Revisiting Research: Reflections on Autopsy of an Orchestra

Sarah Lutman

This article is part of the Revisiting Research series.

Being the “experienced” respondent to Autopsy of an Orchestra might have made me feel a lot older if were not for the fact that the report reads like something written yesterday. Although the report has a distinctly twentieth-century look and feel in its nondigital, no-hyperlinks format, the compound issues the Oakland Symphony faced in the 1980s resonate clearly for twenty-first-century orchestras. As is the case in so many instances, we have unearthed a historical document only to find that it is about ourselves.

The symphony’s successes mirror the liveliness of today’s music scene: a lauded performance standard appreciated by audiences and critics; the courage to program adventurously and distinctively; a host of creative engagement activities for youth and families; a civic role as community builder and downtown magnet; and deep concern for the working conditions, opportunities, and wages of talented musicians.

Unfortunately the symphony’s looming problems also are all too familiar: a recurring cycle of debt and accumulated deficits; an unaffordable venue; the decision to deplete endowment dollars to meet operating costs; a declining downtown audience whose preferences were rapidly changing; and accelerated expansion built around a high-cost structure with no early promise of new revenue.

The report is clear: the symphony’s bankruptcy had no single cause. Melanie Beene and colleagues scrutinize equally the symphony’s multiple factions from management to board, funders, and musicians. I reread the report while thinking “if only” — but there are far too many “if onlys” identified to suggest any single linchpin. The orchestra was a breeder reactor, a buzzing hive of difficulties whose meltdown no one move could have prevented.

For grantmakers the demise of the Oakland Symphony offers lessons aplenty, starting with the wisdom of granting permission to organizations to spend endowment funds on operating expenses. I understand the inclination of its funders to permit the symphony’s own board to make that call. But sometimes, it is also OK to say no. It just might force leaders to take action, and in a good way. Interventions can work when they are conducted with the long-term interests of the organization at their core, and when they come from a place of support and not punishment. It is surprising how seldom individual grantmakers use intervention as a tool, or join together to do so in order to protect and advance key community assets.

There are many signs of rebirth in the orchestra field; nearly every orchestra is finding new ways to reach and serve community, with success. New musical organizations also are being born with radically different approaches to both performance and engagement. Many of these are being formed by musicians who themselves want a different relationship to community and a different cost structure from what is the norm in symphony orchestras. And yet, the difficulties faced by the Oakland Symphony in the 1980s, though carefully studied by Melanie Beene and Associates in Autopsy, are less sufficiently remembered by the cultural sector. We ignore the report’s findings and lessons at our peril.