Six Minutes To Midnight On The Minnesota Orchestra Doomsday Clock

The Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) moved another minute closer to doomsday this week following a decision to cancel concerts through May 12, 2013; in this case, doomsday is marked by organizational collapse and subsequent liquidation bankruptcy.

Minnesota Doomsday Clock 6 minIf the cancelation weren’t reason enough, the MOA decided to set aside the progress that appeared to be taking place in the form of both sides agreeing to terms for a financial analysis, and break off those side negotiations and launch their own effort. Since proposing the analysis, musicians have maintained that the effort should encompass artistic decision making process, specific decisions, as well as board performance.

According to an article by Euan Kerr in the 4/16/2013 edition of MPRNews, the MOA backed away from those parameters to place restrictions that removed any measures related to “artistic quality of the music director or the musicians, the comparative quality of other orchestras, programming decisions, performance of management or staff, or board quality/competency.”

The decision reportedly came as disheartening news to musicians.

Tim Zavadil, chair of the Musicians Negotiating committee…says the musicians were under the impression they were still talking about how to do the analysis and he was flabbergasted to hear management has decided to go ahead on its own instead of together with the musicians.

If that weren’t enough, the MOA distributed a note to supporters on 4/12/2013 that utilizes some of the more egregious old school labor dispute tactics in the form of defining the musician employee work week as a part time endeavor.

Hours Worked: Musicians perform 42 weeks per year. Schedule is based on an average of 21* hours of work per week (allowing time for private practice and freelance work) with no more than 5 hours of work per day.

In what is perhaps best described as a misguided effort to quantify that misnomer, the MOA’s communication included the following footnote for the 21 hour work-week reference:

A 21-hour work week is commonplace at major American orchestras. It gives musicians time to practice in order to stay competitive. The 21-hour week also allows musicians to hold secondary jobs that contribute to our cultural community. Minnesota Orchestra players serve as faculty at more than 20 music institutions and perform in dozens of chamber ensembles.

What that statement fails to acknowledge is the time spent outside of ensemble rehearsals is used to prepare individual parts.

Simply put, the division of work performed in rehearsals and that dedicated to individual practice is in no way mutually exclusive and no different than typical for profit employers that offer flex-time to employees for the purpose of working remotely. Meaning, a 40 hour per week employee afforded flex-time is still a 40 hour per week employee even though s/he is no longer in the office 40 hours per week. The expectations vis-a-vis duties and responsibilities remain unchanged, so the MOA’s reasoning for presenting their full time musician employees as working anything less than a typical 40 hour work week is not only baffling, but ultimately self defeating.

In the end, whatever perceived progress made by the MOA and musicians since January has been effectively erased, thereby hastening the rate at which the organization moves toward midnight on their doomsday clock.

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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12 thoughts on “Six Minutes To Midnight On The Minnesota Orchestra Doomsday Clock”

  1. Wow! Seems to be a lot of petulant public posturing [repeat five times] from both sides.

    Challenges of unsustainable financial models in the orchestra community are certainly not unique these days. Some orchestras have recognized this earlier than others and have responded in ways that minimize the pain. I am thinking here of Cleveland Orchestra that recognized long ago that the financial base of its home community was no longer capable of supporting an orchestra of its quality by itself. So Cleveland looked for a way to expand its funding base through its various residency programs. This approach has seemingly been succcessful, but one wonders about the longterm stress upon musicians living out of a suitcase and the families left behind. There is also the question of unintended consequences for local orchestras in these residence communities which may be seeing their own funding resources diverted.

    It is not at all clear to me that a path out of crisis is available to the Minnesota Orchestra to exist as currently constituted without some sort of major revision of the artistic and business plan. When money runs out, it runs out….and when disputes play out so publicly, donors sit on their wallets and purses…and the money disappears more quickly.


    • Chris Blair, maybe, just MAYBE, we should ask the MUSICIANS about whether they would be willing to do those residency programs (among other things) when we discuss other options for the MN Orchestra? Let them have some input into their destiny—rather than having top-down management by people who don’t care about or understand the arts, and how orchestras work.

      As you may or may not know, the MN Orchestra situation is somewhat unique among the trials of other US orchestras in that over $50 million dollars were raised during the height of the recession for a lobby renovation, without a word being said publicly of a financial crises that would impact the musicians or the quality of the orchestra. In fact, minutes of the MOA Board state that the endowment was intentionally (in early 2009) drawn down in order to REQUIRE a “financial reset” in the future (2011-12). Moreover, the financial management of the endowment seems outrageously bad. Emily E. Hogstad in her blog Song of the Lark has written about the poor endowment returns and the loss of $14million dollars— a situation also unique among US orchestras. Do you think that Richard Davis (CEO of US Bank) and Jon Campbell (VP of Wells Fargo) would allow this to happen among their own businesses or in their own personal portfolios? Doubt it. I also have heard from a reliable source that when asked by a MOA Board member about increasing fundraising efforts for the Musicians when the deficits were revealed, Michael Henson said, “We will let the Musicians pay for it.”

      Mr. McManus has hit the nail on the head in his above commentary about the MOA’s “old school labor dispute tactics.” So while it doesn’t get much press outside of individual bloggers, to this observer’s eye—the financial difficulties seen here in MN were not necessarily seen as a bad thing to the powers that be— they provided an opportunity for another more ideological agenda— to crush the Musicians’ Union and show the rest of their cronies that Unions could be decimated not only in the private sector, but also in the non-profit sector.

      • I’m inclined to agree with all of your points, and maybe I was not so clear. And certainly capital improvements to the hall are awkward public relations in a financial downturn (though prices requested by contractors I have seen are significantly lower than pre-2008 levels and may present significant savings over what would have been paid ).

        Separating that arguable faux-pas from the rest of the discussion, my point was that negotiating through press conferences is maybe not the most productive way to go. Money is attracted to winners, and those that emerge as the “class act” in the public view are in a much stronger position, whether this excellent orchestra re-emerges as the Minnesota Orchestra.. or under another name and management.

      • Thank you for your clarification. As you can tell, I’m firmly on the side of the Musicians—and while I agree that negotiating through Press Conferences is not necessarily productive, I believe that it has been primarily the MOA that has done this. For example, I know of a couple of instances when the MOA pre-empted public announcements that were supposed to be done jointly with the Musicians.

        If you are referring to the monies given to the MN Orchestra primarily by the MOA Board (and especially those 60 odd people not on the Executive Committee) then it is true that the Musicians are in a difficult situation. On the other hand, I believe that the Musicians have conducted themselves with dignity and grace throughout this entire process—in fact, I have much admiration for them. In my and I believe in many others’ minds, they are the “Class Act” here.

      • I suspect you are correct that sentiments lie with the musicians in this case. However, I can not bring to mind a single instance where negotiating through press conferences has been remotely productive. The “if it bleeds, it leads” press tends to be interested only in conflict, not concord. I would never look in their direction for resolution.

    • Chris,

      When you say, “Challenges of unsustainable financial models in the orchestra community are certainly not unique these days,” it takes at face value management claims. It ignores any evidence to the contrary of substantial community support, untapped resources, national trends of giving, hits to the donor and audience pool CAUSED by management decisions and lack of clearly-stated, believable, desirable vision for the future of the institution, and indeed ignores musician flexibility and willingness to fit their salaries, benefits, and efforts to pitch in to positively deal with whatever ascertainable, real numbers and reasonable future projections are out there.

      What people have to realize is that “Challenges of unsustainable financial models in the orchestra community are certainly not unique these days,” should actually read, “CLAIMS of challenges of unsustainable financial models in the orchestra community are certainly not unique these days,” though they generally come from management teams with little documentation in support of their views, and few signs of efforts to address those challenges other than attempting to devalue their product and workforce with dumbed-down programming and slashed artist salaries.

      What’s happening in Minnesota has virtually nothing to do with money, and everything to do with control, hubris, uninformed bunker mentality, a management-imposed total breakdown in communication, and a lack of understanding of the role and importance of an orchestra for a community, with no interest in artistic input in planning and decisions. There’s no record of the workability of the MOA’s new business model for the orchestra, and all-too-much evidence to the contrary in the orchestras that have been killed or crippled by similar “business models” that take little or no consideration of artistic integrity or purpose.

      • Chris, Like your brevity! I won’t match it, but “specific
        solutions” is a tall order. In short: Work to regain trust, the
        chief missing ingredient in moving forward. Talk honestly with
        respect and vision. Listen when “the other side” is talking. Bust
        butts to find creative new ways to raise money and cut expenses.
        Respect your audience, musicians, donors, and legislators.
        Capitalize on the very marketable greatness of great orchestras
        (much of this also applies to the situation surrounding the SPCO
        lockout). In a little more detail: Treat each other as human beings
        rather than enemies or liabilities. Advertise this marketer’s dream
        of an orchestra. Reach beyond the pool of million dollar donors to
        the millions of potential smaller supporters to raise money. Use
        current studies and figures to come up with real numbers and
        reasonable projections. Devise an artistic/business plan based on
        comparisons to successful, similar scope orchestras or plans with a
        precedent for success, Do not cling to the current risky attempts
        to reinvent the wheel (music) without consulting wheelwrights
        (musicians). If all sides would listen rather than lob verbal
        grenades, they might find common ground things they can work
        together for, and fewer things to fight over. Regarding claims of
        declining giving to the arts: The MOA released their “Vision for a
        Sound Future” plan in November of 2011, citing a 2010 “Giving USA
        Report” showing declines in giving during the aftermath of the 2008
        recession. They ignored The 2011 “Giving USA Report” (issued five
        months before the MOA plan) which showed a 5.7% rise in giving to
        the arts in 2010 (3.8% cumulative from 2008-2010). The MOA has yet
        to revise their projections to align with economic changes since
        2008, and expect musicians to agree to slashes to their salaries
        based on outdated reports of five-year-old, worst-case-scenario

      • To Rolf’s excellent suggestions I would add, the board needs to increase its interaction with the public. No plan is fiscally sustainable without its public. We will be the ultimate source of the revenue that will fund the orchestra, as well as the consumers of the product the orchestra offers. There is no more important stakeholder in this discussion…but we are never EVER acknowledged. I and my readers write board members; none ever write us back. I had one reader put together a petition asking the MOA to play and talk for the then four remaining weekends of the season. It garnered 1000+ signatures within a couple weeks. She spent quite a bit of money to send I don’t know how many copies out, and she hasn’t received a response from any of the recipients…not even a “thank you for your time and passion.” The MOA turns away people at the door at Q&A sessions if they aren’t on particular lists; they say there’s “no room” when other attendees later attest there had been. There are no meetings open to the public as a whole. Facebook posts from the lockout are censored and deleted. In early February the vast majority of the board refused to attend a neutral Grammy celebration concert put on by the Minneapolis mayor and the orchestra’s largest donor…so we were unable to talk to them there. As patrons we can only reach out so far; the MOA board and management needs to return the favor. The alternative is watching its institution crumble into complete and utter irrelevancy.

      • Rolf, I think you hit the nail squarely on the head with the word “trust”. Neither side trusts the other, probably for good reason. And without trust, adversarial lines get drawn so firmly that they can’t be erased. I suspect, given the harshness of discourse recently, if MOA board and management came to the table saying the sky is blue, there would be someone on the other side blogging that management CLAIMS the sky is blue.

        So let me simplify the task I suggested before, from the global to the specific: within the context of the current cast of characters, how can trust be restored?

      • In the here-and-now, I think this is the salient question and one of the reasons why I posted an article not long ago about introducing new variables into the equation in order to help secure a mutually agreeable settlement.

        This is one scenario where perhaps the path to settlement could be paved by a very strict adherence to Interest Based Bargaining in a session run by Mnookin himself and where each side can exclude specific individuals from the bargaining sessions.

  2. One of the things that I’ve found interesting about this whole discussion is the fact that Michael Henson and the MOA board apparently don’t believe organizational collapse or liquidation is imminent. (Unless they’re all constantly lying, which is possible. There’s a board meeting in a week; we’ll see if they do a 180 then…) But just last week in MinnPost Mr. Henson said, “We have a great orchestra here and we will continue to have a great orchestra.” And back in November, board representative Doug Kelley pledged on public television, “The orchestra’s 110 years old. It’ll be on for a long time after this dispute is over.”

    This contrasts sharply to SPCO Interim CEO Dobson West, who never made such confident statements about the long-term future of the orchestra, and even indicated weeks ago that he and his board were ready to discuss suspending operations if an agreement wasn’t made by an April deadline. (To be fair, who knows whether that option was ever seriously on the table or not?) But Mr. West did say that if they were unable to announce the 13/14 season this spring, it would be extremely difficult to continue operations. Mr. Henson has expressed no such reservations. Indeed, he continues to operate under the assumption – publicly, at least – that any week now the musicians will suddenly issue the concessionary counterproposal he’s been seeking for over a year.

    I wonder what would explain the discrepancies in approach between the two organizations, and Mr. Henson’s hesitancy to bandy about the b word. Endowment size (the MOA has $100 million more than the SPCO)? A wealthier donor base? Confidence they’ll make enough money from hall rentals to stay afloat? Pressure from donors? Wanting to save the bankruptcy card to use as a negotiating tactic when the two sides are closer together? The fact that so many legislators are so furious with Mr. Henson, and he doesn’t want to inflame them further after they gave millions and millions of dollars to him for a lobby renovation three years ago, because he said his orchestra was facing the future with stability?

    I’m also very curious as to what the MOA’s budget looks like for next season…especially since the musicians have indicated that absent a major change in direction on management’s part, they are planning to present some kind of season of their own in the fall, and according to recent news reports, they are likely to get at least $700,000 in Legacy funds from the state government to do so.

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