No, We Don’t Have a “Few Months”

At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon at Orchestra Hall, Jon Campbell, the chairman of the orchestra’s board, said that attempts to reach a settlement on a new contract will continue but not anytime soon.

“The time pressures we were under are now removed,” Mr. Campbell said. “We’re probably in a pause for the next few months.” –New York Times

Well, nothing brings you back to reality faster than reading a statement like this.

Mr. Campbell, with respect, you are wrong.

I understand your frustration.  I understand that having Osmo and Aaron Jay Kernis leave the organization has created an uproar.  I totally understand the natural impulse to take a moment and try to take stock of things, particularly as the organization careens into uncharted territory.  I also recognize that this isn’t your day job—you are a volunteer board member.

But Mr. Campbell, we don’t have a few months.

I realize that as a tactic in a labor dispute, delaying might give you increased leverage, and I’m sure you’re loath to give up that power.  But there are larger issues at play here.

A delay will only extend the organizational chaos the Orchestra is in now.  Until the dispute with the musicians is settled, a search for a new conductor is folly—you won’t know even the basics about what kind of leader you want, what this person’s role will be, how much you can afford to pay… or anything else.  These questions won’t become easier to answer simply with time and reflection; they can only be answered in the wake of a resolution.

Moreover, a delay of a few months will directly lead to the cancellation of one of the busiest times on your performance calendar—the holidays.  It won’t just be the Orchestra cancelling performances, sympathetic groups will cancel as well.  And the optics of a lockout at this time of year would be terrible, particularly if it is resulting from an effort to simply collect your thoughts.  Or if it appears you are collecting your thoughts while you starve out the musicians.  The comparisons to Ebenezer Scrooge write themselves.  Plus, what good will it be to have the Holidazzle parade pass right outside your building, which will be standing dark and lonely amidst the Christmas lights?

There is also the collateral damage to other organizations.  News stories have documented the pain that downtown businesses have faced over the last year, such as the restaurants lining Nicollet Mall.  What does an extra delay mean to them?  Or to parking garages?  Or other partnering organizations that are left high and dry?  Yes I know that as Board Chair for the Minnesota Orchestra you have a primary duty to your own organization, but your actions have implications far beyond the walls of Orchestra Hall.  Waiting “a few months” will create greater harm, and serve to burn bridges with groups that you will most certainly need once the dispute is over.  Why make enemies out of allies?

And finally, what about the musicians?  You may “win” the labor dispute, but at the cost of further enraging the musicians.  Of course they will see this as a delaying tactic to starve them out—that you’re deliberately withholding health insurance, for example, for a few more months to make sure they’re really suffering.  That may not be your stated intent, but at this point how else would they read these actions? What will that mean once the dispute is over and you enter a time of rebuilding when you will desperately need their help?  Also this will most certainly convince many more musicians to leave.  You already have many openings on stage, how will it work to encourage even more?  The examples from places like Detroit and Louisville would suggest that replacing the musicians will be a long slog—why make a bad situation worse?

So why delay?  Particularly since these the events of the last few days were not entirely unexpected; Osmo, at least, made his intentions clear some time ago.  Why do you need to regroup?  Are there no provisional plans in play?

Yes, we all have wounds to nurse, but this is a time for bold action.

The departure of Osmo and Aaron are serious, crippling blows to the organization.  They are not fatal—not yet.  But the Orchestra is now in a very precarious position, and time for turning things around is in short supply.  What happens in the next few weeks will be of paramount importance for the organization as a whole.

More than ever, the Orchestra needs a leader to rally the troops—all of the them—to rise to the challenges of the next few months.  The grave situation the Orchestra is in affects all stakeholders at all levels. I don’t doubt the skills and abilities of the individual board members, but this is too big a problem to face alone.  As Chair, you can end this and start the rebuilding.  You can cut through the negotiating committee, you can cut through the lawyers, and any other clutter.

Instead of waiting, try doing the following four things:

1) Stop the lockout.  Immediately.  You need everyone back and working together to address this serious situation.  This isn’t about “winning” anymore.  This isn’t about fears of musicians smugly laughing behind your back or other orchestra managers out there fretting that the union is still too strong.  Everything else is secondary; the organization is in peril and you need to do what’s right to save it.  I’m sure in your heart of hearts you think the lockout will save the Orchestra, but it won’t—certainly not anymore.  It will only cause financial hardship for both sides, contribute to hostility between both sides, and create organizational havoc.  End the lockout with a ceasefire along the lines that Senator Mitchell proposed.

It will be tense working together, but working together is the best way to push through the tension.  Get everyone in the practice of being together again, working toward a shared end.  With time and practice at it, you will start to work together.  You have to.

2) Negotiate.  Negotiate long and hard and keep going at it.  Bring in whatever voices will be helpful.  Keep talking, and keep listening.  You don’t even have to finalize a resolution right away—just start talking.

3) Reach out.  Remember you are not alone.  There are many individuals and organizations that care deeply about the Orchestra and its future.  You may not agree with all their positions, but at the end of the day they are your allies.

4) And perhaps most important, let go of the old strategic plan and those planned-for numbers.  It won’t do you any good anymore, as too many of the variables have changed, along with most of the assumptions.  Look to the creation of a new one as you work things through.

You can get the ball rolling on all these things right now—they are critical, and do not need a substantial lead-in time to get started.  Rather than wait a few months to get started, why not bite the bullet and start now?  That way in several months we won’t be starting to plan for how we can begin moving forward—we’ll already be moving forward.

Please don’t delay when there is so much we need to do.



10 thoughts on “No, We Don’t Have a “Few Months”

  1. Again a wonderful brilliant analysis. I hope you sent it to him directly, other board members and to the newspapers. They need direction as they have evinced that they don’t care nor understand what they have done – to the MN Orch and to the art form. (In addition to the community, the other arts organizations who have collaborated with the orchestra and the freelancers in town who are also losing work.) The dismissal of the musician’s committee after 2 hours of face to face discussion was I am sure, a surprise to the musicians, as was the immediate cancellation of the Carnegie Hall concerts. In other years negotiations also went down to the wire, and I feel certain that the musicians expected to spend several hours hammering out some kind of compromise even if it took until 11:59 pm. Instead it was a calculated blow: Tit for Tat. Waiting several months or even weeks will, as you so eloquently state, destroy what is left of this great orchestra. Perhaps the board has planned and expects to be content with 20 somethings who will be willing to play for much less than proposed and play pops. Pops and weddings.


    • Janet, The more I see of how this board and management operates, the more I think they planned this all along. They want control of everything and don’t care at all what anyone, anywhere thinks of them and their medieval siege tactics. These people are all about raw power. Period. Osmo was just in the way. It’s really disgusting what they are doing, but they just don’t care. They didn’t get to be in the positions of power in their companies without learning how to be brutal. And the “months” comment by Campbell is obviously intended to show that they’re willing to continue the siege in order to starve the musicians into submission. He just wants to scare the crap out of the musicians. Your former colleague in the orchestra (1977-82) – Max.


  2. Scott,

    Please! Please…get this to the MOA Board, the newspapers, and everywhere possible.

    Your essay is the most concise, astute, articulate, and sane advice on what is to be done next.


  3. More and more, I wonder if anyone with the power to effect any real change even reads these articulate and well-thought-out commentaries, let alone takes them to heart. This is not to suggest giving up, but only that perhaps the only way to progress may entail some kind of truly dramatic demonstration to impress and involve the mass public (if that is possible) or some kind of legal action to reveal genuine malfeasance or incompetence.


  4. Just to be clear, Janet, it was about 10 minutes of face to face talks. We took 10 minutes to present our offers. 2 hours later they took 30 seconds to reject it, and release a multiple page press release immediately.


    • Thanks for clarifying. That is just stunning, untenable, insulting. Again they’ve had every intention all along to do what they have done, as incomprehensible as that had seemed to everyone, but is now sadly clear.


  5. Jon Campbell counts the light grey spaces indicating lost musicians on the “Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra” Facebook page every day. He knows there will be more soon. His enemy has been mortally wounded and he’s waiting for what he sees as the inevitable death. Make no mistake – he and others enjoy watching the writhing of dying artists. Artists were the smart nerdy kids in High School. It’s payback time. Then he’ll build a pop orchestra and rent the hall for cross-over work of popular artists to buy credibility: popular musicians such as Sarah Brightman, Charlotte Church and Lindsey Stirling. These people will do duets with Andrea Boccelli and other famous commercially successful cross-over performers. David Garrett will perform violin renditions of the Beatles on his (very expensive) violin. This was a siege. They have control of their renovated fortress. They are dug in and they have vast reserves to wait it out. The reserves are in the form of donations that will inevitably come “just in time” by people who can easily afford to ensure they win the battle … because in American capitalism there are winners and losers. Winners don’t lose; they win at any cost. If there is to be a classical orchestra in Minnesota, they will have to find another venue to perform. In our virtual world. The performance at Ted Mann is a start of that journey. It can no longer be about a building. It has to be about the art. The community as a whole abandoned the musicians. Now the community as a whole needs to determine if they are willing to pay for live classical symphonic music in Minnesota in a world where people can hear some of the greatest performances of major classical music for free on YouTube. Hopefully, a sold out performance at Ted Mann will be a start. I am most disappointed in the current generation of extraordinarily wealthy Americans who made fortunes while living and working here in Minnesota. They simply walked away from the live classical music legacy that they were entrusted with by prior generations. We’ve moved from the “me” generation to the “it’s all about me” generation.


  6. Everyone outside of Minneapolis is watching this disaster unfold in absolute horror. Artistically the Minnesota Orchestra WAS a great orchestra, and we hope the institution will survive intact, but wonder how a board and its CEO (or whatever you call that person really understands what an orchestra does. Chicago’s General Manager yesterday hit the nail on the head with her remarks.


  7. This essay is exactly right. The Minnesota Orchestra board and management is made up of many individuals. Presumably, a large number of them joined the organization out of love for the orchestra. They must be sick at heart with the current situation. It seems that the leaders are unduly concerned with saving face, in the course of which they end up losing the orchestra–the asset for which the MOA exists. It’s time for those who truly care about the orchestra and the quality of the music to stand up to the bullies who somehow gained leadership of the organization. Where are you? Where is your courage? Speak truth to power — Scott Chamberlain’s four steps above are the place to start.


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