I am intrigued with a couple of new developments in the ongoing Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute. A few days ago, a former board member wrote in to the Star Tribune, asking in exasperation: what do the musicians want? At first glance this an odd question to ask—the musicians’ website does a great job of detailing what they’re seeking, and in fact describes a number of proposals they put forward to management. (I gave a broader response to her here.)
I was happy to see that the musicians responded to this former board member with their own column in the Star Tribune. This extraordinary piece laid out in clear terms what they were looking for… their vision for the future. One could quibble with the fact that they didn’t include any concrete action steps or a clear list of demands, but in my mind that made the column all the more powerful—it wasn’t a laundry list of demands but an aspirational goal for the future. And I’m particularly glad they chose not to negotiate via the media.
In essence, the musicians made a call for artistic excellence and integrity, and stated clearly that they wanted the organization as a whole to strive for greatness. To not be spooked by challenges, but to strive boldly to overcome them. And most important, to inspire the community.
But I was particularly stuck by the call that they wanted everyone to join in this vision, and to work collaboratively so they could achieve this vision together. What a powerful contrast from the statements coming from the Minnesota Orchestra management, which have blamed the musicians for everything that has happened and—most recently—engaged in union-bashing and scare-mongering.
Personally, I much prefer being invited to share a vision of greatness than being told I’m a stooge for union propaganda… and that my superiors have things well in-hand without my help, thank you very much.
As inspirational as it was, the musicians’ column didn’t quite provide a list of specific action items, or concrete ideas for what has to happen next. I was delighted, therefore, to see just such a proposal come in from Lee Henderson, a lawyer, community member, and classical music lover who boldly put forward his own vision of what he thinks needs to be done.
Lee comes to the same sad conclusion that I did—that as it stands right now, negotiating with the MOA leadership is a study in futility. Many have tried to broker some sort of accommodation with them, and all have failed. The management doesn’t appear to be interested in solving the current crisis, but rather to win the fight at all costs. Lee argues it is not worth trying to work with them; he instead proposes a new model for the Orchestra… one with a different organizational structure, and new roles for the musicians, board and the community. It’s a fascinating plan that requires careful study, particularly in the how these changes might be achieved. I’d love to have deeper conversations about it.
With that background, I’d also like to add my own thoughts to this important discussion. What is my vision for a successful Minnesota Orchestra? Lee already details some specific, concrete actions, so let me step back and take a broader view. I assume that at some point in the near future, the labor dispute will end. After the dust settles, how do we rebuild the Minnesota Orchestra? How do we again achieve greatness, as the musicians call for?
First, we need a new, shared mission—one that resonates with all the members of the Orchestra’s family. We are well past the point where the board, the musicians, the staff, or even Osmo himself can simply slap a mission statement on some company stationary and call it a day. We are well past the point where we can string some industry jargon together (à la Dibert’s “Mission Statement Generator”) and call it done. All of us need to come together and create one ourselves. It will be hard work, and it will be messy, but we need to craft a mission that encapsulates who we are and what we do, and has buy-in from across the organization. We need a mission that will inform everything we do, and be specific to us as an organization.
And then the real work begins.
To thrive, our resurrected orchestra will need to focus its attention on four key areas.
1. Artistic and Mission Development. The key question we need to ask ourselves is: “To accomplish our mission, at what artistic and programmatic endeavors must we excel?” We are an arts group, so we must work constantly to develop and perfect our art. This is a central point—without it, we might as well open a banana stand. We need to determine our core activities, those projects that define our art and show how they fit into the mission. With those in mind, we need to establish clear artistic goals; and along with them, we need to develop mechanisms to evaluating whether or not we are achieving these goals. Are we improving? Are we improving the art form as a whole? Yes, it’s hard to measure artistic success—we certainly don’t want to create a goal saying “our concerts will be 20% more inspirational by the end of the year.” But we can do it. Survey the audience and convene focus groups. Monitor reviews from music critics. And perhaps create an artistic advisory team made up of outside conductors, musicians, and composers and have them evaluate how successful we’re being in achieving artistic excellence. Or any other mechanism that feels appropriate. But again, the key point is that the Orchestra must state clearly what its artistic goals are, and then evaluate how successful it is at reaching them—you pay attention to what you measure.
2. Audience Development. The question here is: “To successfully achieve our mission, what must we provide for our customers and the community?” We are well past the point where the organization can exist to present art for art’s sake. And fortunately, I think everyone is in agreement on this point. One potential positive of this whole ugly situation is that it has reinforced the importance of the role of the community in supporting the Orchestra. We need to continue this momentum and work hard to bring in community members as engaged audience members. This is critical to the Orchestra’s survival—something more than protecting the endowment or securing government aid. We need a dynamic, responsive plan that leads to increased attendance, greater public awareness, and improved communication. Fortunately, other orchestras around the country are succeeding at these things, so we should look to our peers for models, while still being true to our own community.
3. Financial Development. The question here is: “To accomplish our mission, what resources must we steward effectively and carefully?” The whole ongoing mess has dramatically revealed just how badly we need to reform the Orchestra’s finances. One obvious need is to create transparency, as this is the only way the organization can rebuild the trust that has been lost over the last two years. Moreover, the Orchestra will have to take an honest look at its revenue streams and re-evaluate which ones work, and which ones don’t. Again, we should look to our peer organizations to see what avenues they are pursuing, and perhaps develop new sources of funding. But we will also need to tend to our traditional sources of support and see how they can be made to work better. In the end, we need a financial plan that includes benchmarks for measurable growth, balanced financial ratios, and sets goals for diverse, sustainable sources of revenue. This is the only way to tackle the ongoing deficit and secure the long-term health of the organization.
4. Leadership Development. Here, we need to ask: “To achieve our mission, how must our people learn, improve, communicate and work together?” From my perspective, it feels like the organization has been somewhat on autopilot in this area. The board has gotten so big that it’s unwieldy. There is too much power concentrated in too few hands, and not enough points of connection between the board, staff, and musicians. There needs to be a new model in place with new standards of connection, communication and accountability. We need top-to-bottom engagement, with a broader base of people within the Orchestra’s family weighing in on organizational concerns. Key to this is reformulating the governance structure so that it encourages cross-organization sharing of information. In this way, that everyone will be able to see the same data. Don’t worry that bringing in more voices will create chaos and conflict… I have written before that it is perfectly okay to have conflict in an organization—in fact, sometimes it is most helpful. But there must be ways to resolve conflicts in a healthy manner that encourages creative problem solving and mutual respect. Clearly, we lack such mechanisms now.
Another point I would make here—all four of these areas are mutually supportive and must be developed together. In a financial crisis, there may be a temptation (as we’ve seen) to stop everything and throw all the organization’s attention on that one area. This is dangerous. These four elements must work together if the organization is to thrive over the long term—abandoning the art undermines the entire purpose of the organization, and abandoning ongoing attempts at audience development would mean the organization is irrelevant, with no hope of survival. But just as obviously, these areas need financial resources, which must be shepherded wisely. And we’ve seen over the last couple of years just how dangerous a brittle, inflexible leadership model can be in helping an organization survive tough times.
Just as important, we need to do the work collectively. Board members, donors, audience members, staff and musicians have to come together for this project—it cannot succeed if any one of these groups tries to impose it on the others.
This is just a preliminary sketch, but I think a strong mission, supported by determined artistic, audience, financial and leadership development, will help the Orchestra thrive and reclaim its place as one of the state’s great cultural treasures.
Time to get to work.