Monday, March 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Curtains for a NW chamber music icon

The business side of art can be precarious, particularly when leadership is weak.

Let the bankrupted demise of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra serve as Exhibit A. The string ensemble's cadre of talented conductors and impressive repertoires could not make up for the orchestra's sagging finances and unstable leadership.

A confluence of events forced the 33-year-old musical institution to draw its curtain. Chief among them, a decline in public funding of the arts and increased competition from other musical offerings.

But the lion's share of the blame lies with the orchestra's history of dysfunctional leadership.

Seattle Times music critic Melinda Bargreen, in an insightful piece on the orchestra's bankruptcy, describes a business beset by a crisis in leadership.

There were crucial differences of opinion in how to run the orchestra and who should be in charge.

There were resignations, from Music Director Ralf Gothoni and Executive Director David Pocock to several members of the board of directors.

At one point, the orchestra didn't have a permanent music director, board president or executive director.

Harmony, offstage as well as on, matters. All of the money in the world cannot save an organization lacking strong, stable leadership.

The story of the orchestra's finances is one of good times, aided by full audiences and occasional grant funds, and bad times highlighted by dwindling support from local governments and foundations.

As the orchestra's perilous condition became public, more support disappeared.

The situation might have been saved by any number of things, including a creative reorganization, a less-divided board, a resident artistic director and executive director who could be ongoing presences in the community, and an atmosphere of mutual trust at all levels of the organization.

It is disappointing to see this regional treasure disappear. The Northwest Chamber Orchestra will be remembered for its impressive catalog of music from the baroque, classical and modern eras. It also will be remembered for being the first to reach out to children with a free admissions policy for children under 17 accompanied to concerts by an adult.

In addition to the fond memories, let the orchestra's demise be a reminder that leadership is as important as money.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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