Last week was a hectic test of survival for San Diego Opera. Chaotic meetings reduced the board of directors into opposing factions and put management out of touch with a new power bloc.
How did such a well-managed arts organization come to such a dismal state? A simple answer would be misguided communication. After weeks of enthusiastic public promotion for the big 50th anniversary season in 2015, the directors were suddenly hauled into a meeting without an agenda and told the company was closing in two weeks.
Surprises do not win friends or allow debate on such a critical action. The same goes for the 400 employees of San Diego Opera who had no clue they would be unemployed in just two weeks. Management and the board failed to consider the wrath that the five labor unions and the public would bring on them.
Immediately the biggest and most powerful union, American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board requesting an injunction to stop the liquidation of the company’s assets by an appointed assignee. A Superior Court decision is pending, but the notice of termination whipped the opera employees into action.
Going back to the split board of directors, a team that opposed dissolution mustered enough clout to force the resignation of the president, Karen Cohn, and at least 23 other directors. This is a serious situation. Conflict in a ruling group makes it hard to negotiate feasible solutions for financial deficits and differences with management.
Over the next few weeks, the interim board leadership must propose some drastic changes to prove its efforts to keep opera alive in San Diego. It’s not unlike 1983, when the general director abruptly left town in a dispute with the board of directors over artistic plans that would cost the company too much.
A steadfast executive committee refused to support the projects and almost caused the removal of the board president by a split board. The majority prevailed, despite a divided board and some resignations of directors. Sound familiar?
The wounds healed, and a search committee brought in a new general director to salvage the financial crisis and to grow the company into new artistic heights for the next 30 successful years. It can happen again with fresh, new and innovative strategic planning that suits the demographics of today’s audience and donor base.
Fundraising is challenging in an economic decline. A few large donors help to fill the operations gap with limited effort, but a broader base of modest donations can be more rewarding and secure. Big-name donors tend to fade away after their moment in the spotlight. The small donors keep on giving if they like what they see. They also make up the bulk of the audience.
This grassroots theory certainly was displayed at last week’s Town Hall meeting that enlightened the members and SDO staff of options to reorganize the company. Presentations by the CEO of Opera America, a national association, and the director of an opera company that survived closure excited the capacity crowd responding with cheers and jeers.
I’ll call the Save San Diego Opera campaign the “San Diego Spring.” Energized citizens and opera staff began a rally to defeat the directors’ motion to close operations. It’s a classic case of ordinary folk rising up against an authority that threatens their well-being.
Now new leadership on the board and the control of the company’s assets expected at Monday’s members’ meeting will set a fresh course for survival. The pulse of San Diego Opera is still there, even though prior leaders tried to bury the body.