Minnesota Orchestra Musicians Donate $250k To Association. No Funds Earmarked For Eliminating Substitute Pay Disparity.

The lovefest that is labor relations between the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) and the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra (MOMO) crossed a new threshold last week with the announcement that the musicians decided to donate $250,000 in restricted use funds to the MOA for the purpose of establishing The Bellwether Fund, a new program designed to underwrite education and community programming via activity that includes previous musician run initiatives outside the auspices of the MOA.

According to a musician press release, The Bellwether Fund will be overseen by musicians but planning and implementation will shift to the MOA. Likewise, the musicians plan to dissolve the 501(c)3 nonprofit they used to generate those resources once the funds and distributed.

Adaptistration People 174Labor relations have steadily improved once the executive leadership team responsible for the lockout left the institution so perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s much celebration among MOA stakeholders and a great deal of positive press in the wake of the announcement; all of which is certainly well-deserved.

This sentiment was reinforced with a comment from Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Kevin Smith in a press statement announcing the gift.

“We are really pleased the musicians have made this decision,” said…Smith. “It represents a significant step forward for the Orchestra and recognizes that we serve our mission best when we harness the unified strength of the entire organization.”

Consequently, it certainly looks like the institution continues its trek toward normalcy but the gift has a darker side in that none of the $250,000 gift was earmarked toward alleviating the substitute musician pay disparity set into motion via the agreement that brought the lockout to an end.

I contacted MOMO spokesperson and Acting Associate Principal Bass, Kate Nettleman, to ask about the process the musicians used to reach their decision and whether or not it included discussion about using any portion of the quarter million dollars to reduce the pay disparity. I also asked whether or not any rank and file meetings that included discussion about how to use the funds included any of the current substitute musicians.

Unfortunately, Nettleman did not offer a response, which continues the musicians’ steadfast refusal to publicly address anything related to substitute disparity.

Likewise, MOA Director of Public Relations, Gwen Pappas, declined to provide any details regarding requests for information about whether or not any of the new Bellwether Fund activities will be presented as part of the musicians’ regular services or if musicians be compensated on a per event basis above and beyond their minimum CBA mandated compensation.

Since the lockout ending settlement and the subsequent 3.5 year collective bargaining agreement was ratified by musicians and the MOA, we’ve been following the issue of substitute musician pay disparity and its role in the larger Equal Pay for Equal Work topic.

The latest chapter in that examination is this donation, which has two stories to tell; one delivers a message of inspiration and cooperation between MOMO and MOA. The other solidifies the foundation of an alarming trend inside the ranks of professional orchestra musicians that systematically disenfranchises substitute musicians, without whom professional orchestras organization would be unable to function, thanks to a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell style position adopted by their colleagues/fellow union members.

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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3 thoughts on “Minnesota Orchestra Musicians Donate $250k To Association. No Funds Earmarked For Eliminating Substitute Pay Disparity.”

  1. The intriguing suggestion that the funds raised be directed to sub pay disparity is a fascinating one… Do you have any insights into what, if anything using the funds for sub pay may lead to, especially vis-a-vis institutional credibility? I tend to think that donor intent may have played a role in the deliberations of the musicians and Orchestral Association, and indeed, it is unclear what percentage of the remaining funds were contributed rather then earned by musicians; having said that, perhaps it is worth noting if donors would be enthusiastic about the remains of their contributions being directed toward sub pay disparity. Indeed, I wonder if there might be legal and ethical hurdles to surmount, especially in regard to donor intent and organizational structure. Having said that, obviously this comment is armchair analysis, and consequently discussion of the crux of the potential mitigation is best left to professionals who are deeply familiar with the situation.

    • I’m not sure there’s anything being analyzed in your comment Emily, but you are asking the sorts of related questions that are entirely applicable to this situation.
      For reference, whenever a nonprofit dissolves, there are both state and Federal requirements that dictate how the process unfolds; but for the most part, the IRS does provide a useful resource that serves as a nice overview.
      On page 25 of Publication 557, Tax-Exempt Status for Your Organization (link), you’ll find a section titled “Dedication and Distribution of Assets” which provides details on what happens to assets.

      For instance, “…its assets must be distributed for an exempt purpose described in this chapter, or to the Federal Government or to a state or local government for a public purpose.” The document goes on to provide guidelines for what qualifies as dedication: “To establish that your organization’s assets will be permanently dedicated to an exempt purpose, the articles of organization should contain a provision ensuring their distribution for an exempt purpose in the event of dissolution.”

      But the larger issue of donor intent is one that certainly comes into play; as an example, when the Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy, there was a great deal of disagreement between the association and musicians over how much of the endowment was restricted or not. Both sides expended a great deal of resources investigating those item (which were ultimately reviewed by the court appointed trustee).

      Nonetheless, donor enthusiasm over how the assets are distributed is moot because the dissolving nonprofit organization is under no obligation to return donations. Moreover, the ratio of the assets that are at the event donations, earned income revenue, or mutually exclusive large individual donations (with defined restrictions or for otherwise unrestricted use) is unknown.

      Consequently, it’s doubtful that there are any ethical complications along the lines of what you’re suggesting. It would be surprising to see any substantial adverse response to any decisions related to allocating the assets for anything from the existing education and outreach efforts, reducing the pay disparity, or even offering it as a complete unrestricted gift (not unlike the $168,840 the Seattle Symphony & Opera Players’ Organization donated to the Seattle Symphony as an unrestricted gift in 2010).

      But since you’ve brought up these questions, it certainly would be fascinating to expand the examination to the process used via the musicians’ nonprofit articles of organization related to distributing assets upon dissolution.

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