Another Step Toward Darkness In Minnesota

Following the Minnesota Orchestra Association’s (MOA) announcement of additional concert cancellations through 4/7/2013, the organization now stands the very real potential for cancelling the entire 2012-2013 regular season. Using the MOA’s public rationale and pattern for timing cancellation notices since the lockout began combined with the final event date of 6/2/2012, it is fair to assume that the organization will terminate the remaining season anytime from Friday, April 5 through Friday, April 12.

In the meantime, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if an additional week or two of events were cancelled by the end of the February.

As an interesting aside...

It is worth noting that the 2010-11 Detroit Symphony Orchestra labor dispute came to end when musicians acquiesced to most of their employer’s demands over the weekend of 4/6/2011.

150x150_ITA_Guy162The only exception to this timeline is if the MOA intends to use cancellations as a tool to leverage musicians into ratifying a sharply concessionary agreement. In that instance, cancellations are a common tool used by employers for steadily ratcheting stress among musician employees. More worrying means more fear and more fear means decreased resolve.

Each cancellation notice administers a financial and psychological blow and delivering them with increased frequency has traditionally been a tactic in this field for breaking musician resolve.

But given the very different attitude and environment that is contemporary orchestral labor disputes, it would be hasty to assume that previous results guarantee future outcomes.

In response to the MOA’s cancellation notice, the musicians issued their own statement which questions whether or not the MOA’s end game was to cancel the entire 2012-13 season.

While continuing to build the $52 million Orchestra Hall lobby, with $14 million coming from taxpayer dollars, this latest set of cancellations through April 7, includes 10 Young People’s Concerts, as well as a week-long residency serving the community of Bemidji. Through these cancellations, Management has taken another step toward throwing away the entire Orchestra season, leading us to ask, “Was this the plan all along?”

Postscript: If you’re a fan of the Minnesota Orchestra Musician’s aFcebook page, there’s a wonderful photo gallery from the Grammy Celebration Concert (photos courtesy of Courtney Perry). Although all of the images are touching in one way or another, one of the real highlights is the image of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Osmo Vänskä.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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8 thoughts on “Another Step Toward Darkness In Minnesota”

  1. If it provides any context, many Minnesota patrons (that I’ve talked to, anyway) realized all the way back in October that there was a very real possibility that this entire season would be lost. (If you look back at my review of the musicians’ lockout concert in October, I acknowledged that it might be the only time I’d hear the orchestra this season, if not the last time I heard the orchestra, period.) So as much as it pains us – and it pains us ***deeply*** – at least some of us were prepared. We saw the disinterest the Minnesota Orchestra management had in engaging with customers…we saw the disregard they had for us and our ideas and our interests…and so we assumed the worst. (Assuming the worst is always for the best in this situation.) And once you imagine the math of how much the MOA will save by not presenting a season in the Convention Center while construction at Hall is ongoing…

    Personally, I feel it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Minnesota Orchestral Association is less interested in caring for a cultural institution than it is in getting away scot-free with manipulating and lying to the public, as well as breaking a union in a very high-profile way. This is an extreme assertion, maybe, but it almost seems to me, as someone who has been watching this conflict extremely closely since August, that perhaps Jon Campbell and Richard Davis are deliberately trying to destroy the organization from the inside-out in order to make a cultural statement….? I know it is considered rude to say such a thing out loud, but it’s honestly the only lens through which their tactics make any sense to me.

    The wheels of government are now turning… Tomorrow CEO Michael Henson is being asked (for the second time) to testify in front of a committee made up of members of the Minnesota House of Representatives. It will not be a friendly room for him. This will add another wrinkle to an already very wrinkly situation. Nobody is control of the story, and it is not over yet, by any means.

  2. I didn’t follow the Detroit dispute, so I don’t know if their state legislature called in management to answer for any state monies received. I do think that MOA does not have quite the amount of upper hand that they had expected to have by this point in the lockout, and that what CEO Henson has said publicly to date seems only to dig the hole deeper.
    Just look at bits of his testimony during the January hearing….for instance: touting the building renovation as “jobs creation” while simultaneously locking workers out; claiming that music and musicians “are the very center of our organization” – while removing the word “Orchestra” from the mission statement!) From my vantage point, movement on the musicians’ part will begin when he leaves.

  3. To shed a little more light on state arts funding in Michigan and the Detroit Symphony and to clear up any possible confusion:

    State funding to all cultural groups in Michigan reached a recent peak of $25.5 million in 2001, before beginning a long descent that bottomed out during the recession at about $2 million — the lowest total since the mid 1970s. There has been a slight rebound in the last two years, with funding back up to $5.7 million for the current fiscal year.

    As far as the DSO is concerned, it received $1.5 million in annual state funding as recently as 2003. That figure was cut in half for 2004 and continued to fall for the rest the decade, reaching a low point of $20,000 during the recession. In fact, when funding reached its nadir, the arts council capped operating support for the largest groups in the state at $20,000. Now, the grants announced late last year saw the DSO awarded $42,500. But, overall, in the last decade, state funding for the DSO has fallen about 97%.

    Looking at the broader landscape, there really is no parallel between Minnesota and Detroit when it comes to the issue of state dollars and the finances of the two orchestras. Moreover, no one accused DSO management of playing loose with the numbers during the strike — there were disagreements about the relative causes of the financial troubles and what to do about it, but nobody on either side of the dispute or in government questioned the veracity of the financial statements or the depth of the hole.

    In Minnesota, you have accusations that the orchestra mislead lawmakers about the health of its finances by raising or lowering its endowment draw to show a balanced budget (or a deficit) when it was more politically advantageous to do so. It’s worth remembering, however, that whatever the ethics or efficacy of such maneuvers, management wasn’t “hiding” money. The additional endowment funds above the standard 4-5% draw represents money that a healthy organization should not be using to fund operations on a regular basis. That’s eating the seed corn. I’m not taking sides in the dispute or endorsing any particular tactics but only pointing out that, at least as I understand it, the orchestra is not sitting on a boat load of money while pretending to be destitute. (The spending priorities, hall renovations, specific contract proposals are all separate issues.)

    If anything, one lesson here is that arts organizations get into trouble when they are anything less than 100% transparent about the state of their financial health in dealing with the public — lawmakers, donors, ticket buyers, media, etc. If you pretend to be healthier than you are on Monday, don’t be surprised when some people don’t believe you when you say you’ve got big troubles on Tuesday. Of course, the converse holds as well.

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