The analysis of the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute continues! Several commentators, include yours truly, have written about some of the most important take-aways—those important lessons we’ve learned as a result of the whole ordeal. Emily Hogstad at Song of the Lark has gone one step further and reflected on what she sees ahead for the Orchestra, the musicians, and others impacted by the dispute.
Let me offer another perspective—the things I think need to happen for us all to move forward.
This is important. Some commentators have argued that given everything that happened over the course of the labor dispute, returning to the “good old days” would be elusive.
For me, that’s a good thing.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the days ahead to be difficult for anyone. In fact, right now I pledge to do anything I can to help in the healing.
It’s just… I don’t know that the “good old days” were particularly good. Yes, I fully believe that on the eve of the lockout, the Orchestra’s artistry was at an all-time high, and it was playing at its peak. There was astonishing music-making going on. But everyone was unhappy. By all accounts, the atmosphere in Orchestra Hall was tense—if not poisonous—for some time before the lockout began. No one was communicating. Board members were frustrated that they were continually called upon for ever larger donations. Musicians felt unappreciated. Even the best analyses indicate that the Orchestra was hemorrhaging audience members, and the finances were in rough shape. Leadership was becoming more and more opaque, and laying the groundwork for vast organizational changes that other groups opposed.
In a way, the lockout wasn’t the problem, but rather a symptom of the problem; it came about as a result of much deeper issues within the organization.
So let’s make some changes. The following aren’t just ideas that I think would be nice, but critical issues that I think have to be addressed, and addressed soon, for the organization to begin the healing process and truly thrive.
One thing before I begin… these are my thoughts alone. No one has actually asked for my advice, and I’ve stayed away from discussing these ideas with others—except of course for my loving wife. But in the spirit of being helpful, let me begin.
Simply stated, I think we need a new governing structure for the board of the Minnesota Orchestra.
And let me be clear on something. I don’t make this statement in fit of triumphalism, as an effort to spike the ball, or to denigrate the board members themselves—I’m happy to go on record saying that the board has done wonderful things for the organization. I’m not advocating a change to be punitive; instead, I’m offering these suggestions out of a belief that we are entering into new, uncharted waters and we need a new governance structure to match the new reality. After everything that has happened, such a change is necessary.
Plus, there is ample precedence for transforming the governing structure. As Gina Hunter thoroughly documented in her blog, “Eyes on Life,” the board’s governing structure changed many times over the last 40 years or so, particularly in the late 1970s, 1990 and 2009. In each case, there was an effort to narrow the governing structure; so that an organization that once had a broad-based membership that elected a board gradually became an organization where the board essentially elected itself. Presumably, these changes were made in an effort to simplify operations and streamline the decision-making process. I will assume, also, these changes were made with the best intentions, to make overall governance easier and more straightforward.
Unfortunately, there were some negative consequences as well.
The problem is that as the governance structure was continually clarified and tightened, any and all checks and balances were eliminated. Soon, it became possible for a small group of individuals to make decisions on behalf of the entire organization with no real mechanism in place to question them. When real concerns were brought forward, there was simply no way to force a dialog.
Perhaps this is “efficient.” Perhaps this seems perfectly normal for those versed in the corporate world.
But the Minnesota Orchestra is not a corporation. It is a non-profit organization. It is a public trust. And therefore it needs a governance structure that better reflects these realities. Too often over the course of this dispute, it felt like the leadership was acting like owners of the Orchestra. To my mind, this is the wrong approach… they are stewards, not owners.
This needs to change. I don’t want to strip valued leaders of their powers, or to disparage the many contributions board members have made over the years, but we need to “un-streamline” the governance structure and add new checks and balances to provide greater transparency and accountability. This doesn’t have to be excessive, and I don’t want a convoluted structure where anyone with a grudge could gum up the decision-making process at will. But what about adding in a review panel, or returning to a membership system where a larger body could vote on matters of serious concern? Or giving an outside agency veto powers in certain situations?
Another idea would be to consider my next point.
Additional Representation on the Board
While I am grateful for the extraordinary contributions of the current board members, this institution is not well served when the only ones capable of making decisions or otherwise taking action are a narrow segment of the population consisting of corporate executives and those who can afford annual contributions of at least $10,000. There needs to be a diversity of directors on the board, a wider range of people who bring in different perspectives and backgrounds.
As I mentioned above, the Orchestra is a public trust. And I mean this in many ways, but perhaps the most important fact is that the Orchestra is funded in part by public money, both for its normal operations and for extraordinary projects such as the refurbishment of Orchestra Hall. Therefore, I feel there must be ways for the public to be involved in the decision making process.
To that end, I propose that audience advocates or other community members be added to the board. And not just an honorary position, but a seat on the executive committee where they can have an actual vote. I advocate for this not just because there should be members of the broader public on the board, but also because I feel that many of the audience advocates who have been involved in the dispute have shown they’ve earned a spot at the table. They have dived into complex issues, galvanized external support and shown a deep dedication to the long-term health of the organization.
In addition, the time has come for musicians to be added to the executive committee as well. I recognize that the current board members are concerned for the Orchestra’s survival. I would argue, however, they are not nearly as committed—personally—to its long-term health as the musicians. The musicians don’t just want it to succeed, they need it to succeed. Since the musicians are already highly invested, why not give them an actual stake in running it? Similarly to audience advocates, they’ve also shown over the course of this dispute that they have the necessary skills to help run the organization and make a positive contribution.
Another reason to add musicians? While I have not seen the final settlement, it is clear that the musicians’ compensation will now include ties to the endowment. The new contract includes a provision for revenue sharing if the orchestra’s endowment performs at specified levels over the next three years. Well and good—but that means that the musicians need unfettered access to information about how the endowment is doing. It is now their money in very concrete terms, and they are entitled to help manage it. This is only fair.
The inclusion of these groups would not only add new energy to the board, however. The very act of having musicians and community members meeting board members as equals would improve communications between these key groups. It would be harder for groups to demonize the other, or turn the others into caricatures. Each group could explain its positions directly to the others, and advocate for shared solutions. The challenges of rebuilding trust—and, frankly, rebuilding the organization as a whole—demand this kind of collaborative governance.
An Inclusive, Shared Mission
One of the first things the newly constituted board must do is spearhead the revision of the mission statement. And I don’t mean this as an empty exercise. On the contrary, there must be a meeting of the minds to figure out what this organization is all about. Simply put, there needs to be a general agreement on three things: 1) What does the Orchestra do? 2) Who does it do this work for? And 3) what is its comparative advantage—how does it differentiate itself from other, similar organizations? Once these big questions are settled, attention can turn to related issues such as what are its priorities, and how best should it work to achieve its goals… but it has to answer those three big questions.
And while there doesn’t have to be absolute, universal consensus, there has to be a shared agreement about these points. This means that the board cannot unilaterally impose a mission on the organization; and it means the musicians do not have the only say about what the Orchestra should look like. Instead, there needs to be a broad discussion where everyone has a voice, and all voices feel heard. The final decision should have buy-in from across the organization and be broadly shared.
And everyone should be clear on how they fit into this mission, how their contributions matter, and how they have a stake in the Orchestra’s success.
Use of Minnesota Foundations
A recurring theme of this post has been the need for all sides in this dispute to reconcile, get into the practice of working together and build a more collaborative future. This is an area where Minnesota’s great philanthropic foundations might come in handy. A while back, these foundations made an offer to help fund some of the transition costs of getting the Orchestra back on its feet (while we don’t know the details of their involvement, we do know they were interested in getting involved).
Why not use some of that money to fund specific initiatives to rebuild trust and promote cross-organizational communication? Perhaps they could underwrite a multi-day retreat where issues could be worked out away from the media glare. Perhaps they could fund consultants to work with the organization to build trust, or otherwise provide resources to the organization to such an end.
But there’s also a broader issue. The dispute didn’t just affect the musicians and the upper administration, it affected the staff as well. It also affected lawmakers and the public, for that matter. Perhaps the various foundations could underwrite initiatives to build community and collaboration on a much wider basis. They could help facilitate working groups or task forces involving, say, musicians, board members and administrative staff to create more innovative marketing or fundraising initiatives. Or set up focus groups bringing together the various parts of the Orchestra’s extended family to explore critical topics. There are many possibilities, and funding from these foundations could make them happen. And these initiatives would have multiple functions—they would help rebuild the Orchestra’s infrastructure and to get people working together toward a shared end.
Or, another idea.
In a recent MinnPost article, writer Louis Johnson advocated that the Orchestra embark on a multi-city tour of the state, providing free concerts and community outreach activities as a way of reintroducing itself to the public, and also having the organization work together as a whole. He suggested Target underwrite the cost of the program, but what about having our foundations do so instead? They would be fulfilling their own missions by doing so, and helping the Orchestra heal. Plus, such a program would fulfill the important duty of building an appetite for classical music across the state, inspiring a new generation of musicians and music lovers who would learn to appreciate the value of having a world-class orchestra in Minnesota. Musicians could offer master classes for local performers, offer workshops, engage the public socially, and generally create good will. Such an initiative might be attractive to the big foundations around town.
The Future of Osmo
In some ways I’m sure this is the one question everyone is asking and expecting me to answer. In truth, I debated putting this in—my list of recommendations are more for macro-level changes, and I feel it’s not exactly my place to weigh in on individual people.
That said, given all I’ve written over the past few months, it feels disingenuous to pretend I don’t have a view on the matter.
So let me say it. I think Osmo should come back. Absolutely. If I was running the show, I would meet with him in person, apologize for all that he endured, thank him for his integrity, and ask what it would take to bring him back. And then I would meet those demands. I think he adds a tremendous amount of value to the organization overall, and he would be a powerful force in leading the healing. His return would also simplify the arduous task of assembling a new season. And of course I respect his artistic vision, and would want him to be involved in creating a new mission and strategic plan from the ground up.
For all these reasons, I think he is ultimately more valuable to the organization’s long-term success than Michael Henson is.
A word, however. I realize this is a complicated issue with many variables that I don’t even know about. And again, my post here has been about the long-range structural changes I think need to happen. I don’t want to drop Osmo back into an unpleasant situation without making significant structural changes to the Orchestra—I don’t want to waste his talents. Without significant changes to the organization like the ones I’ve discussed, I fear we’d be setting him up for failure.
* * *
Well, this is a quick list of some changes I’d advocate for the Orchestra. Some of these items might not be practical; some might be overshadowed by even better ideas. But for me, these steps would address some major organizational problems, and do a great deal to promote healing. I’d love to hear about other ideas, too—I’m convinced that the wisdom to solve these organizational problems is here among us.
So let us not go back to the “good old days.” Let us work together to create better days.