A way forward for Orchestra London

OLlogoDiscussion of Orchestra London‘s financial woes has been robust on social media over the past few days, following reports that the organization no longer has the resources to pay its employees or proceed with planned concerts.

In response to my column in yesterday’s London Free Press, city resident and community activist Greg Fowler tweeted that, while it was a “great read,” it didn’t directly address the problems facing the orchestra. I tried responding in three bursts of 140 characters each, but here’s a slightly more detailed description of what I was thinking. My thoughts are rooted in my experience on the boards of other charities and educational institutions.

1. It’s become clear that, after more than a decade of failures on the governance and administrative side of the organization, Orchestra London’s current support structure is broken. While the artistic side of the orchestra has remained competent and even masterful, given the conditions under which its musicians have been forced to work, the administrative and managerial side has let the local community down. Even a financial monitor and a blue-ribbon panel of high-profile local businesspeople, co-opted in 2009 during the orchestra’s last major meltdown, seem to have been ineffective at either re-crafting the organization or garnering sufficient financial support from the community to sustain the orchestra’s longstanding business model.

2. The last time the orchestra’s board and consultants were so proactive in speaking publicly about the organization’s troubles, it was to assuage the sense that the organization was about to go over a financial cliff. At the time, Joe Swan, who would shortly become the orchestra’s executive director, spoke optimistically about future surpluses that would be used to chip away at the orchestra’s deficit, which was then just over $1 million. Last week, the orchestra came forward, publicly, again. Why now? I suspect it’s because the board and the ED have seen the latest audited financial figures — and they’re a nightmare. (Board president Joe O’Neill has not responded to my request for an interview.) It’s better to get out in front of a bad-news story, the theory goes (it didn’t work out so well for Jian Ghomeshi), rather than have it chase you.

3. The orchestra’s fiscal year ended on June 30, 2014. No audit has yet been released, though I can’t imagine that it hasn’t been completed. Big. Red. Flag. The most recent annual report available ends June 30, 2013.

4. So how to go forward? As I mentioned in my column, I personally recoil against the prospect of just letting Orchestra London die and file for bankruptcy, leaving its creditors holding the bag. It sends a signal of abandonment and a lack of civic will. I believe Londoners can and should do better than that. I’m no lawyer — and there are numerous legal hurdles here — but where there’s a will, there’s usually a way. And here’s what I’d like to see accomplished:

• London city council commit just enough money to pay the orchestra’s musicians and stagehands through the end of December. They are collateral damage here in a disaster that is administrative and fiduciary, not artistic.

• London city council might insist, as a condition of its assistance, that the current executive director resign immediately and that the current board of directors should resign upon completion of a strategic renewal process that would include:

a musical arts summit, to be convened sometime in the month of January 2015, specifically programmed to deal with Orchestra London’s future.

using the summit to explore new synergies between London’s performing musical groups, ensembles and events, including those that are amateur, academic and professional.

embarking on a one-time, three-month fundraising campaign, broadly based and widely communicated, to deal with the the orchestra’s existing debt and to act as the great reset in its viability as a significant part of the local arts community in the future.

electing a new board of directors, once the future strategic direction becomes clear. Once elected, the new orchestra board should rewrite its constitutional documents to give the orchestra’s musicians a greater presence and better oversight into the board’s deliberations and decisions. (One orchestra member told me recently that the players’ representatives on the board are too often excluded by in-camera sessions that keep the musicians in the dark about what is really going on at the board level. This is an important governance issue.)

engaging with citizens who would respond to a very different type of programming than that which has traditionally characterized the orchestra. A night of soundtrack songs from Disney’s princess movies? Why not. A concert of music from the Twilight films? Yes. Mashups between the orchestra and headliners from Sunfest and the Home County Folk Festival, either on the Victoria Park bandshell stage or Centennial Hall, adjacent to the park? Absolutely.

formulating partnerships between the orchestra and the community, both on the artistic and corporate sides, that haven’t yet been tried — or  envisaged.

Even with its current level of indebtedness, the life or death of Orchestra London is as much a matter of political will as it is of money. I don’t for a minute believe that Londoners don’t possess, within themselves, the creativity and leadership needed to get through these next few months. Orchestra London should be allowed to live — though in a vastly changed form.

Lastly, I greatly admire the orchestra’s players, who, through all of this turmoil, simply want to life spirits and contribute positively to the community with their talents and commitment. Yesterday, amid the financial gloom, concertmaster Joseph Lanza and oboist Jennifer Short dropped by the London Public Library branch in their own neighbourhood to play some seasonal music.  Here’s a sample:

Update (Dec. 15): London Free Press reporter Patrick Maloney is reporting tonight that the orchestra’s deficit for the 2013-14 season was about $330,000, putting the accumulated deficit at more than $1 million.

How the Maple Leaf became our national emblem

The “Maple Leaf Forever” tree at the corner of Laing Street and Memory Lane, April 25, 2010

More than any other single factor, it was because of Alexander Muir’s song, The Maple Leaf Forever. See my column in today’s Globe and Mail.

The adjacent photo was taken the day of our visit to the tree in Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood in April.

Happy Canada Day!

Goodden’s blue heron to perch near the Thames

In a news release, London, Ont., mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best called it a sculpture that “will indeed become a key component of our downtown revitalization.”

That may be a bit of a stretch. But the prospect of a 500-kilogram great blue heron, made of steel and suspended from the upscale Renaissance Tower above special masonry below, bears all the marks of a very successful public-private partnership. Think London’s Via Rail station or the central branch of the London Public Library, except that this project will be much more about art than function.

Ted Goodden unveils a model of his great blue heron sculpture

At a news conference this afternoon in the lobby of the newly built tower immediately south of the John Labatt Centre, artist Ted Goodden unveiled a small model of his sculpture and spoke eloquently of the images he hopes it will evoke. The steel bird will “gesture” toward the forks of what the region’s First Nations called the Antler River — the waterway European settlers later called the Thames. For both aboriginals and Europeans, the river was the locus of community life and commercial activity. The great blue heron was, and still is, a common sight. In crafting his sculpture, Goodden envisioned the heron ascending toward King Street from a resting place on the river.

Goodden’s three-by-five-metre heron, when installed, will also function as a kind of seasonal timepiece, its left wing outfitted with a sundial-type orb that will track the sun’s movement and register the summer solstice and points of semiannual equinox on the brickwork at street level.

Goodden’s installation will mark the end of a competition that included more than a dozen entries from across Canada. The juried selection process was led by the London Arts Council. The project is worth $100,000. Tricar Group, owner of Renaissance Tower, was granted a higher residential density during the project’s development in exchange for a contribution in the form of public art, guided by the city’s public art policy, which was adopted in January.

Goodden’s sculpture should be in place by the end of the year. Its design has already been tested by the Alan G. Davenport Wind Engineering Group at the University of Western Ontario.

London Free Press video of this afternoon’s event is here.