Beyond Trench Warfare in Minnesota

In the wake of Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) music director Osmo Vänskä’s intent to resign if the organization doesn’t end the season killing work stoppage, all stakeholders have dug in deeper, refusing to give an inch of ground.

ITA-GUY-161Furious digging activity occurred almost immediately after Vänskä’s letter went public. According to an article in the 5/3/2013 edition of the Star Tribune in an article by Graydon Royce, MOA board chair Jon Campbell appeared irritated by Vänskä’s demand. Moreover, that irritation was punctuated by a complete and utter indifference toward the very real potential for Vänskä’s departure.

“I’m disappointed because he agreed to the new business model and he’s in a way not really able to stick with the plan we all had,” Campbell said. “We’ve been pursuing a strategy to get serious negotiations going and I don’t think there’s anything in the letter that alters the plans we’re working on.”

A few days prior to Vänskä’s letter, a representative committee of musicians addressed the MOA board calling for an end to the lockout as a necessary step in restarting negotiations. According to an article by Royce in the 4/27/2013 edition of the Star Tribune, MOA President and CEO Michael Henson expanded the MOA trench by accusing the musicians for failing to do anything other than engage in deflection tactics.

[Henson] said board members made comments about fundraising, the Orchestra Hall renovation, and the ability of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to make a deal with musicians who engaged in intense negotiations. […]

“[Our musicians’] answer was, we can’t negotiate until the lockout has been lifted,” Henson said.

The article concluded with even more fortifications in the form of the MOA board “unanimously pass[ing] a resolution in support of the board negotiating committee.”

The orchestra’s musicians responded in kind by buttressing their trenches on 5/4/2013 with an “Open Letter To The People Of Minnesota” where they called for the resignation of the organization’s “board leaders” but stopped short of mentioning any individuals by name.

At this point, it appears that there is little hope in the near future for a resolution and observers shouldn’t be surprised if a stakeholder decides to spark and arms race in order to get out of mutually destructive war of attrition currently under way.

In the meantime, head over to Sticks and Drones where conductor Bill Eddins has a plan of attack that sidesteps the trenches altogether.

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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4 thoughts on “Beyond Trench Warfare in Minnesota”

  1. The MOA and SPCO negotiations were completely different situations. Dobson West only started to move once the mayor of St. Paul started pushing (and withholding money to renovate the Ordway). Even then there were shenanigans – take a look at the musicians’ blog regarding this.

  2. Please note that the following ideas may appear at first glance to be pretty low-level, and perhaps even petty, but I sincerely believe that it’s the totality of all these small ideas, taken in context with the heartbreaking possibility of losing a national artistic treasure like the Minnesota Orchestra, that is likely to make as much difference as the so-called big ideas that get all the press – the pay cuts, the political posturing and name-calling, and the assigning of blame without an adequate amount of verifiable evidence. In that light, I hope these ideas will be given their due consideration.

    Orchestra players could allow some of their individual practice time to be video-taped with the intention of giving school children and audience members alike the opportunity to gain a greater knowledge and awareness of what it takes to become a world-class orchestra musician, as well as why daily practice remains a crucial part of every professional musician’s life. In doing this, students and patrons will begin to understand the truly full-time status that every musician in the Minnesota Orchestra (and every other world-class ensemble in the world) must be willing to maintain in order to ensure that they will always be able to perform at the excruciatingly high standard that is expected of this great orchestra.

    Orchestra players could visit schools in small ensembles to fill out their unused services. This would apply particularly to those instruments that are least busy, i.e. harp, tuba, contrabassoon. These ensembles would not only perform, they’d also make an effort to get instruments in the hands of students who might ordinarily be unlikely to ever have the opportunity to try out (or even hold) an orchestral instrument.

    Basically, the goal of these and many other hands-on ideas is to alter the all-too-common misconception that world-class musicians are somehow over-paid or working too little for the amount they are paid. A crucial part of this message would include an honest and transparent discussion about the reason musicians are members of the AFM and why they need to engage in collective bargaining to ensure the quality of their performances is undiminished. Again, it is the many misperceptions surrounding this issue that cause public perception of the current contract negotiations to become so negative. Giving people ample amounts of clear and easy-to-understand information can only serve to improve the situation for both sides.

    Lastly, by explaining to the public in detail about the entire audition process faced by this and every major symphony orchestra musician, patrons will gain a greater understanding of why the Minnesota Orchestra must remain one of the highest-paid orchestras in the world. Musicians all agree that cities with a significant amount of corporate participation in fundraising will be best able to afford the expense of housing a world-class orchestra. In other words, nobody would ever argue that just because a fine orchestra like, for instance, the Ann Symphony, which basically performs the very same role as the Minnesota Orchestra, should be paid an equivalent per-service rate. So there’s a very good reason that the highest-paid orchestra in the US is the Chicago Symphony: the city of Chicago houses the corporate headquarters of many of this country’s biggest and most prosperous corporations. That, and that alone, is the reason that the Chicago Symphony has been able to gradually build such a world-renowned reputation. It’s certainly not the case that the children of Chicago somehow deserve to have greater access to a world-class orchestra than the children in Ann Arbor. It’s just the reality of the system in which the professional orchestra paradigm currently finds itself. That said, Minneapolis is another city which houses great corporate (and, not coincidentally, philanthropic) wealth, and this has enabled the Minnesota Orchestra to develop itself into the cultural treasure that it has. But when the economy went south recently, the musicians of the orchestra, like the players of our professional sports teams, should not be asked to take a huge pay cut – using an assumption that just because it’s a non-profit “charity”, it’s somehow more understandable to consider cutting the arts as an acceptable means of necessary austerity measures.

    More to come…

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