An Odd Response from the Orchestra

The folks over at SOS Minnesota have an interesting post up on their webpage.  It seems that two separate SOSMN supporters wrote two separate letters to the Minnesota Orchestra to express frustration with how it was handling the ongoing labor dispute.

But they got similar answers.

Worse than that, the answers they got were horribly unhelpful.

I don’t doubt the earnestness of the author, and I respect that he or she did respond to constituent concerts.  But the letter makes some astonishing statements that really deserve a response.

* * *

“This organization’s success is built by a community of supporters made up of audiences, management and administrative staff, volunteers, board members, corporate supporters, individual donors and more.”

I can’t help but notice that musicians don’t make it onto your list here.  This is not some minor point—it gets to the heart of the dispute.  You have shown again and again that you feel musicians are wholly replaceable.  And by your actions, it’s clear you subconsciously feel the same about your music director.

The other members of the list I agree with.  But, have you actually involved any of them in your decision-making process?  Again and again I’ve seen evidence that your planning is completely top-down—led by a small group of board members, with next to no chance for input from anyone else.  Indeed, audience members have risen up to form advocacy groups specifically to challenge you.  And your own annual report reveals that donors have fled the organization in significant numbers.  Staff members have left as well, and several key staff positions are currently vacant.  So while I appreciate the sentiment here, I find your words are fundamentally at odds with the reality on the ground.

“Serving on and/or leading a non-profit board comes with strict financial and ethical responsibilities, all of which are governed by law.”

Really?  With apologies, when government officials, major donors, the state’s elder statesmen, all your former music directors, and arts managers from around the country criticize how you’ve managed your financial and ethical actions, and call hearings to demand answers about them… you’re in trouble.  As you are aware, 10 state lawmakers demanded the resignation of President Michael Henson, Board Chair Jon Campbell and Immediate Past Board Chair Richard Davis, for “public deception and the financial mismanagement of the organization.”  You no longer get the benefit of the doubt in this area.

“They want nothing more for this organization than to make it sustainable for generations to come.”

By all appearances, what they really want is to impose their preferred business model on the organization at all costs.  I don’t say this lightly, or as a piece of snark.  There have been many ways and avenues that they could resolve this dispute if they truly wished to do so over the past 14 months, but they have chosen not to.   I have documented these instances repeatedly on my blog.  I can only conclude that you are fighting to win… and to break the union.

“If we do not make the changes we’ve proposed, the endowment will be completely depleted in less than five years and we will be forced to make even more drastic changes.”

I have seen no convincing documentation that proves this.  And in your most recent annual report, it was revealed that you had no difficulties removing $5 million from the endowment—even though you produced no programming and had nothing to show for it.  So… drawing down $5 million for no other reason than to make your budget look good in a report is fine, but drawing down to pay salaries is inherently bad?

“From my perspective, this organization couldn’t be more respectful and transparent.”

With respect, I don’t know how you can make this statement.  The organization has gone to great lengths to block access to information.  Take the report you submitted to the city of Minneapolis on December 1.  It was a study in evasive answers.  It left off significant information, and challenged the right of the city to ask for the report in the first place.  It was so evasive that the city immediately demanded a more detailed response.  Your senior executives have been recalled by the state government to answer for their equivocal statements.  Your accounting is so creative that the musicians have demanded an independent audit of your finances—a call that was echoed by everyone including the state’s largest newspaper.  You did reluctantly offer to comply… but at the last minute you dictated to the auditors what issues you would allow them to examine and as well as the data they were to use in their analysis.  And yet you still call it an “independent” analysis.  I can see why you resisted so vociferously and for so long—when your 990s became public it was revealed that you gave President Henson two $100,000 bonuses at the same time he was laying off staff.

This is neither “respectful” nor “transparent.”

“They not only attend concerts…”

No, they don’t… at least not the board leaders in question.  And you know this.

“If they didn’t believe in our artistic endeavours, it begs the question—why would they give so much of themselves to support our musicians?” 

Yes, it does beg the question.  Richard Davis alone has many other board commitments.  His online bio lists: “Davis serves on the boards of the American Red Cross, Minnesota Orchestra, Minneapolis YMCA, Minneapolis Art Institute, the University of San Diego, the Business Council, the University of Minnesota Foundation, Minneapolis/Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership and Minnesota Business Partnership. He also is a member of the Financial Services Roundtable, the Financial Services Forum and the International Monetary Conference (IMC), and is the representative for the Ninth District of the Federal Reserve serving on its Financial Advisory Committee. He is a director of Xcel Energy Inc. and serves as chairman of the board of U.S. Bancorp.”

That’s a lot of commitments.  Does he support all equally?  Give each his undivided attention?  Or is it that he a board member for the networking aspect, the cachet, as a service to friends, or some other reason?  Or perhaps he took the board position in order to further a political or ideological agenda, so that he could boast of breaking one of the more powerful unions in the state?  The fact that I can effortlessly come up with several reasons he might serve on the board beyond “believing in artistic endeavours” is telling.

“You can be absolutely sure that our board is of the mind that music directors and musicians aren’t interchangeable or easily replaced.”

No I can’t be sure of this—this does not mesh with the many statements they’ve publicly given, including Richard Davis’s suggestion that the musicians that can move on will do so, and Jon Campbell all but inviting Osmo to leave.

“The ‘sound bites’ quoted in print or in broadcast stories are often the ones that provoke heated reactions.”

This is the line where I lost all respect for whoever it was who wrote this.  You’re going to try to blame the media?

Let me remind you of something.  Michael Klingensmith, Publisher and CEO of the Star Tribune is a member of the Minnesota Orchestra’s board.  Board member emeritus Karen Hubbard is wife of Stanly Hubbard, who owns the local ABC affiliate, KSTP.  Life Director Nicky Carpenter served as president of Minnesota Public Radio’s Board of Trustees and is still influential there.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s board of directors is the local media.

Are you saying that even with all these connections you still aren’t getting favorable coverage?  I’ve found the reverse to be true… the board’s connections are so overt and obvious that it’s difficult to believe they are getting objective coverage.

But I want to point out something else.  My blog has made it almost a specialty of debunking your public statements.  I’m not responding to quick “sound bites,” but to extensive interviews, op-ed pieces, full-page ads and so forth.  Maybe you’ve missed them, so let me provide a selection:

Here’s an analysis of the full-page ad you posted for Labor Day.

Here’s an analysis of the report you filed to the city of Minneapolis justifying the fact that you were a functioning performing arts venue.

Here’s an analysis of your most recent fundraising letter.

Here’s an analysis of a radio interview with board member Doug Kelley.

Here’s an analysis of your website’s FAQ regarding the lockout.

Here’s an analysis of a letter written by board member Ken Cutler.

Here’s an analysis of board member Nicky Carpenter’s op-ed piece in the Star Tribune.

Here’s an analysis of a full-page ad placed in May.

Here’s an analysis of an op-ed piece written by Jon Campbell and Richard Davis in November 2012.

Here’s an analysis of an interview with board member Doug Kelley and Tony Ross on public television.

Here’s an analysis of an op-ed written by SPCO board member Sandra Davis.

And here’s an analysis of your strategic plan (part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4).

Again, the documents I’m responding to are not “sound bites,” they are your internal and external correspondences regarding the labor dispute.  I’m not taking things out of context, I’m responding to your actual published words.

“We worked directly with a mediator, consulted with the Governor and collaborated with 15 generous Minnesota foundations who stepped forward with additional funding.”

No, you didn’t.  You specifically rejected the proposal of the mediator because you would “lose leverage” if you did so, and went on to negotiate around him.  This was covered in the press at the time.

“I want to assure you that the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) leadership team and Board of Directors is committed to preserving the future of this great orchestra and its classically trained musicians, whom we respect as superb and gifted artists.”

Perhaps this would have greater credibility if we did not have your proposed concert schedule in our hands.  Literally, half the performances of the concert season are pops concerts.  Your number of classical concerts is remarkably low relative to your peers.  And please, you were upfront that many of the changes being done as part of Orchestra Hall’s refurbishment were done in order to make the Hall more friendly to amplified sound… and hence the pops concerts and special presentations that you assumed were more profitable than classical concerts.  You were very clear about this… even Sound Space Design, the acoustics firm you contracted with, stated on their website that they were being contracted to create “a new sound system that will improve the audio experience, programming flexibility and income potential for the orchestra.”

“We’ve agreed to modify the mission statement to address musician concerns.”

You still don’t get it.  The problems with changing the mission statement are legion.  It didn’t occur to you that removing the word “orchestra” from the Minnesota Orchestra’s mission statement was even problematic.   You did it without consulting the other stakeholders in the organization (so much for “transparency” and “respect”).  And you blithely changed it back when people challenged you on it—as if the foundational principles of your organization can and should be changed at whim.  That is appalling governance for a non-profit organization.

“The plan calls for us to capitalize on the renovated Orchestra Hall to attract new audiences, strengthen artistry and reputation through regular touring, broadcasting and new media, and engage with our community through intensive exchange and collaboration.”

I’ve deconstructed your plan (links are above).  In short, I don’t believe it contains any viable strategies to achieve any of the things you have listed.  And since the opening of Orchestra Hall has been and is a disaster, I’m not sure how it will help you achieve any of those things.

“…to heighten our artistry and world-wide presence…”

As you must be aware, the world-wide attention you’ve brought to the organization over the last 14 months has been wholly negative. (I am astonished at how many people are reading my blog in Morocco, for instance.)  Is there anyone outside your inner circle that has stepped up and defended your actions?

“The introduction of the words ‘financial sustainability’ are not intended to compete with our primary goal of presenting great music.”

But they are completely redundant and self-evident.  Of course you need to be sustainable—so does every organization, whether it is for-profit or non-profit.  All organizations must also act in compliance with the law, but you don’t see anyone insert that phrase in their mission statement.

“…a salary that our community can afford and is financially sustainable into the future.”

First, as I’ve detailed extensively, you have no credibility in these areas.  More the point… did you ever ask the community what it can afford?  Do you have any independently verifiable information that suggests what the community can and will afford?  Studies by Orchestrate Excellence and SOS MN show the Minnesota Orchestra has consistently underperformed relative to its peers in areas of fundraising and ticket sales.  What do you base your information on?

And a final thought.  I understand that you’re trying to stay on message, and be unified in your responses.  But the cut and paste format is poor form… and potentially dangerous when it goes out to similar people who more than likely have connections and just might compare notes.  It makes you seem even less interested in dialog, less interested in your constituents, and even less engaged in this whole scenario.  Is that the message you’re trying to convey?

I thank the author for his or her many contributions to the Orchestra.  But with respect, this letter is unhelpful and shows just how out of touch the organization really is.




9 thoughts on “An Odd Response from the Orchestra

  1. I’ve been following your blog since the beginning of this disaster and just wanted to say ‘Thanks!” for your logical, fact based approach to the discussion. No heated arguments, just relentless return to facts and actions. Great journalism!


  2. I am very curious about something which i learned recently that you alluded to in this post…that is: WHY did the acoustician that had been selected to help oversee the acoustical revisions to Orchestra Hall withdraw from the project half-way through? Sam Bergman (violist with the orchestra) brought this up somewhere recently and I am curious to hear a detailed explanation. Can anyone shed some light on this issue? I will say that from everything I know that Orchestra Hall had marvelous acoustics…for music like Mahler, Brahms & Bruckner. Dana Hull himself (a renowned acoustician) told me (at lunch a few years ago) that the hall had “articulation issues” for the music of Handel and Bach, but that that for the music of the romantics it was glorious! Anyone? Bueller? 🙂


    • I believe Sound Space Design , Robert Essert acoustician, is still the firm on record. It is Engineering Harmonics, brought in by Sound Space Design, that left the project. And I don’t now why. If you look at Engineering Harmonics web site you’ll see they have been involved in many great projects.
      The rumors I’ve heard is that the new sound system and board are a mess. So par for the course!


  3. Scott –
    For the first time, I actually have two quibbles with your post:
    You start by drawing attention to the fact that the ‘community’ the author mentions omits the musicians; in context though, the author pretty clearly means a ‘community in support of the musicians.’ That may very well be disingenous, but still… You conclude by adding demerits for the cut and paste shortcut. I can’t deduct points here: if I had the unenviable task of crafting this response and finally felt that I had said what I could as well as I could, I would use it whenever I thought it answered the complaint. As for the rest of your dissection… Well, that nails it.


    • Hi Richard and thanks for commenting. Interestingly, these are both points I reflected on heavily when I was writing my response, so let me share some of my thinking.

      In regards to the musicians not being in the list, understand what you mean—the author is delineating a community that is *supporting* the musicians, and that the musicians are understood to be a necessary part of the equation. I agree that that is most likely the intent. The problem with that is two-fold.

      On the one hand, it is setting up a dichotomy where, conveniently, the musicians are on one side, apart from everyone else on the other side—essentially unconnected with the audience, the staff, the board, and the administrative staff. That’s a red flag for me. It sets up, seemingly for benign reasons, a dynamic where the musicians aren’t active participants in the organization, but isolated, passive outsiders. It is too easy, then, to begin treating them *as* outsiders because everyone else is doing the *real* work. This mentality that leads to a situation where the managers give themselves huge bonuses while demanding cuts for the musicians.

      Plus, from my perspective the perceived distinction between musicians and donors/staff/volunteers etc. doesn’t truly exist. As a group, the musicians have, in fact, been extraordinarily generous donors to the organization, with many contributing at high levels. They also volunteer extensively in a variety of projects and in a variety of capacities, from educational programs to informal performances. Several have also blurred the lines between musician and staff member, working closely with the Development department, for example, for a variety of initiatives.

      So, while I don’t believe the author of the letter has malicious intent in this line, I do think it vividly illustrates an “us vs. them” mentality that has sadly pervaded the MOA management’s thinking, where the musicians are isolated from the rest of the organization, and their many non-musical contributions to the organization’s success are overlooked.

      Rather than saying, “A great community of people supports the musicians,” I think it is more accurate—and healthy—to say, “Together we are a single community of people supporting great music.”

      And to your point about cutting and pasting. You are right, of course, that if you hit upon a particularly good way of expressing your thoughts, it makes sense to reuse those words instead of reinventing the wheel, so to speak, with each new letter that comes in. I also cheerfully admit that I’ve done this myself—as has everyone who’s worked in such a position. But there is a time and a place for it. My criticism comes from the fact that while it’s easy and convenient for the responder, the shadow side is that there is a high probability that the reader will instantly perceive they are reading a form letter. And if the original letter’s point is that the organization is unresponsive and indifferent to the needs of the community, there is a distinct possibility that a pre-programmed response will make things worse. I agree that relative to the other things I discuss in this blog, cutting-and-pasting is a minor transgression; but in this particular case I think it subtly undermines the overall message of “we’re listening to you and care about your opinion.”

      Thanks for writing in and keeping me honest!


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