Wrecking the nest
Arboretum is allowing Pasadena Symphony to take over a venue built by CalPhil
By Ellen Snortland 05/05/2011
Invasive species of both flora and fauna are plants and critters that invade an already established habitat and wreck the environment, sometimes even doing in themselves. Kudzu, Starlings and the Northern Snakehead fish come to mind. The Great Horned Owl rarely makes its own nest but will move into an already existing nest and then destroy it when it is done raising its clutch. Of course, human beings are the most notoriously invasive creatures of all … but invasive symphony orchestras? That’s a new one.
The LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden and the Pasadena Symphony announced very publicly that as of 2012, the Pasadena Symphony would replace the California Philharmonic (CalPhil) in the nest that CalPhil has built over the past 15 years.
For years I’ve sat on the Arboretum lawn with friends while enjoying the strains of classical music, the twinkling stars and screeches of the peacocks and hens at the Arboretum, an organization that purportedly specializes in keeping invasive species at bay.
Fifteen years ago, the Arboretum had a concert lawn but no concerts. Concerts do not just spring up overnight. Dr. Victor Vener and an intrepid group of co-founders went through the enormous effort of establishing a well-known music destination for San Gabriel Valley families and music lovers. The smell of freshly mowed grass, show-off gourmet picnic items and the delight of having my tax dollars spent in maintaining not only world-class gardens but an entertainment venue in my backyard made me proud and less pained when I paid my property taxes.
Several months ago, however, through leaks from within the Arboretum itself, as well as two other completely disparate sources, I discovered there were “invisible negotiations” afoot that would most likely result in the CalPhil being ousted from the Arboretum in favor of the Pasadena POPS. If you read local news, you know the symphony is an organization that has had — and continues to have — big problems with press, leadership, morale, reputation and even union disputes. I really couldn’t believe it. While I promised to keep my sources confidential, I determined to don my citizen hat instead of my journalist hat for as long as possible, to see if I could find out what was going on. Was it just rumor? Why on earth would the Arboretum “dump” CalPhil? Just WHO initiated the switch, and why?
Why, indeed. And this is what leads me to my biggest “WTF?!” moment. Why is the LA County Arboretum Foundation, a 501(c)3, so darned hard to follow? In business and in nonprofits alike, the adage “follow the money” will usually yield the most important answers, but here it’s practically impossible to ascertain because it’s not available. One of the social contracts that nonprofits make is to be transparent so we know where our contributions go. I assert that, since the Arboretum trustees are “stand-ins” for county government, they have a deeper responsibility to be forthcoming about their inner workings. A California law called the Brown Act legislates transparency, and I would argue that it applies to the trustees for the Arboretum.
If you look at guidestar.org, the “go to” place to find out what a charitable organization is doing, regarding both the Arboretum Foundation and the Pasadena Symphony, the executive director’s salary, contributions, etc., are not up-to-date and has no financials posted that I could find.
I didn’t want to write a column about CalPhil vs. the Pasadena Symphony because, frankly, I’d like to see all music organizations flourish. Conversely, I don’t want to see a predator take over an already firmly established venue with pie-in-the-sky ambitions that may very well result in losing all concerts at the Arboretum. What? The Rose Bowl isn’t good enough for the Pasadena Symphony?
While it may be easiest to say, “Oh well, CalPhil isn’t wanted anymore by LACF and it’s none of my business,” it IS my business as a taxpayer. I am also keenly aware that an orchestra is neither fish nor fowl in the world of commerce, marketing and feasibility. It needs to be a business as well as a public interest. In pure business terms, a competitor coming in and occupying a space has “tort” written all over it. (A tort is an unethical action that results in usually monetary damage or injury to reputation or standing.)
There are so many apt metaphors: CalPhil is being treated like a faithful husband or wife whose spouse has found a more glamorous love interest who may have a bigger dowry, but nonetheless wants the family home to start a new family. The invasive species is another analogy, and probably most appropriate for a botanical garden. Hey, if it sounds like an owl, flies like an owl, and nests like an owl, it’s probably a Great Horned Owl. I hope it doesn’t wreck the nest.
Ellen Snortland leads writing workshops in Altadena. Her Edinburgh-bound show, “Now That She’s Gone,” is playing in Hollywood Mother’s Day weekend. Visit snortland.com for more information.