A Response to Sandra Davis [repost]

[This is a repost of something I wrote on 5/29/13, which is slightly edited for clarity.]

Earlier in the week the Star Tribune posted a letter from Sandra Davis (http://www.startribune.com/opinion/letters/208890411.html?page=2&c=y) who writes in to voice support for the Orchestra’s board members during the labor dispute. Again, the Strib doesn’t welcome rebuttals on its letter page, so I’ll do it here:

Sandra, I appreciate your work on non-profit boards. I’ve been on both sides of the table and know the amount of heavy lifting that goes into such work. And I believe you have a deep love of classical music, and truly want to safeguard the Orchestra.

I’d also say right off the bat that you bring up a very good point—that boards have a very different view of the organization, and that perspective is worthy of respect. Board members are the long-range caretakers charged with ensuring the viability and sustainability of the organization, and by necessity take a much broader view. They at times have to make difficult decisions to ensure the well-being of the organization, and as such often get a bum rap. I would, in fact, expand your point even further and point out that the staff also has a different view of the organization than the artists or the board, and have their own set of challenges and demands. They, too, deserve our respect. You’re absolutely right: we do have to respect these different perspectives and recognize they each have value. In a healthy organization, these respective viewpoints should complement each other—not compete with each other.

But I don’t fully agree with your assessment, and have specific problems about how it applies to the specific example of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.

For one, I think you give board members too much credit, and don’t give enough credit to other stakeholders. Yes, the board has extensive background in financial matters and are all successful businessmen/women; this obviously makes them qualified to take a leadership role in moving the organization forward. But they are not uniquely qualified. The musicians—and for that matter, the general staff members—also bring valuable insight, valid concerns, and experience to the table. For example, the musicians have correctly pointed out that they have a much more personal stake in the Orchestra’s survival than the board members… it represents their primary source of income, a surrogate family and professional satisfaction that endures long after individual board members rotate off the board. Of course it’s possible that some may play in the Orchestra just to collect a paycheck, and some may put their personal well-being above that of the group as a whole, but as general rule the musicians are highly motivated to make the organization succeed. They are a resource to be used, but throughout this dispute the board has treated them as the principal problem that must be solved.

Also, there’s a problem with focusing so much on the future that you neglect the here and now. It is obviously important to ensure the organization’s survival 50 years from now. But it feels like the board is following a short-sighted plan where they are willing to liquidate the most valued, recognizable musicians just to get a few more years out of the endowment. And they aren’t considering that this could create a death-spiral of presenting a mediocre ensemble that doesn’t inspire donations or ticket sales, forcing further damaging cuts that further cripple the institution. Everyone understands a rebuilding phase if it builds to a better future. But that’s not what the board is advocating—they’re very open about saving money by fielding a minor-league team from this day forward. Period. End of Story.

In reading the letter, I have a couple of additional thoughts.  And with due respect, I think the “successful businessman” angle has been overdone. Not every CEO is successful—just ask JC Penny. I fully agree that business savvy needs to work its way into the fabric of the organization. But which business? I’ve mentioned before that simply adopting a business model from the financial sector won’t necessarily help… would you bring in an industrial turnaround specialist to manage a failing hospital? The board seems happy to save expenses by cutting payroll, which is a time-honored business strategy. Unfortunately, in this case the musicians are their product. And I don’t know of many businesses that thrive by damaging their core product.

And a larger point—I don’t have to believe board members are morally evil to believe they are wrong. Depending on your political views, you may have no use for either, say, George Will or Paul Krugman. You may think they are mistaken, misinformed, or idiots without thinking they are evil. Similarly, I don’t have to believe that any of the board members are The Harlot of Babylon to believe their actions in the labor dispute are categorically, and catastrophically wrong.  I’ll certainly give them credit… I think they are acting as they do out of a genuine concern to save the Orchestra.  But again, I don’t buy this “ends justifying the means” approach and think their decisions and actions are leading to disaster.

And I have to say, the specific actions of the board and management make it hard to be charitable towards them. There have been highly misleading statements to the state legislature, false information on the website, damning meeting minutes, brutal strong-arm tactics, a lack of transparency, and a general air of contempt towards everyone on the outside. It’s hard to be very sympathetic.

And finally, while I fully acknowledge you have an important point, it is somewhat undermined by the fact that you personally are associated with the board of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which just went through a very similar labor dispute. This has the unfortunate side-effect of making your point feel somewhat self-serving, especially since you yourself don’t acknowledge it (and I do understand the word count quotas and other limitations of writing a letter to the Strib).

But again, I agree with your point on the unique and difficult position of board members, and despite my griping, I do appreciate your willingness to engage in this dialog.

 

Xochipilli

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One thought on “A Response to Sandra Davis [repost]

  1. Pingback: An Odd Response from the Orchestra | Mask of the Flower Prince

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