such a good working relationship with our musicians, and I believe with the culture we have built, we will continue to move the organization forward serving the people of our state.”