A Response to Nicky Carpenter

Nicky Carpenter—an eminent benefactor of the Minnesota Orchestra, an honored Life Director on the Board of Directors, and a major figure in the ongoing negotiations with the locked out musicians—has weighed in about the ongoing dispute with a detailed opinion piece in the Star Tribune.  Her stated goal is to dispel the notion that the Orchestra’s board lacks vision and clarity.

Allow me to provide a response.

Nicky, your piece is eloquently written and at first glance would seem to possess a good dose of common sense.  Someone reading it right now, with no other information about the dispute, might be persuaded by your words.

But with respect, it comes far, far too late in the game.  Board members have made too many other statements, given too many other interviews, and written too many editorials for this piece to be looked at in isolation.

At the end of the day, the reason people are accusing the board of not having a clear vision is that at no point in this dispute has the board indicated it has a vision.  To be blunt, if you have to pen a lengthy op-ed piece 13 months into a bitter lockout to try and convince the community that you do indeed have a vision… then it’s pretty apparent that you don’t.

For some time, it has appeared that the board’s only “vision” is… ensuring the Orchestra spends no more than a pre-determined amount of money.

At all stages of the dispute, the board’s unwavering position has been, “The budget of the Minnesota Orchestra will not exceed $25 million.”  Questions about how you arrived at that specific number have all been batted away.  Questions about how this number is impacted by the economic recovery have been met with silence.  Questions about how the successes of orchestras around the country might provide models for future growth have been ignored.  Questions about the very obvious holes in your strategic plan (which, in light of recent events, is now defunct anyway) have gone unanswered.

But in the meantime, you have cancelled the last 13 months of programming.  You made only a half-hearted attempt to retain Music Director Osmo Vänskä, and walked out of negotiations hours before his self-imposed deadline arrived.  You cancelled performances at Carnegie Hall, and didn’t raise a finger to hold onto a recording contract with BIS or maintain a prestigious residency with the BBC Proms in London.

So, all of the examples you used in your op-ed piece to that show that you and the board do indeed possess a vision for the future… have been canceled by the board.  Doesn’t that undermine your point? All your actions have been to cut, cancel and eliminate.  What are you working toward?

* * *

But it’s not just in the generalities that your op-ed piece falls short—there are several points you make that are factually suspect.

“None of this is fantasy.  The initiatives outlined above are the fruit of the artistic vision presented in the Minnesota Orchestra’s strategic plan.”  With respect, Nicky, that strategic plan is laughable—the problems were so many and the assumptions so ridiculous that I created a four-part series to debunk it (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).  It consists of boilerplate language and a collection of buzzwords.  It is unworthy of such a venerable organization with so many resources.

“The board is seeking a concessionary contract now to preserve the future viability of the orchestra…”  No you aren’t.  If that were the only goal, you would have leapt at an offer the musicians made over a year ago—binding arbitration.  Since you are so sure of your financial statements, all you would have had to do would be to present them to the mediator, and the musicians would have had to accept deep cuts along the lines you have proposed.  So why didn’t you?  If the only thing you wanted was to gain concessions for the future, you would have engaged in play and talk with the musicians while you worked through your proposal.  If a concessionary contract was your goal, you certainly would have agreed to the proposal by Senator George Mitchell—your hand-chosen mediator—who suggested a temporary agreement that would have allowed you to work though issues and kept Osmo, the recording sessions, the Carnegie performances and the Proms residency intact.  But in your own words, you declined because doing so would cause you to “lose leverage.”

Well, you got to keep your leverage, but you lost everything else.  I’m curious… do you consider that a win?

“The players acknowledged that “artistic vision” for them equates directly with the board’s ability to pay musician salaries….”  I’m sorry, but is that really what they said?  I think we all agree on a basic point, that if you want to attract top talent—in any field—you have to pay a competitive salary.  This is hardly news.  But it is just as obvious that salaries alone aren’t the sole factor at play—employee satisfaction, prestige, a great work environment, professional development, chance for advancement, and greater opportunities are also factors.  The musicians might have been willing to trade lower salaries for the other items on the list, but the board has simultaneously eliminated those incentives as well.

“Minnesota foundations that made it possible to offer a $20,000 signing bonus for musicians.”   This is murky.  I have not written about this offer before, as it was hastily made and not fully fleshed out.  Ultimately the musicians rejected it, and in light of other rapid-fire developments that occurred at the same time, it became a moot point.  But I have to say that when that offer first came to light, I was surprised.  I think anyone working in the Twin Cities’ arts community could guess some of foundations that offered to come up with the money.   I have no insider knowledge of which ones were specifically involved, but I have to say right off the bat that I’d be surprised that any of them would make the kind of offer Nicky describes.  Giving out a one-time cash bonus as an incentive to accept a labor contract? A contract that features declining salaries over many years?  That seems out of character.  I’d be more inclined to believe the foundations in question offered help during a transitional phase, or offered bridge money to support the organization while things sorted themselves out.  I’m particularly intrigued that the foundations in question never came forward, either to identify who they were or to make an announcement of their own.   Given the amount of money involved, wouldn’t they have wanted to take credit for deal?  Or at least wanted to add their institutional prestige to the offer?  Or at least said something?  I freely admit I know none of the details or the back story here, but this offer seems… off.

“We cannot resolve the economics of the contract without musician cooperation.”  I agree with you, Nicky.  And I’m fairly sure the musicians agree with you in the abstract.  A question—did you ever seek their cooperation?  The board stated unequivocally that the musicians needed to take a 40% million pay cut, surrender seniority pay, work longer concert days, perform on holidays, and shoulder more of upfront costs for the Orchestra’s education and outreach programs.  And, the President was given greater control over artistic decisions, including the hiring and firing of musicians.  You have said again and again—and again—that these items were non-negotiable;  you would only agree to negotiate the mechanisms by which these conditions were imposed.  Forgive me for being blunt, but this seems to suggest coercion, not cooperation.

* * *

The greatest problem with this piece, however, comes at the end.  You conclude by stating that you do indeed have a shared vision with the musicians; but more importantly, you have an even greater awareness of the financial reality of the situation.

This is debatable, at best.

I am astounded that a group of self-proclaimed financial experts could run the Orchestra’s finances so badly.  By the Orchestra’s own tax records, it is clear that you took a $14 million loss in the stock market after 2008—far, far beyond the losses of other orchestras around the country, and far beyond the salary cuts you are demanding the musicians’ take now in order to “save the orchestra.”  You paid Michael Henson $200,000 in bonuses at the precise time he was cutting staff and imposing a wage freeze on those who remained because of the “dire financial difficulties” the Orchestra faced.  You’ve based all your financial projections for the next three years on the actuals of 2008-2009, without adjusting for the rebound in the stock market, corporate giving, and charitable contributions as a whole.  You manipulated endowment draws with the explicit intent of showing balanced budgets to the state legislators, and deficits to the musicians. By your awn accounts, you spent nearly $14 million during a year where you locked out the musicians and didn’t present any programming.

While the board’s artistic vision has been questionable, its economic vision has been catastrophic.

And lest you accuse me of being too biased an observer, here is a sampling of other outside perspectives on the board’s vision in both these key areas:

Paul Cantrell writes:  “The board couldn’t have f*****d up their negotiating strategy any worse, short of starting drunken brawls with patrons or taking hostages at gunpoint.  And To their financial deficit, they’ve added an extraordinary trust deficit. In 2008, I’d have happily given money to save the orchestra. Now, I wouldn’t give a dollar on the end of a ten foot pole. I have no confidence in the people who would be spending my money. Why should I? They just orchestrated a fiasco. Most of them are still busy blaming others for their own failure.”

Robert Levine writes:  “This is not common-or-garden governance failure; this is failure of world-historical dimensions. It’s the non-profit equivalent of Napoleon invading Russia without winter clothing. If I had been part of a board that produced that kind of failure, I too would desperately want to believe that someone else – anyone else – was to blame.”

Legendary classical writer Alex Ross writes:  “I cannot bring myself to believe — despite mounting evidence — that they actually want a drastically reduced orchestra, its assets stripped, its ambitions narrowed, its activities no longer relevant to the outside world.”

Bill Eddins, who has been a conductor, board member and administrator in various arts groups, writes:  “First, the Board of the Minnesota Orchestra, intentionally or unintentionally, misled the public, the State of Minnesota, and the City of Minneapolis about the fiscal health of the organization. Second, the Board of the Minnesota Orchestra, intentionally or unintentionally, misled the public, the State of Minnesota, and the City of Minneapolis about the impact and timing of the renovation of Orchestra Hall, as well as their commitment to the artistic health of the organization.”

Tom Peters, noting the comparison between the Minnesota Orchestra and the Miami Marlins, writes: “If the Minnesota Orchestra and the Miami Marlins are seen as businesses, the players have to be seen not as employees, but as the actual product. As every successful business owner knows, if you cut the product quality you will lose customers.”

And three former Music Directors of the Minnesota Orchestra (Edo de Wart, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Neville Marriner) write:   “This legacy can be swiftly destroyed, a tragedy not only for lovers of great music, but for the cultural soul and significance of the region. An orchestra does not recover easily, from such drastic cuts, if ever. We urge the Minnesota Orchestral Association to do everything in its power to preserve this longstanding jewel.”

Plus, with the exception of Neville Marriner, all living former Music Directors have returned to conduct the musicians in their stand-alone concerts, and Manny Ax donated his time to perform with them for Osmo’s farewell.  Arts leaders including Michael Kaiser and Alan Fletcher have had harsh words for your actions.

Are all these people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, collectively mistaken about the board’s lack of economic or artistic vision?

Does the board have a similar group of outside voices praising their actions, or supporting the board’s vision?

* * *

Let me be frank.  As I said, it is very late in the game.  I don’t know how discussions are going among your follow board members, but in the greater community we have moved far beyond the issues of who is “right.” We’re not debating justifications for this or that line item in one of the proposals floating around.  At the highest levels, the community is exploring ways to wrench control of the Orchestra away from the current board.  The points of discussion are on how to do this with the smallest amount of collateral damage to the organization as a whole.  Former Governor Arne Carlson (a Republican), the Minnesota State Legislature, and even community members such as Lee Henderson are exploring possibilities for what can be done.

Nicky, I know you and your family members have been great supporters of the Orchestra for many, many years, and I thank you for all the ways you have contributed to the Orchestra’s success.   I don’t want to be unduly harsh, but at this point I think the board should abandon its attempts to convince the public that it has “vision,” and spend more time convincing us that it has the basic competency to run the organization.



7 thoughts on “A Response to Nicky Carpenter

  1. It seems that whenever someone from the board speaks out, they use what I call the “Don Draper” approach. That is: if you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation. Yet again it seems that the board doesn’t like the turn that the conversation has taken so they keep coming back to same, tired talking points. I almost vomited a little bit of my Cheerios in my mouth reading her article during breakfast this morning.


  2. “At the highest levels, the community is exploring ways to wrench control of the Orchestra away from the current board. The points of discussion are on how to do this with the smallest amount of collateral damage to the organization as a whole.”

    Yes, it is happening, and I fear that the “aristocracy” of today (like in 1914) will never see it coming (“after all we’ve done for them, how can they treat us this way?!”). Oh, nothing violent this time around; they will simply be laughed out of town for their complete ineptitude, arrogance, and greed. Which is a pity, because if they had stepped aside gracefully months ago, they could have departed with their reputations mostly intact.


      • As much as I would like to have confidence that the “board opposition” (with community leaders and clear-thinking board members leading the charge) will be able to get this train back on the track–I have a bad feeling. In particular, unless management sees the “error of their ways” I can imagine any attempt to wrest control of the endowment and hall away from the MOA languishing in the courts for years, and costing mountains of legal fees.


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

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