November 2010 has been a watershed month in my life, as the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's Board of Directors and my colleagues voted to eliminate up to a dozen positions within the organization, including mine. Having been the CSO's principal harpist for 24 years and having served as its interim executive director for a tumultuous nine months, I know the CSO from every dimension and bring a wealth of institutional memory.
How did a once proud organization reach the point of gutting itself?
In short, no one was minding the store and everyone was passing the buck.
I came to the orchestra in 1987 and found carefully controlled growth with an interested and engaged board and management. From the mid '90s on, I watched as we lost our once dynamic board. The core size jumped and with it came weak leadership, modest fundraising efforts, staff members who departed with no replacements being hired, and a growing inability to make ends meet. Musicians added rule after rule to agreements, each designed to remedy a past conflict but creating a growing rule bureaucracy.
We performed at a very high level but had little internal sustaining power. Each year, the board was sure that with new, enthusiastic members we would address the growing problems. The board and management failed to leverage a one-time six-figure gift into a major fundraising campaign, instead telling the public that the orchestra was fixed. We promptly heard a huge clapping shut of checkbooks all over Charleston.
In 2009, I made a very risky move in becoming the interim executive director of the CSO, an organization known for chewing through executive directors. I did this because I cared deeply about the organization. I found a board with little desire to raise money, instead assuming that the CSO League, a stalwart volunteer army, would assume that task. While some members did fulfill financial obligations, many did not, failing to make personal contributions or even attend performances. I saw an undersized, technology-starved, overworked staff and a musician base resentful of enduring past pay cuts and many with little interest or understanding of current events, especially economic issues. The lack of a development director was a serious issue, but who would enter such an environment?
I embarked upon my CSO survival short-term list, building basic trust and communication with donors and audience development. In spite of my best efforts and lots of quiet, careful work in knitting relationships back together and undoing past damage, by March 2010 the CSO chose to suspend operations. My position was eliminated in early April. The ominous nature of everyone's existence was confirmed when I was told by a board member to "never think of them as people. They're only numbers."
A stalemate continued until November, when the board threatened a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing if the musicians refused to ratify a contract in which about one-third of the orchestra would lose employment. The individual survival mechanism and rampant cliques that permeate the orchestra proved strong enough for passage of the agreement.
Those losing full-time status would be retained on a "per service" basis. Benefits and pension contributions would be reduced to essentially nothing, and each musician, regardless of years of service, would receive the same $5,000 pay-off. I now know that my worth to the CSO for 24 years of service is $208.33 per year, before taxes.
Will the CSO rebound? I suspect the bloodletting has just begun, and having done a quick read of the Community Forum findings, I see the CSO becoming dumbed-down, with positions in the orchestra usurped by amateurs over seasoned professionals. There's much to consider in the study, including the following: "Leverage the opportunity to start fresh and recruit musicians with a dual and equal emphasis on quality of musicianship and a desire to be a committed, flexible, and collaborative team member of a start-up community-based performing arts organization."
What about the dozen or so of us who just lost jobs?
Kathleen Wilson has represented James Island District 12 as a member of Charleston City Council since 2005.