Christina Fong

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Two years ago, the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra (FPO) filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations, leaving 80 full-time musicians unemployed. The FPO had served Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties; a population of over 5 million. South Florida now has the dubious distinction of being the largest major metropolitan area in the US without a professional symphony orchestra. To dismiss the demise of the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra by pointing out that Florida philistines simply won't support an orchestra, is, like recent election counts in Florida and Ohio, simply not accurate.

The FPO was one of the busiest orchestras in the nation; also demonstrating outstanding ticket sales. News of the orchestra's dire financial situation was reported widely in South Florida which resulted in many phone calls to the FPO; with offers of large donations. It was later reported most of these calls went unanswered, literally (more on that later).

This year the Cleveland Orchestra (CO) announced it will participate in a 3 week residency every year for the next 10 years in Miami. The CO will help to open the Miami Performing Arts Center (MPAC), originally built for the FPO. Estimated annual budget for the CO's 3 week residency: 3 million. Approximate annual budget for FPO's 43 week season: 9 million.

There is no evidence the CO played an active role in the destruction of the FPO, but evidence does suggest a crucial bond between the two organizations. Dan Lewis had served as chairman of the board of the FPO just before it went bankrupt. Lewis is also trustee and major donor to the CO. There is compelling evidence to suggest Dan Lewis "killed" the FPO in order to help clear the way for the CO. He played a key role in bringing the CO to Florida almost immediately after the FPO's bankruptcy. He was trustee to a CO facing a looming 7.4 million dollar deficit, stagnant ticket sales and declining donations. Is it mere coincidence the timeframe and donation minimums set by Lewis's board for raising funds needed to "save" the FPO were completely unrealistic (along with the aforementioned unanswered phone calls)?

Whether conspiracy or not, at the very least Dan Lewis and his board did very little for the FPO they were supposed to be saving. They showed complete disregard for the 80 musicians of the FPO who made huge concessions year after year; many doing so in the belief it would save the FPO. Unknown to many, for a community of this size and for the amount of work they did, the musicians of the FPO were underpaid. Subscription concerts represent only a small amount of the work for orchestras of this size. In fact, the traditional orchestral concert series is often financially the least lucrative (more on this at a later date). There are pops concerts, education concerts, special community concerts, operas, ballets, etc. Some events generate income, others are what serve and sustain other facets of the life, culture and education of a community.

The Cleveland invasion can be compared with the banking industry in the US. The larger corporate national/international banks come into a community and buy out the regional banks. They are able to cut costs and increase profits by both eliminating their competition and offering limited services to the community. Should there be a difference in the way a national banking giant and a national orchestra giant are run?

No question that corporate culture has infiltrated every aspect of American life. Our universities, once places for "higher learning" and "enlightenment" are now little more than elevated vocational schools. Thus, it is no surprise that corporate culture has also invaded the arts and non-profit organizations. CEOs of both "for profit" and "non-profit" organizations make outrageously high salaries when compared to average workers (in this case, musicians). About a decade ago the mass media reported an outrageously high salary paid to the CEO of United Way. This was during a time Americans were indignant and many withheld donations. The justification for such an unreasonably high salary was based on the idea that CEOs with similar skills would be making a much larger salaries in the corporate world and that non-profits needed to be more competitive. What was then shocking is now "business as usual" and demonstrates how corporate culture has permeated our bottom-line society and degraded our social conscience.

Though I feel very badly for the musicians of the FPO, they played a role in their own demise. They sold out year after year. They took crumbs while observing the abuse of their own members. They buried their heads in the sand while the management and board took them down. However, Cleveland's musicians are even more at fault. Rather than demanding a solution within the Cleveland community to improve their situation, they allowed their management to behave like vultures as they circled the dying Florida Philharmonic Orchestra. Now that the FPO is dead the musicians of the CO can dine on their carrion. Lost jobs in Florida serve up a nice raise for Cleveland musicians.

What a nice set-up for both the CO and rich snowbird billionaires residing and retiring in their multi-million dollar winter mansions in South Florida. Now they don't have to bemoan how much "better" everything is in the north. They can wine and dine with other winter bird friends and even bring in the neighborhood band to show they are not only rich, but culturally superior. They can once again shove it to real South Floridians who actually live and work in Florida, even during the summer months (Feb-Nov). And they can shove it to those Floridians who actually have the gall to think they can build and create something original in Florida, rather than import it. Florida in December is now just like home, only not so cold!

So, what is wrong with any of this? After all, we are Americans and this is America. Competition, business, free-market, "world-class" voting machines, non-profit status, the bottom line ... corporate solutions for everyone, right? Or, is US free-market simply another Wal-Mart invading Main Street? It might seem "un-American" to ask, but is a corporate culture really best for the consumer? After all, it works so well in health insurance, utilities, cable, banking and mass media ... Bush and Cheney assure us it can also save our social security system, so why not orchestras? Tell this to the musicians of the former Florida Philharmonic.

DISCLAIMER: I worked one year in the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 80s. Under the artistic and financial leadership of James Judd I was fired after my first season only to be rehired (surprise!) the beginning of the next. This not only enabled the FPO to hold an audition for my replacement (I won that audition but chose to move to Grand Rapids), but more importantly it allowed them to deny tenure for an additional year. I later found out this to be common practice at the Florida Philharmonic; typical of the many cash-saving and "quality control" practices there. I consider myself one of the lucky ones to have "escaped". 80 others were not as lucky.