Two Minutes To Midnight On The Minnesota Orchestra Doomsday Clock

It has been an extraordinarily fast paced and destructive 72 hours for the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA), enough so to move the group two minutes closer to doomsday, which is marked by organizational collapse and subsequent liquidation bankruptcy.

First Minute

Minnesota-Doomsday-Clock-3minSaturday, 9/28/13: per the MOA board’s request, the musicians conduct a ratification vote for the latest offer which would have reduced musician expenses by 25 percent of the previous expenditure level over the course of three years. the musicians reject the offer by unanimous vote and both sides openly assail one another in the press.

Sunday 9/29/13: Per the MOA’s insistence, the musicians agree to a last ditch face to face bargaining session without the mediator to present a counteroffer. The musicians bring two options, both of which are rejected out of hand by the MOA’s negotiators.

Shortly thereafter, the MOA issues a press statement announcing that it has cancelled the Carnegie Hall concerts scheduled for November. MOA music director, Osmo Vanska, issues a statement that evening through Finnish media that he will resign if both parties do not reach an agreement by midnight.

Second Minute

Minnesota Orchestra Doomsday Clock 2minMonday 10/1/13: Osmo Vansaka tenders his resignation and the organization has lost the artistic leader responsible for serving as the catalyst for its multi year growth to critical acclaim. After reading the news, Alex Ross, arguably the most gifted and well respected music critic of our generation, wrote (emphasis added) “[Vanska] led two of the most remarkable orchestral performances I’ve ever heard: a 1996 rendition of the Sibelius Second Symphony, with the Iceland Symphony; and the famous Kullervo in 2010. That the Minnesota Orchestra Association has allowed this conductor to depart strikes me as a management failure of historic proportions.”

The artistic entity known as the Minnesota Orchestra no longer exists.

What happens next?

Although there’s always the potential for something unusual to transpire, there are ostensibly two rivers of potential the lockout can follow with the latter branching off into parallel, but mutually exclusive, directions.

Option #1: the musicians fold

Following the loss of their music director and what will certainly be a rolling series of deep cancellations for the 2013/14 season, additional musicians will depart and those remaining will lack the will and energy to continue. Fear, financial pressure, and emotional anxiety will cross a threshold where a majority of musicians will vote to ratify whatever sharply concessionary monetary and work rule terms are offered at that point in time.

Option #2: the current MOA executive leadership departs

As the concert hall remains dark, musician resolve remains unchanged, public rhetoric remains toxic, and mounting financial pressures alongside the depletion of the unrestricted endowment and sale of as many assets as possible will…

…be enough to dislodge the executive board members, the President and CEO and any closely aligned and/or burnt out board members and senior staff. The remaining board ratifies terms with the musicians who return to work under sharply reduced salary and benefit structure. The organization will then embark on the long and tedious process of rebuilding public trust, institutional stability and artistic standards.

…force the institution into liquidation. A handful of former board members along with prominent supporters will form a new nonprofit orchestral organization that will sign a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with musicians and attempt to acquire as much of the MOA’s assets as possible via the bankruptcy process. The CBA will contain sharply reduced salary and benefits compared to the most recent expired MOA agreement and if enough preparation is in place, the new orchestra will likely work out a deal with the bankruptcy trustee to acquire all remaining assets in a single purchase.

In the meantime, it shouldn’t be a surprise if the MOA begins cancelling multi-month swaths of the 2013/14 season.

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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19 thoughts on “Two Minutes To Midnight On The Minnesota Orchestra Doomsday Clock”

    • It was never announced. Personally I thought they would announce it and then blame musicians each time a cancellation happened, like they did last year, but apparently they don’t want to do that again. (Maybe the cancellations backfired and ended up being more of a PR and administrative problem for them than a suitable anti-musician tool.) Another possibility: they want to be able to lay off the staff that would be dealing with the ticket requests for the concerts they have no intention of putting on.

      I heard there was a pops season scheduled, though! Not sure if it will be performed, though. (Doubt it.)

  1. Exactly AC……Were subscriptions sold? Was a season planned? If so, the musicians were not informed. What happens to the money the substainers are giving monthly? We shall see of the MOA gets their moneys worth from the new lobby this year.

  2. And here’s another tidbit, from the NYT, which was NOT reported in the local media:

    At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon at Orchestra Hall, Jon Campbell, the chairman of the orchestra’s board, said that attempts to reach a settlement on a new contract will continue but not anytime soon.

    “The time pressures we were under are now removed,” Mr. Campbell said. “We’re probably in a pause for the next few months.”

    Guess Campbell thinks they have all the time in the world . . .

    • They spent $13.7 million last year, which had one month of musician compensation included. This year, they won’t have Osmo’s salary to pay, but I’m also assuming they’ll have lower donations, too, especially if the Musicians are successful in marketing their 2013-14 season. On the other hand, I fully expect there to be a conspicuous mass layoff of non-essential staff soon; the MOA relishes using its low-level staff especially as pawns in the game. Maybe once the musicians’ unemployment runs out.

      • There was a blogger who mentioned the pawn metaphor once… I stole it from him.

        If anyone wants to take issue with my verb “relishes”, they certainly can. But from the outside, it sure looks that way, down to the callous way in which laid-off employees were let go (see MNuet’s October 2012 interview with musician Ellen Dinwiddie Smith)…

      • There you go, always cite your sources. Having said that, my post you referenced never insinuates that anyone within the MOA derives personal satisfaction from using staffers as leverage in the labor dispute with musicians.

        The post focuses on the casualties during labor disputes who do not receive a stakeholder level voice, it most certainly does not use their disadvantaged position as a surreptitious jab at executive leadership via justification in form of disassociated stakeholder perspective; specificity, Ms. Dinwiddie Smith.

        Consequently, I would recommend against misconstruing something I’ve written by combining it with an opinion from an unrelated source and presenting it as an unsupported declarative statement.

      • Emily, I know people who work at the MOA and at least one expects to be “furloughed” in the very near future. Not laid off, exactly, but no longer working either. Whether they use their staff as “pawns in the game” is debatable. Frankly, I’m not sure Mssrs. Campbell, Davis and Henson truly have the imagination to think long-term. What they may not realize either is that they have alienated so many people — in the community, musicians, in the music world — that they will have a very tough time rebuilding with the same Board and executive management. I also think the musicians would have a really good shot at forming their own association and taking all the business away from the MOA, forcing it into bankruptcy. Then they could perhaps lay claim to whatever is left….. I understand that the musicians may not want to think that way, but after a year of lockout, it’s clear that the Board and executive staff are certainly thinking in such ruthless terms. As it existed in June 2012, the MN Orchestra no longer exists. Time to create a plan for the future…..

  3. The whole concept of using lockout as ” labor punishment tool ” in such creative artistic organization as Symphony Orchestra is, to put it mildly, counterproductive.The minute orchestra stops it’s regular rehearsing and concert activities the quality of the ensemble starts to deteriorate.Members of the Board of Directors of MOA may know about banking and industry but were never introduced to the idea of orchestra representing a ” perishable” item. When members volunteer for orchestra Board membership they should realize that generations of caring Minnesota civic and business leaders before them invested their efforts and fortunes to create legacy of this unique world class institution. This is a high time for the Board to wake up before this gem of the orchestra becomes worthless piece of glass.

  4. This debacle seems to stem at least in part from a cultural conflict between an apparently well-intentioned (but not very perspicacious – perhaps even delusional) board immersed in a corporate ethos and the professionals who carry out the organization mission. We have a seen a similar scenario when the U of Virginia Board of Governors fired President Teresa Sullivan, justified by bottom-line, highly spurious reasoning that is not so unlike Henson et alia’s rhetoric. After that the stories diverge: Sullivan’s appointment was restored and the Board of Governors was forced to gag on its horrendously bad decision. The MOA Board likely faces a more discrete exit.

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