A Response to Paul Cantrell (Part 1)

Recently, Paul Cantrell wrote a fascinating piece where he discussed the future of the Minnesota Orchestra (click here to read in its entirety).  The guiding image was that of a mighty tree blown down after a storm.  For a time the fallen tree clings to the illusion of life, with its leaves still green and subtle, but it is in fact dead.  It is best, he argues, to recognize the painful truth.  This metaphor guides Paul’s thoughts as he explains how in his opinion the Orchestra is in the same position—dead, but with the semblance of life.  In the end he invites others to convince him otherwise.

Let me attempt to do so.

Well, to clarify.  Paul’s overall question of the Orchestra’s survival, and his reasoning behind it, provides much food for thought and deserves a substantial response–more than I could provide in a single blog.  So let me start with this post that explains my reasoning about why the Minnesota Orchestra will survive in some form, and continue to flourish.  In future posts I will lay out more my thoughts of what the new model will look like… or at least should look like.

* * *

Paul, let me begin by pointing out that your question is valid, and your points make perfect sense.  I don’t think you are irrational.  But there are some other points that must be made that might suggest that the final chapter has not been written.

Let me first suggest a different metaphor for your fallen tree—our pot of basil.

Earlier this year in our late Minnesota spring, we planted our usual sprouts of basil with the eager anticipation of pesto, summer flavorings and my trademark mango-basil margarita.  It did not do so very well.  For a variety of factors including inattention on our part, the plants looked horrible and we resigned ourselves to the abject humiliation of being “those people” who couldn’t even grow basil.  Defeated, we essentially cut down the few pitiful remains of the plants and figured we’d just hit the farmers market this year.

And you know what happened?  Somehow those pitiful plants, cut off at the base, rebounded and took on new life.  Today we have substantial basil shrubs contentedly doing their thing.

Yes, the stalks I cut early on are no longer there, but the plant has recovered and other stalks formed, providing a myriad of leaves that we’ve used all summer.  And in fact we’ve continued to hack deeply into the foliage to make pesto and such… and behold! More appears.

I like basil as a metaphor more than the fallen tree for two reasons.  First, it gives hope that things rebound, renew, and live again through horrible adversity.  But also, I think it speaks more to what the Orchestra provides—flavor, food, scents and sustenance that nourishes me more deeply than the simple shade of a mighty tree.  Basil is useful, not just attractive.

So with that counter-metaphor in mind, let me share a few mitigating factors that I think will help the Orchestra survive the dark time it is in.

This is Minnesota.  Okay, so this may seem charmingly (or embarrassingly) naïve, but this state has repeatedly shown an astonishing commitment to civic responsibility, support for the arts, communitarian solutions, and a respect for heritage.  The people here know Minnesota a special place, and they’ve demonstrated repeatedly that maintaining this specialness is a top priority.  Obviously, we have allowed cultural assets to fail.  Just as obviously, we have cut off floundering organizations that  betrayed our trust.  And I recognize this commitment has faded since, say, 1987 when we came together as a state to turn back a corporate buy-out of our home-grown department store, Dayton’s.

But still.  In the election of 2008, with the stock market collapsing, recession taking hold and wide-spread panic about where the country’s finances were heading, we decisively chose to amend the constitution to support arts and other critical portions of our state’s heritage.  More people voted in favor of the amendment than for President Obama—in this, a blue state.  Articles have abounded showing arts organizations flourishing in the state, and many are having banner years as the economy continues to improve.  State legislators have gotten involved in this crisis.  A respected former governor—a Republican—has spoken in favor of saving the Orchestra, and harnessing civic resources to do so.  One hypothetical proposal raised by a music lover in our local newspaper brought in pledges of $350,000. In one day.  And in the wake of Osmo’s departure, a political trio announced plans to begin a larger effort to save the Orchestra (reported here).

This does not mean that Minnesotans will never allow the Orchestra to fail—I don’t want to promote complacency or inflate expectations.  But this deep appreciation for arts and a profound sense of civic pride serves as a buffer in the worst of times.  I don’t think Minnesotans are ready to give up.

Engagement. I am struck that despite talk of exhaustion, both sides are still engaged.  Yes, it’s of course possible that some are fighting simply to win… that happens all the time.  But the musicians are not behaving like cartoonish union thugs—they are fighting for their orchestra.  Not just their pay, but their orchestra.  They want it to survive.  They are deeply committed to the community, and each departing musician has mourned having to go.  They want to be here.  Their colleagues still here are fighting to stay here.  The commitment to the ensemble, even after all that has happened, is astonishing, and gives me hope that they will work to resolve the situation, and would accept a credible offer.  And yes, I am aware that they may not all feel this way… in any large group of people there will be a diversity of opinions.  But as a whole, I’m struck by how un-mercenary they are.

Similarly, board members have shown deep love for the orchestra and have shown a commitment to its heritage and place in the community.  Such families as the Leatherdales, the Lunds, the Lindahls and especially the Daytons have gone to extraordinary lengths to support the ensemble.  The list of life directors is astonishing.  I have been hard on the board in my various blogs entries, and I stand by my criticisms of many of their actions and their guiding principles.  But beyond this dispute, I think there is a solid core of support out there, even if the people themselves are feeling pretty raw right about now.  Paul, you yourself have mentioned that there are board members who feel this whole dispute has been a mistake—that’s an important point.  It doesn’t necessarily translate to concrete action, but there is something there to work with.  The real danger would be in apathy… and so far I haven’t seen that.

Finances.  I don’t want to be naïve about this either.  I concur that the economy has been hard on the Orchestra, and there are serious financial challenges ahead.  In other posts I’ve explained how I believe finances should have been handled, or proposed ways to bring the entire organization together to address them. I still recognize real problems exist in the here and now; but I have to say that looking over the Orchestra’s records, I’m not entirely convinced the situation is as dire as it looks.

For one, the minutes of the board meetings going back to 2009 tell a curious story. In that year the leadership developed a plan to show balanced budgets for several years while they tried to secure state bonding money to renovate Orchestra Hall.  Once those funds were secured, however, the plan was to pivot and show large deficits, which would demonstrate the need for a new business model.  With the consultation of a PR firm, the Orchestra leadership manipulated the endowment draws to achieve these ends.  This is hardly new information and has been widely discussed.

This sequence of events suggests to me that the management was willing to engage in hardball tactics to have the finances show different results at different times.

With this in mind, I have to wonder if the board members “helped things along” by reducing their own contributions during the “down” years—or more properly, delayed payments as long as the organization needed to show a deficit but planned to resume them with extra vigor after the Hall reopened. This would help create the “glow effect” of increased donations and general financial success referred to in the Orchestra’s strategic plan.

This is just a question in my mind, with nothing but the barest circumstantial evidence to support it.  But it would also explain why the Orchestra has absolutely refused—despite repeated requests from many different sources—to submit to a full, independent financial analysis that would independently look at donors’ capacity and gift-giving.  Also, it might explain the significant reduction of the number of orchestral events; the reduction of the number of events (which bring in earned revenue) has long surprised the musicians, who noted they were still being paid despite the fact that no concerts were taking place.  Some have openly wondered if this was a strategy to reduce ticket revenue… if you artificially depress income before implementing your new business model, the later upswing will look much more dramatic and “prove” the new model was a smashing success.

Again, these are for the moment questions I can’t answer.  But it would help explain why the Minnesota Orchestra has had such a disastrously bad run over the last five years, while orchestras in San Diego, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Houston and Kansas City have done significantly better.  It also might suggest that the financial news isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.

* * *

So, there is at least a base of support—a damaged by still-intact root system in place.  What will the new sprout look like?

I believe that in its final form, there will be a new orchestra in place that will have risen from this debacle and has found a balance of three things that allows it to thrive:  artistic sustainability, financial sustainability, and community sustainability.  Not all of these things will be present in the same proportion, but the new group will not survive without a combination of all three.

Artistic sustainability.  This is central to any arts group—obviously—and has been one of the sticking points of the current dispute.  Without excellence in the artistic sphere, there is no reason for the group’s existence.  There has to be compelling music that enriches the musicians to keep them engaged, but also that speaks to the concerns, needs and deepest emotions of the audience.  Yes at times compromises will have to happen, but there needs to be a mechanism that continually refocuses organizational attention on the art.  I foresee a situation when musicians sit at the highest level of the board/organizational structure to reinforce this idea, and have a powerful voice in areas of marketing, publicity, and fundraising to ensure that no one loses sight of what the primary purpose of the organization is—to make music.

Financial sustainability.  There will need to be systems in place to ensure that the artistry is in alignment with the financial resources of the organization.  This is key.  And there will be challenges; donors, including major donors, no doubt feel burned by the dispute and will be highly skeptical of the organization’s finances going forward.  The new group will need to be relentlessly transparent with the community and upfront about all financial information.  This is not a bad thing—it will force the organization to be honest.

Community sustainability.  Another key part of the new plan is that the new Minnesota Orchestra will be, by necessity, much more closely aligned with our community than it is now.  In the new model, audience members won’t simply be passive ticket-buyers, they will demand—and receive—a seat at the table.  Audience members have been deeply involved in the dispute, and I see no way that they’re going to go away quietly.  Many of the artistic and financial decisions will be seen through the lens of how they interact with the community, and community members, including audience advocates will play leading roles in publicity, outreach, marketing and fundraising.  This while be a seismic shift for the organization and will make it more relevant and responsive than ever before.

This is just a skeletal outline of ideas, and I apologize that it still feels very hypothetical.  But this is just some initial thoughts to get the ball rolling.  In future posts, I hope to lay out my predictions of next steps, along with my thoughts of how these three areas can specifically be created.

But for right now, I have to get ready for a concert—one where we say good-bye to a musical hero.

Xochipilli

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3 thoughts on “A Response to Paul Cantrell (Part 1)

  1. The Minnesota Orchestra is not a name. The Minnesota Orchestra is an unbroken tradition that is over a century old, having begun as the Minneapolis Symphony. “You” (read: the Board) cannot bring in a whole new crew of musicians and a new director and call it the Minnesota Orchestra. That would not be the Minnesota Orchestra and few would be fooled. The Minnesota Orchestra, i.e. the one that is borne of time-honored tradition, still survives today and is presenting heartbreakingly beautiful and unforgettable concerts at Ted Mann this weekend under the baton of Osmo Vanska. Most of the musicians are still here. Guest conductors and soloists will perhaps continue to donate their services until the musicians re-vamp. For the Minnesota Orchestra of time-honored tradition to survive, many partners will have to come to the table and sit with the musicians. At this point, it’s best to quickly move beyond name-calling, blaming and rage and instead apply energy and intellectual prowess towards solutions. Those on the negotiating teams for both sides who are unable to do so should perhaps step aside and let new negotiating voices take over, if contract negotiations are to continue. Independent orchestra or negotiated contract with the Board? It can’t go both ways, can it? Time to decide and act. Ultimately the way to go seems to be the musicians’ call at this point.The classical music-loving public wants to see the orchestra and its musicians make it through this. I have to think that even those orchestra patrons who sympathize with the board do not want to see the Minnesota Orchestra of time-honored tradition become a thing of the past. We have lost Osmo Vanska and that loss is big enough without also losing the Minnesota Orchestra. In my opinion, the fate of the Minnesota Orchestra could go either way, depending on to what degree the necessary force of character and ingenuity can be mustered up and brought to the table to hammer out a solution for the future.

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  2. I see this post was written over a month ago, yet somehow I came across it only tonight! Thank you for this thoughtful and thorough response.

    I agree with the great majority of what you write here. You present such a positive and sensible vision of what the orchestra could — should! — be in our state. Before the lockout, before the board’s declaration of all-out war, your vision certainly would have looked plausible and achievable.

    My nagging fatalism has to do with how we get there from where we are now, after the board’s declaration of total warfare. Standing in the way of good practical ideas like putting musicians on the board is a solid wall of animosity, mistrust, resentment and ugly ego. How do we overcome that? That’s where I get stuck. The section of my essay beginning “What would it take for the orchestra to recover its greatness from where things stand today?” lays it out.

    I look forward to reading part 2. I’ll try to keep a better eye on your blog!

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