For some time, I’ve been writing about the Minnesota Orchestra’s labor dispute with its musicians. Over that time I think I’ve made my views clear on many things, and have covered a number of angles and issues. I’d like to take a moment to consider something different—the role of the Minnesota Orchestra staff.
I know why they haven’t received much attention thus far… they are not at the core of the dispute. But that does not mean they are peripheral to it, or don’t have a stake in it.
On the contrary, I feel that the staff members have a unique perspective on events, and are a valuable resource for both sides. Plus, they are collectively an extraordinary group of professionals who deserve greater recognition for their accomplishments. Day in and day out, they manage all the myriad details of making great music happen. I was privileged to work at Orchestra Hall for 20 years in many different capacities, in many different departments; I count many of staffers there as mentors and friends.
So let me introduce them to you.
To begin, let me say The Minnesota Orchestra has received praise from all quarters about the excellence of its artistry… but I want to take a minute look beyond that. Let’s take a look at its incredible feats as an organization. Every year it sells between 250,000 and 300,000 tickets to concerts and other events; earned income brings in about $10 million. Every year. Most arts organizations in town—many in the entire country—cannot begin to fathom those numbers, or the work necessary to achieve them. For the past decade, the Orchestra has brought in about $10 million a year in contributions. Every year. Again, this is incomprehensible to most arts organizations, whose entire annual revenue is probably less than $500,000 (or realistically, less than $200,000). When up and running, the organization not only employs nearly a hundred musicians, but nearly as many full-time staff members and an army of part-time workers to ensure everything goes smoothly. For comparison, the Minnesota Chorale, one of the state’s largest choral groups, employs nine artistic and administrative staff members. The Orchestra is nowhere near the size of Target, its near-neighbor on Nicollet Mall downtown, but it stands as a decent-sized business with all the attendant responsibilities for human resources, facilities management, and more.
I don’t want to take away anything from the musicians, but in a very real way, the work of the Orchestra only gets accomplished through the brilliant efforts of its first-rate staff. A comparison to the musicians is useful here—in the same way that the organization is a destination orchestra for musicians, one that attracts the top talents at the top of their game who are building their repertoire and honing their skills for a chance to play with a world-class ensemble, the organization is a similar destination organization for the people who make up the staff. People recognize that working for the Orchestra is a rare and precious opportunity. If you want to do arts management at the highest level, to work with the greatest colleagues at the top of their game, you want to work for the Minnesota Orchestra. It is, for example, home to one of the finest fundraising operations in the state. Its marketing materials set standards for the industry. Its education programs are legendary. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been referred, when discussing some important issue of arts management, to an Orchestra Hall staff member as an excellent resource. They have the highest reputation, and people interested in arts management dream of having a job in an organization where they practice their craft in a way others can only envy.
I also suspect the staff is in a unique, and unstable, position in this labor dispute. It can see both sides of the fight… because it lives both sides of the fight. Daily. Let me explain.
There is no group of people that has a more up-close-and-personal view of the organization’s precarious financial situation, and some of the root causes. It’s one thing for board members to review this month’s audience stats, but the ushers see—vividly—the empty chairs around the Hall, and can feel the lack of crowding in the lobby the same way a sailor can feel the ocean’s current. The bartenders know the lines are shorter than before, and perhaps, that tips will be down as well. Box office workers know fewer calls are coming in. The marketing staff is looking at at ticket counts every day of the week, and wondering if resources earmarked for a different event need to be switched to a last minute ad buy might to help a struggling concert, or if a promotion is needed to get people in the door. Fundraisers can see that giving is down, and contemplate another round of personal calls to supporters. The HR department has to consider contingency plans to reduce payroll… at the expense of workers they’ve interacted with daily for years.
Moreover, they have been hit hard by belt-tightening in the past. As in most businesses, payroll is an area where the organization has maximum control; it is therefore one of the first areas budget cutters go after. There has been more than one round of layoffs in recent years, and several colleagues who have worked for the Orchestra for decades have had to be let go. Part-timers know that if business is down, or concerts are undersold, their hours might be cut. Everyone knows the pain of wage freezes, rising healthcare premiums, and reductions in other benefits, too. These hit hard, because wages in the non-profit world are not high to begin with (certainly many of these people could be making considerably more in the for-profit world).
Again, they don’t need to sit through a PowerPoint presentation about the state of the Orchestra’s financial troubles—they are living with them, and the ramifications of them, on a daily basis. I have no doubt that many on the staff instinctively agree with management’s arguments, and recognize that something has to give.
That said, they are not just living with daily reminders of the financial issues, but also its artistic mission, too. Many staff members have some sort of musical connection that instinctively binds them to the plight of the musicians. Several, in fact, are musicians themselves in other ensembles across the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Additionally, many of the front of house staff members are music students, actively preparing for a musical career of their own, and finding the perfect part-time job to help support them while they do. These folks flock to the usher, box office, or similar positions not just for the money, but because it allows them to see—in some small way—the business end of a music career, giving them valuable insights as they move ahead. Plus, with many chances for back stage interactions, outreach events, and job-related or social functions, many staffers know the musicians personally and have a up-close-and-personal view of what life is like for a professional musician.
They fear what will happen if the artistic mission is watered down, or how the reputation of the Orchestra will suffer if the musicians leave. Or if Osmo does.
All told, this close familiarity with both sides in the dispute can put the staff in a difficult position. In my own mind, I can’t shake the analogy of children watching their parents’ marriage unraveling and spiraling towards divorce—seeing both sides but desperately trying not to take sides. For all the good and obvious reasons, they can’t take a public position. I can’t imagine how frustrating that is.
But worse than that, these people with a rich pool of talent and profound professional expertise are not just being overlooked, they are being underutilized. The Orchestra has assembled a great group of workers… who right now have nothing to do.
While the musicians are being locked out, they are being locked in.
My solution? End the lockout. Let them do their jobs… the ones that years of experience and training have made them so well-qualified to do. Don’t have them go through the motions of setting up a hypothetical season that few hope to implement. Give them a real one to manage and watch them go. Moreover, since they exist in both worlds, they can help make a natural bridge to working with the musicians on a permanent solution to settle the contract and rebuild the organization. End the lockout, and stop wasting this resource. Don’t risk losing these folks to other arts organizations that will snap them up.
I think that when you do end the lockout, they will prove their worth in another way, too. The staff members are also a great resource to rethink how the organization should be run, and will be even more valuable in the difficult reconciliation phase once the labor dispute is over. They are arts management professionals—if you were going to ask anyone for advice on how to problem solve on how to build a better arts organization, they should be the very first people you consult. Plus, their many connections with music and the musicians make them a valuable buffer as everyone begins the collective effort of getting the Orchestra back into top condition.
Put them back to work.