Minnesota’s “Artistically Vibrant” Future

The cultural blogging community is abuzz with in the wake of this week’s pronouncements from the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA).

  • Only Bill Eddins could pull a witty J.R.R. Tolkien comparison out of his hat the day before the latest blockbuster movie installment was set to release.
  • Alex Ross, the king of cultural wordsmithery finds those words failing him when describing the latest MOA news.
  • Lisa Hirsch keeps it simple by declaring that the MOA press statement is unmitigated bullshit.

Let’s take a closer look at what has everyone’s attention.

On the off chance it isn’t clear; yes, the following is sarcasm. 

The MOA board recently doubled down by re-electing the executive leadership and announcing that they have finally managed to reach what their 12/11/2013 press release describes as sustainable levels of endowment draw and all it took was eliminating nearly all artistic expenses. But there’s a bit of lead in that silver lining thanks to a $1.1 million operating loss; fortunately, there are still plenty of staffers to cut before the end of the calendar year so once all of the pink slips are out of the way there may be enough left over for a small executive bonuses.

Cynicism mode off.

All sarcasm aside, the message buried in the press release is difficult to miss:

  • The MOA’s endowment is strong enough to provide enough annual investment income that they can wait out the musicians no matter how many seasons they have to be locked out.
  • The $1 mil operating loss will be more than made up in the current season because the MOA won’t be paying the $2.2 mil for one month of musicians’ salaries and benefits.
  • The MOA still has 2/3 of the regular donor pool to squeeze a bit more unearned income out of for the next season or two.
  • If that weren’t enough, there’s plenty of meat left on the admin office bones to cut away and eliminate any subsequent operating losses.

If you’re a gamer, this is known as a turtling strategy; which is when you hole up and emphasize defense while forcing your opponent to incur added risk and operating at levels that exceed resources. It’s usually quite effective, enough so that developers tend to balance play by adding penalties buried in game mechanics for those adopting turtling.

Unfortunately, real life isn’t balanced so easily.

In addition to their press statement, the MOA released their Annual Report which is filled with the same rhetoric and talking points used over the past several months. But one item that should catch your attention is on page four where Nancy Lindahl, the MOA’s 2012-13 Guaranty Fund Chair, indicates that the MOA board apparently believes that the organization expects to emerge from this epic disaster with artistic vitality intact.

“Your continued support will make it possible for us to emerge from this challenging time with a future that is both artistically vibrant and financially stable. […] We look forward to the day when we will again celebrate all that the Minnesota Orchestra has to offer: renowned and transformative performances of great classical music in one of the world’s finest concert halls.”

The Minnesota Orchestra musicians have been very clear that they have no desire to return under the proposed terms, which they underscored by announcing an entire season of self produced concert events.

Nonetheless, this is an intriguing point; specifically, if the musicians eventually cave and return to work under the proposed terms, would they be willing to produce the artistically vibrant concerts and transformative performances Lindahl describes? If not, will the MOA seek out replacement musicians?

Assuming the dispute isn’t resolved, we’ll examine that topic, and more, after the holiday 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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4 thoughts on “Minnesota’s “Artistically Vibrant” Future”

  1. “artistically vibrant”? How does that work when you have lost your world class music director, you have lost at least a fourth of the musicians in the orchestra, and the orchestra hasn’t been working together as much as a world class orchestra normally does?

  2. Does the 2.2M comprise strictly wages or a month’s wages plus unemployment compensation? 2.2M per month annualized would mean the musician compensation would be over 80% of the pre-2012 budget.

    Presumably the MOA is still pursuing a settlement of some kind since 885K in negotiation expenses were incurred that fiscal year. Is there a scenario where nobody wants a settlement? MOA has not turned off its computer – it’s still playing a game, no? A game MOA is making up as it goes along? A game that 99.9% of the world seems to say MOA is playing wrong?

  3. Drew, seeking out replacement musicians would undoubtedly produce an epic battle even larger than the current mess. The AFM and even the AFL-CIO would have a lot to say on that score – picketing, no stagehands, etc.

    On the other hand, Philly is playing as well as ever (minus nine accustomed string players and one principal trombone) because their orchestra committee were convinced that the 2011 bankruptcy would actually preserve the orchestra. It also helped that their new fair-haired musical director pitched in with PR while revitalizing them. He also has a DG recording contract that enabled them to record the Rite of Spring plus some Stokowski transcriptions.

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