Will Henson Stay Or Will He Go?

There has been no shortage of speculation on whether or not Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) President Michael Henson will remain as the orchestra’s executive administrator in the wake of what is arguably the field’s most acrimonious work stoppage. There are no shortage of voices calling for his removal, including former MOA music director Osmo Vanska; moreover, the musicians recently reaffirmed their 11/27/2012 vote of no-confidence in Henson in an interview with the New York Times’ James Oestreich on 2/7/2014. ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-115The majority of those weighing in on the matter are not painting Henson in a favorable light and would favor the MOA board’s decision to remove him. On 2/12/2014, Milwaukee Symphony Principal Violist and League of American Orchestras board member, Robert Levine made it clear that he thinks Henson needs to go.

“But bringing Vänskä back, and letting Henson go, is the right call on the merits. […]Letting Henson go is the right call as well, regardless of what the Board decides about Vänskä. Clearly he’s built strong relations with many members of the board, which will make it harder. And there have been significant achievements during his tenure, although many were jeopardized or lost due to the lockout. But there will no real rebuilding of internal relationships while Henson is running things.”

At the same time, not everyone is so critical; in an article (membership required) from 2/10/2014 Susan Elliott at MusicalAmerica.com describes Henson as an executive who was merely carrying out marching orders. “Whether or not…Michael Henson is the bad guy the musicians have claimed he is, or, more likely, has simply been representing his bosses on the board of directors, Osmo Vanska has said publicly that Henson must go.”

Historical Precedent

Historically, an executive administrator’s departure following an ugly labor dispute and work stoppage is par for the course but since the economic downturn, that pendulum has not only reversed course, but is swiftly moving to the other extreme. Let’s examine some of the higher profile disputes since 2008 and see what happened vis-à-vis executive retention:

  • Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: the orchestra’s president before the 2012 labor dispute and work stoppage that eventually secured sizable musician concessions was Stanley E. Romanstein; after the dispute, Stanley E. Romanstein, where he currently remains.
  • Cleveland Orchestra: arguably tame by comparison to what followed, the orchestra’s 09/10 season mini-strike produced a great deal of attention at the time but once a deal was reached, executive Gary Hanson remained firmly in place and does so to this day.
  • Colorado Symphony Orchestra: following a vitriolic public battle during the 11/12 season, a large portion of the orchestra’s board resigned and CEO Jim Palermo wasn’t far behind them after being replaced by the orchestra’s new co-chairs.
  • Detroit Symphony Orchestra: the first in the series of what might be best described as modern labor warfare, the DSO’s musicians spoke out vehemently against their executive administrator, Anne Parsons but when the dust settled she retained her position, perks, and more. She currently serves as the DSO’s President and CEO.
  • Louisville Symphony Orchestra: after going down in history as the first professional orchestra to implement measures for replacing striking musicians with new hires (although that plan was never carried out to the point of holding auditions), the orchestra’s CEO, Robert Birman, stepped down less than six months following the orchestra’s return from a prolonged 11/12 season work stoppage.
  • Philadelphia Orchestra: President and CEO, Allison Vulgamore, led the institution through bankruptcy and successfully gutted musician pensions; by the end of it, she not only remained in position but garnered numerous perks and bonuses. The awards were so notable that when reporting the specifics, Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin referred to them as the “gruesome detail[s].” Vulgamore continues to serve as the orchestra’s President and CEO.

Although this list is not comprehensive, it does represent the most prominent post economic downturn labor disputes; at least, for groups that had sitting full time executives. Case in point, there were a few oddballs like Indianapolis Symphony that had an interim executive in place throughout the course of their 2012/13 labor dispute and work stoppage. Consequently, these examples indicate that executives, especially those in larger budget orchestras, are far more likely to remain in position regardless of how rancorous their respective work stoppages. So, does that mean Henson will stay in Minnesota? Even though I like love my data, it will never be a foolproof fortune teller. From my professional perspective, it seems clear that the cons related to retaining Henson far outweigh the pros but that doesn’t mean you should expect anything will happen soon. Instead, the only thing you should count as certain at this point in time is one way or another, something will happen.

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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5 thoughts on “Will Henson Stay Or Will He Go?”

  1. Public opinion in general and among informed and sophisticated observers is one-sided, to say the least. I read somewhere that Henson’s contract was extended during the lockout. If that happened then the cost of removing him surely went up significantly. The gist of the argument opposed to Henson is that he is not the person with the skills and vision to rebuild the orchestra; and that the opportunity costs in terms of marketing, external relations, and artistic quality of not bringing Osmo back are much larger than the cost of replacing Henson. I hope some reporter will be able to learn about the factions and dynamics of opinion on this board.

    • That’s an excellent observation William, vis-v-vis learning about the factions. More often than not, these things never see the light of day but there is some interesting history at the MOA during the period when the board had to select a new CEO to replace David Hyslop. That process produced some public insight into internal board divisions that ultimately saw the outgoing chair express concerns to the media.

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