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CSO faces inevitable Banquet of Consequences

Lee Walton

Given the rather grim impasse now existing between the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s Board and its unionized professional musicians, there seems little hope for a workable consensus between the two that will avoid either bankruptcy, a protracted internal legal dispute, or both. Sunday’s Palter and Chatter article, “Symphony may plan concert”, was a lengthy, albeit well-written synopsis of the inevitable train wreck now facing the CSO Board. A former board member publicly lamented what hundreds within the Greater Charleston artistic and business communities have recognized for years – “The current business model has proven over ten years not to be viable.”

Why has there been such entrenched reluctance to change? Many long-time observers believe the reasons sustaining this deep-rooted resistance include the elitist attitudes, arrogance, political mischief, and condescending actions of the “few large donors” who think that theirs are the only voices qualified to direct the ship now quickly sinking beneath their feet. The past public comments and actions of a few elite, vocal donors have lead many former patrons to believe that these elite and their wealthy friends would prefer to sit in a nearly empty Gaillard and not have to tolerate the presence of others during a concert that they bought and paid for personally. Such actions create long lasting adverse consequences and barriers that turn off would-be patrons who need not tolerate such incivility. Those serving on highly visible managing boards like that of the CSO are always under public scrutiny from up close and afar; their actions have consequences.

Blaming the public because they “…failed to appreciate the nature of the organization.” is also not a marketing strategy destined for success if the CSO wishes to cultivate broad-based community support. The CSO must sell a product just like any other organization in community-wide competition for loyal patron support and sustaining donations. Selling may be a crude word to some, but to succeed, the CSO Board must create a market for its product and then appeal to that market with an appropriate strategy. Given the broad differences in cultural awareness, education, musical preferences and socio-economic variation that exist throughout the Lowcountry, developing a successful, sustainable marketing strategy and business plan will be a formidable challenge.

A few months ago the concluding paragraph of a previous Shrimp ‘n Grits article summarized the CSO’s current position, how it got there, and its possible fate. Those observations are worth repeating.

“Like Icarus, driven by vanity, “world-class” visions and pride, the current CSO has flown too close to the sun. Only time will tell if it crashes and burns in a pile of smoldering feathers or rises again as a much better managed, albeit leaner and wiser Phoenix.”

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