Symphony orchestras became institutions in the last century. Now it seems like they’ve been around forever and will be around forever. But that’s not so. Check out the sad news in Columbus, Ohio, one of the largest cities in the Midwest. The head of its orchestra announced yesterday that it was shuttering its summer programming and possibly shutting down for good.

After 57 years of music making, including a triumphant concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Columbus Symphony says it will shut down June 1.

Out of money and having failed to reach a new labor agreement with the musicians, the orchestra’s board of trustees said today that it is canceling the summer Picnic With the Pops and Popcorn Pops series and most likely its 2008-09 season, scheduled to begin in October.

Columbus would become one of the nation’s largest cities without a full-time professional orchestra.

“It’s a tragic event,” said Karen A. Bell, dean of Ohio State University’s College of the Arts. “ It’s going to diminish the cultural life and vibrancy of the whole region.”

At the same time, let’s not get all mushy-eyed just yet.

It’s tempting to see Columbus’ struggle to remain financially solvent as part of the larger struggle of the arts in America, which have historically relied on philanthropy and civic good will to thrive. There’s a problem with this kind of thinking, however — a problem that involves how we’re seeing the problem.

In weaving the particular (i.e., the Columbus orchestra’s money woes) into the general (i.e., America’s free-market approach to the arts), we lose sight of the particular. Most significantly, we lose hope that there’s anything that can be done.

The problem becomes so big and so out of any one individual’s control — what’s the point in trying to do anything about it?

But there is a point. We just need to limit ourselves to the problem at hand.

That’s what Drew McManus does over at Adaptistration, a professional blog about the management of professional orchestras.

He notes there’s more here than a dying tradition. He interprets the language in the orchestra’s press release — announcing that it will cancel summer programming and continue negotiations with the musicians — to be something like an old-fashioned grudge match between Capital and Labor. It’s turns out that management will continue to negotiate as long as management — i.e., the board of directors — gets the terms that it’s asking for and nothing less:

… The statement asserts that “due to uncertainties surrounding the 2008-2009 season” the organization is deliberately not selling subscription or single tickets until after they reach an agreement with musicians on a new collective bargaining agreement. Does anyone else smell a self-fulfilling prophecy blowing in the wind…

If the CSO board were sincerely concerned about their ability to deliver a 2008/09 season based on the outcome of ongoing collective bargaining negotiations, then they could simply place subscription ticket sales in escrow and return any payments if needed. …

… when asked if the CSO board is willing to meet with the musicians to discuss alternative proposals outside of the financial parameters presented in their proposed financial plan or to enter into mediation and/or binding arbitration, CSO Executive Director Tony Beadle said no, they are not. …

… if the CSO board is willing to bargain in good faith, it would be prudent to indicate some degree of willingness to negotiate beyond their previous self imposed limits, especially given that the musician’s initial offer provided approximately $500,000 reduction in expenses for next season. At this point, it increasingly looks as if the CSO board is deliberately maneuvering the organization into shutting down. …

Read the entire commentary for yourself.

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