A Tale Of Two Disasters

Arguably, the orchestra field’s two nastiest labor disputes at larger budget orchestras since the economic downturn have been the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra; and now that the latter has seemingly tied up the last of the most prominent loose ends, it will be interesting to juxtapose how each organization manages to cope with post dispute activity.

Although these organizations represent some of the worst in labor disputes, it is worth noting some key variations.


  1. lost numerous key and section musicians
  2. retained CEO
  3. retained Music Director
  4. lost numerous staff members
  5. musicians conceded more bargaining points than not


  1. lost numerous key and section musicians (the final number TBD)
  2. removed CEO (albeit a delayed exit)
  3. Music Director resigned and was subsequently rehired
  4. lost numerous staff members
  5. board conceded more bargaining points than not

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-156Given the three year gap separating each group’s respective dispute, there’s no way to avoid looking at Detroit as the initial subject for future comparisons but in the end, it won’t be possible to conduct a thorough comparison until a few years down the road but until then, it will be fascinating to see what sort of attention Minnesota receives within the field.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in some postmortem examination of events in Minnesota, conductor Bill Eddins published a fascinating article on 4/25/2014 over at Sticks and Drones where he presents a lists of what the field as a whole should learn from the dispute.

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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9 thoughts on “A Tale Of Two Disasters”

    • I’m holding off writing anything about this one until there’s more reliable info at hand. Add to that, this is a small enough budget group that it is far more realistic to imagine that it could be run under a musician collective; granted, that’s an approach, I don’t generally endorse but this is quite possibly one of those occasions where it is precisely the right tool for the right job. Stay tuned.

  1. Hi, Drew,

    During the Minnesota Orchestra’s lockout, we heard stories occasionally about how MOA executive management had been consulting with Detroit executive management before the lockout in order to prepare. One of the biggest stories was the buying of certain domain names in order to prevent community organizing against management. This failed, of course, but yet, the MOA did buy those domain names. There was also talk, occasionally, about Detroit — “look what happened in Detroit, we don’t want that to happen here!”

    There is one huge issue still hanging overhead, i.e. governance reform. MN State Rep. Phyllis Kahn has introduced a bill to the Minnesota State Legislature that would effectively give the state the power to take over the MOA, form an umbrella corporation that would sell stock in the MOA so that the MO will be community owned and the Board of Directors will need to be accountable to it. Rep. Kahn’s heart is in the right place. I’m just as disturbed by the total lack of accountability the MOA Board enjoyed and still enjoys after it abolished the membership in 1990. That’s the reason I am working to reinstate a membership governance structure. I don’t support Rep. Kahn’s bill because it would introduce a for-profit incentive for community ownership, something the MOA’s founders were adamant about NOT having. As Bill Eddins points out, treating a non-profit as a for-profit does not work.

    I also have done something of a post-mortem at my blog, Eyes on Life, and mention Bill Eddins and his blog post. You can find it here: http://eyesonlife-ginahunter.blogspot.com/2014/04/what-have-we-learned.html


  2. Although the Philly Orch. musicians avoided either a strike or lockout by ratifying a contract with similar percentage reductions in both wages and number of personnel to MN, it would be interesting to see their results alongside those of Detroit and Minnesota.

  3. Nobody has to guess how the Detroit Symphony will cope post-strike — it’s been three years and there’s a full track record of activity that suggests the recovery has been faster and stronger than anyone might have predicted. These reports, the first from last May and the second from January,capture what’s been happening and the reasons why:



    • Many thanks Mark, I’m not sure the DSO’s faster/stronger recovery track is a conclusion I would associate with where things have gone since they settled but I can see where others may. At the same time, I’m very curious to see how elements within the field will interact with Minnesota as compared to the way they did with Detroit. If nothing else, time will tell.

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A Tale Of Two Disasters