Poor leadership, not poor community support, killed the NMSO

I was privileged to work as a senior staff member for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra for five years, working in marketing and public relations. Upon the devastating news that the NMSO is shutting its doors after nearly 80 years of significant and vital arts achievement in our community, I would like to take the opportunity to dispel a myth that has seemed to grow around the organization’s demise: that the bankruptcy of the NMSO was the direct result of a lack of support by the community.


Making a significant donation to a nonprofit is not unlike betting on a horserace: you’re not going to place both your money and your faith on a pony guaranteed to come in behind the pack. Through similar financial troubles in the 1980s, 1990s and this past decade, the NMSO had proven to be a cyclic, historical risk. Givers of major gifts are not stupid, and it is not surprising that their faith in the NMSO had been stretched thin over the years. When those troubles are front-page news, smaller donors and even casual ticket buyers keep their wallets firmly in their pockets.


Many of the NMSO’s major donors, I’m sure, understood that there was an underlying cause of that cyclical financial issue: the American Federation of Musicians’ years-long push for collective bargaining agreements which included an expanded number of guaranteed services. In other words, all members of the orchestra would have a guaranteed number of paid rehearsals, performances and other work-related appearances by way of their contract with the NMSO, the minimum numbers of which grew with subsequent CBAs. While this is a wise guarantee for musicians and their families, it had the long-term effect of pushing the NMSO’s number of concerts and programs beyond a level that a relatively small and poor city could possibly support, guaranteeing structural deficits for the organization. A decades-long cycle of expansion followed by financial difficulty again followed by expansion occurred at the NMSO.


Yet the myth of a lack of community support has grown. The truth is that the NMSO received phenomenal support from this community over its history, and that support is being “thrown under the bus” in the name of excusing decades of poor management by the NMSO’s Board of Trustees with regard to collective bargaining.


Year after year, board members had the choice to bargain with the union in a sustainable way that would have created long-term security for the NMSO and all those on its payroll. But instead they chose to sign onto unsustainable contracts based on lofty hopes for as-yet-undiscovered fundraising windfalls in the community. One cannot blame the union for trying to secure the best deal possible for their members. That’s what unions exist to do, and the AFofM does it very well. Again, it was the Board that had a choice to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to the institution yet failed many times over the decades to do so.


So to be clear, it is not the economy that did the NMSO in. No doubt a poor economy did not help, but if the Dow were at 20,000 today, unemployment was at 4 percent and the “Great Recession” had never happened, the NMSO would still be bankrupt.


The fact that the organization’s final act was to, essentially, pass the blame for their demise onto the community that supported them through thick and thin since 1932 is unforgivable.


I am hopeful that a new professional orchestra will soon call our city and our state home. This community will not tolerate the lack of that cultural resource for very long. Hopefully the new institution will be wiser for the trials of its predecessor organization. And I do not doubt it will be well supported by the community.

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Right on Benny!  (and re the NMSO, how about some support from the federal level: KAFB or Sandia Labs or Los Alamos)
Sandia Labs was a NMSO sponsor. One of the VPs served on the board as well, I believe.

Couldn't Intel have contributed more, since they haven't had to pay taxes in Sandoval county for over 30 years, and just declared a nice profitable quarter? 


Also, I know the musicians didn't earn much each - $16 -17,000 a year, but what about the conductor?  Was he getting paid too much for a part-timer, and not taking any hits like they were?


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