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"What Would You Do? (or Does This Come In A Size Ten?)"

by Paul Austin

GRS Horn Player/ICSOM Delegate

August 2015


One of my favorite jokes is a spin on the old saying, “Try walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Soon you’ll be a mile away from them. Plus you’ll have their shoes.”


A few months ago, a GRS Board Member asked me, ”What would you do if you were in our shoes?” The impulse of blurting out something off the top of my head was averted, and I replied that I’d sleep on it and get back to them. And so I did.


As I reflected upon the question, I recalled the 2014 ICSOM conference in Los Angeles. On the spur of the moment, I was called upon to participate in an improvised skit that had me portraying a philanthropist who served on a symphony’s board and was concerned about the direction of his financial gift. That was easy for me, a make-believe moment that gave my creative side an outlet.


But now this is different. The scene is not make believe. It is actually happening, in real time, and a moment that no doubt will shape the lives of many.


For my delayed response, I asked to meet this GRS Board Member whose question led me to serious and thoughtful consideration. Exactly what would I do if I were in their shoes? Luckily this person was open to meeting and hearing my reply. Here were my thoughts.


1) Increase Earned Revenue. Musicians have put forth ideas for the orchestra that would honor and celebrate our community, which were shared with the board at meetings in early/mid June. In addition, newly-hired GRS Musicians have made a “List of 100 Ideas” with their fresh outlook on what the symphony could do in this area, which was presented at a board meeting in August.


2) Seek New Donors. The city of Grand Rapids is experiencing a boom like never before, with top ratings for economic growth and millennial home buyers. My minutes-from-downtown house went on the market last month (online only) and had 30 showings within 10 hours, 5 above-asking price offers, and 1 happy millennial couple gaining occupancy next week. Apparently there is a market for the new donors here: a different model, quite urban and high tech, who might be asked “What would you support?”. The funds are here, and we need to explore how GRS can be part of their world. Perhaps a “Movie Night” series or an Oktoberfest event would appeal — a survey of this group just may reveal their interests.


3) Learn from the Success of Others. Last May, we presented “A Tale of Two Cities” to the GRS Board, comparing Grand Rapids to Buffalo, New York. The cites were selected due to population size, according to recent US statistics. The Buffalo Philharmonic has a larger budget, many more full time players, and higher musician salaries than the GRS. We understand that their Music Director, Jo Ann Faletta, has made appearances to other orchestras to speak about the success story in Buffalo. We would welcome such a visit to Grand Rapids.


4) Balance our Funding Philosophy. We need to ensure that the performing and operating sides of the GRS have enough money to thrive. The nearly completed $40 million endowment drive is very impressive, yet the GRS is starved for operating cash at this time. It’s as if the owners of a valuable Heritage Hill property focused all of their attention upon securing the building's foundation while failing to provide for care and maintenance of the exquisite home that was built upon it. After being a career orchestra for one generation of musicians, we want to make sure that the Grand Rapids Symphony is the place where the next generation of musicians will want to come and stay.


5) Working Together in Harmony. How can the musicians and management collaborate for our future? With a successful outcome of our negotiations, the Musicians will look forward to working hand-in-hand with the board and management to quickly finish the endowment drive. Then we can turn to working together on other projects that will excite the people of Grand Rapids and draw to us the conductor who will be our next Music Director.


I have tremendous respect for the board member who posed this question to me in the first place. Apparently they are not running to be miles away from us, nor intending to leave us without shoes. Instead, they sincerely want our opinion. Luckily they asked the guy who is rarely speechless.

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