Arts and Culture Local News

The Louisville Orchestra’s musicians say they are being asked to take staff and pay cuts. The musicians released a statement Monday (see below) offering their side of the ongoing contract negotiations between their union and the orchestra administration.

The musicians say they have been asked to cut the number of contracted players from 71 to 55, and for the remaining musicians to accept lower pay. They also say they’ve been asked by the orchestra’s administration to play a shorter season.

As of October, the musicians were reportedly told the orchestra needed two million dollars to stay afloat. They say they offered to help raise money, but were told cuts would still be necessary.

The orchestra’s players and administrators have been in contract talks for several months. The musicians’ contact expires next year. Until this week, neither side would say what had been discussed in negotiations, though orchestra CEO Robert Birman said bankruptcy was on the table as a last resort.

An orchestra spokesperson says for the time being, the administration will uphold its agreement to not discuss contract negotiations in the press.

The musicians’ statement:

The Louisville Orchestra musicians have been told that today’s paycheck is their last – unless they accept agree to slash the ensemble’s size and take 20 percent leaving the remaining 55 players’ annual salary slightly below $29,000.  The musicians’ other choice: accept the bankruptcy of the Louisville Orchestra right before it begins its 75th anniversary year.

“You may be told this is rightsizing the Louisville Orchestra,” said the players’ negotiating committee chair, Kim Tichenor. “No, this is an example of wrong-sizing. It’s wrong when we rightly celebrate a new arena, but our managers say they cannot scrape together even an infinitesimal fraction of that money to fund the orchestra. It’s wrong when we can save the Louisville Orchestra for what three TARC buses cost. It’s wrong for a city with the Louisville Orchestra’s history to cast it away just after we screened a movie celebrating its past and just before we experience the reviving glow of our anniversary.  On every count, it’s just wrong.”

Tichenor counted down the musicians’ efforts to avoid radically downsizing the orchestra’s personnel or declaring bankruptcy. “We have offered adjustments to contract terms. The musicians have funded a consultant to develop a fundraising effort.  We have initiated the immediate involvement of one of the nation’s top orchestra turnaround artists to come to Louisville. Every one of our offers has been met with delay or rejection.”

Instead, the orchestra’s management said they would accept the musicians’ offer of a cooperative campaign only if the musicians agreed to cuts that would shave the number of players from 71 to 55, and the number of weeks in the season from 37 to 31.  The remaining musicians would find their annual salaries cut to $28,675.  And even that may not eliminate the orchestra’s declaring bankruptcy.  “It is putting the patient to death before diagnosing and treating the problem,” Tichenor said.

Tichenor said the orchestra’s management either has done much to aggravate the funding shortfall or doesn’t understand its own budget.   In August Louisville Orchestra executive director Rob Birman told the musicians the orchestra needed to find $272,000 in short-term funding cuts to prevent a cash-flow crisis threatening the orchestra’s survival.  In subsequent weeks, Birman inflated this figure to $900,000, then $1.4 million.  In October, Birman announced it as $2 million.

In August, to close the $272,000 gap, Tichenor proposed a series of contract variances that would ease union work rules and save the orchestra $90,000.

When Birman suddenly pushed up his estimate of the budget deficit, Tichenor countered by suggesting a musician-led grassroots fundraising campaign to close that gap, and the orchestra’s musicians funded an outside consultant to conduct a feasibility study.   After seeing the results, the musicians committed themselves to a $375,000 fundraising campaign.

The consultant, in turn, developed a series of incentives that would enhance the development campaign’s success and provide a strong foundation for the orchestra’s marketing campaign during its 75th anniversary season next year.  Altogether, the consultant discovered approximately $1.5 million in anticipated revenue enhancements during the next three years, without any extraordinary outside funding by major donors.  The consultant indicated that such additional funding could rationally be anticipated during an important event as a diamond anniversary year.  This would further improve the budget picture.

Even when the musicians offered that significant, unilateral closing of the funding gap, Birman said it would not prevent the need to downsize the orchestra.  So Tichenor proposed the intervention of Michael Kaiser, the president of Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, widely known as a “turnaround king” for arts organization.  Kaiser agreed to visit Louisville Nov. 15, but his offer was turned down by Birman, who said the orchestra’s board needed time to read Kaiser’s book before inviting him to Louisville.

The musicians, who have had their last four contracts broken by the orchestra’s management, believe this is a turning point, according to Tichenor.  “An orchestra of 55 musicians is not an entity anyone can recognize as the Louisville Orchestra,” Tichenor said.  “A management that has the capacity to call upon Louisville’s wealth to preserve one of Louisville’s cultural treasures, but which cannot find the will to work with the musicians to discover funding that is less than one/one-hundredth of the cost of the arena; well, it’s beyond comprehension.  We know the city’s citizens have higher aspirations for the Louisville Orchestra as it enters its 75thyear than do its management, whose plans equate with putting it to death.”

More information on the feasibility study and historic studies of the Louisville Orchestra’s funding issues are available at