Apparently the New Hampshire Music Festival is doing a pretty thorough 180-degree turn:
Less than two weeks after abandoning pursuit of a new artistic vision and restructured orchestra, which sparked bitter controversy last summer, the Board of the NH Music Festival shuffled directors and management when it met last week.
Longtime director of the Festival and current chairman of its finance committee, Ron Sibley of Plymouth, yesterday confirmed that after a transition period he will replace Rusty McLear as chairman. At the same time, he said that vice chairman Susan Weatherbie and two other Board members have tendered their resignations.
David Graham, the president of the Festival since 1987, will be leaving his position in May. The Festival has also severed its relationships with Henry Fogel, past president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and dean of the Chicago College of Performing Arts who was engaged as Festival director this spring, and Johnny Gandelsman, the celebrated violinist named artistic director in the summer.
…The Board, Sibley said, also agreed to have the property at Red Hill, which was purchased in 2001 as the site of a future concert hall, appraised with the intention of placing it on the market for sale.
After the change in direction announced a couple of weeks ago, there was little question that there would be a shake-up; the only question was how many of the leaders of the Festival would leave. The answer was “all of them.” Obviously this will make planning this summer’s festival an interesting process. But at least the Board didn’t try to pretend that the leadership could hang on after losing a fight over the fundamental nature of the institution.
Are there lessons in this episode? I see at least two. The first is that collective action can be very powerful. A group of musicians, without access to union protections or the process of collective bargaining, faced down their management and board by doing not much more than raising a public stink about what was being done to them and to the Festival – aided by a group of local citizens without access to much in the way of resources either. Non-profit institutions really don’t like public messes, and for good reason: they are far more dependent on public goodwill than are for-profit enterprises.
The second is that change is very, very hard. What Henry Fogel and David Graham were proposing was pretty radical change; if not exactly the “new model” being discussed within the industry, certainly a very different kind of institution and concert experience than musicians and patrons had known for the previous few decades.
Were they right to do so? Were they right to believe that doing so would fix the Festival’s financial problems? I’m inclined to doubt it. But clearly they didn’t make a sufficiently compelling case to the community that the Festival could only be saved by taking a very different road. It was all too easy to poke holes in their arguments, and their proposals. And I suspect that David Graham, in particular, had insufficient credibility as a manager to claim that he wasn’t part of the reason the Festival hadn’t been succeeding financially. Even if he wasn’t the whole reason, their inadequacies were sufficient ammunition for those opposed to the changes they were proposing.
Perhaps the most important lesson of this failed attempt at fundamental change is that such change is only likely to happen when it becomes crystal clear to everyone that there really is no alternative – that replacing the staff, or the board, or simply doing the same things better, will not fix the problems. Claiming that such change might be desirable on a theoretical level – regardless of how plausible the claim – is simply not enough. In practice, improvement is rarely sufficient reason for such change.
Which is why, I believe, institutions usually have to be staring into the abyss before they’re really able to seriously think about stepping back from it.