Well, in case you hadn’t heard the news, Michael Henson is leaving the Minnesota Orchestra.
And since I think the Internet exploded when the news went public… I gather that you already have heard that.
I’ve held off on writing about this turn of events for a variety of reasons, including the fact that I wasn’t sure if additional information was forthcoming, along with the fact that it was a pretty crazy week generally. Also, a great number of my fellow bloggers, columnists and arts writers have already weighed in—and done so brilliantly.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the delay is… well… in some ways it feels like I’ve already had my say. When the lockout first ended I expressed my gratitude for the deal, which is undiminished today. I wrote extensively about what I think needed to happen next, particularly in the areas of governance, board leadership, the Orchestra’s mission, and such; it’s interesting to read this post nearly two months later, but I still stand by what I wrote there. And of course, I famously expressed my thoughts about Michael Henson, and my reasons for thinking he was not the right person to lead the Orchestra are the same.
But there are still a few points I’d like to make.
For one, I want to thank the board for making this decision. I’m sure it was difficult, and I’m sure Henson had supporters in the boardroom. The fact that it took this amount of time to reach the decision demonstrates just how difficult it was, and I want to acknowledge this. Although it was hard, I think it was a necessary step, and again let me thank you for your leadership.
That said, the fact that this decision took so long does make me concerned. I’ve mentioned before that the organization is still in a precarious position, and there is a lot of healing that has to happen. But we don’t have the privilege of healing, and then coming together to move forward—we have to work together as we are learning to work together. Right now. This is a time for bold action, and the organization needs its board to lead the way.
Let me describe this in another way.
When the Orchestra finally returned for the first post-lockout concert at the newly-refurbished Orchestra Hall, there was an extraordinary, beautiful moment: when the musicians finally took the stage, the crowd went wild, not just with cheers and applause, but by waving green handkerchiefs. What is remarkable about this moment is that while in a broad sense it was facilitated by the audience advocacy group SOS MN, it was essentially a spontaneous show of support. In contrast to the upcoming “Finnish it!” campaign to have audience members arrive with Finnish flags and such, the green hankies idea was essentially a last-minute lark, and the organizers had no idea if anyone would participate.
Boy did they. The musicians were clearly touched, and there was a feeling of unity that swept up everyone in the building.
What made it remarkable was that it wasn’t just a spontaneous show of support, but also an authentic show of support—an honest reflection of the audience members’ passion and a strong statement that they were excited to have their orchestra back. I’m sure you were deeply moved by this show of support, just like everyone else who witnessed it was. Coming off the tension of the last few months, it must have been a relief to know that the audience was still there.
But more than that—most of you on the board are successful business leaders. Beyond the powerful emotions of the moment, I’m sure you realized the deeper meanings of those waving green hankies. This simple gesture showed a level of conviction and, without sounding too mercenary, brand loyalty that is priceless. Most companies throw massive resources into campaigns designed to inspire just that kind of authentic moment. Beyond anything else, this gesture must have shown you that there is a deep reservoir of trust and personal connection to your product. And you didn’t need to spend a cent in advertising to build that, or spend a small fortune in focus group research to uncover it.
That opening night moment was both a celebration of unity, and a tangible demonstration that the ticket buying public was ready to support the organization.
But my fear is that moment is dissipating rapidly. Now is the time to act decisively and capitalize on this support before apathy creeps in.
Fortunately, there is another moment fast approaching—Osmo’s return. The same unity, support, and resolve that were on display opening night will erupt next weekend, and we can’t let this opportunity go by without grabbing it. Fortune favors the bold, as they say.
So, in the spirit of helpful advice, let me suggest:
1) Bring back Osmo. In truth, I’m sure the decision has already been made. But bring him back, and publicly embrace him. This will bring audiences and donors back—so be ready for them and capitalize on the moment. What better lead-in to reach out to donors and ticket buyers?
2) Reach out to the other stakeholders of the organization… now. Use this opportunity to reach out publicly to musicians. You two groups have to work together, and this is a good way to break the ice launch an effective collaboration. And reach out to audience advocacy groups like Orchestrate Excellence, SOS MN and Young Musicians of Minnesota. They want to help, and you have the right and responsibility to ask them to help you. There are innumerable ways they can assist your efforts, from magnifying marketing initiatives, helping you create focus groups, and so forth. But most of all, you can have them become active ambassadors of the Orchestra—people who don’t just attend concerts but actively bring people and make them feel welcome once in the Hall. Call on all these groups, and do so in a public manner. They will respond.
3) Use all the stakeholders to create a new strategic plan. One of my greatest concerns from the last five years is that it seemed in your own minds you felt were standing alone in trying to make the Orchestra succeed. You aren’t alone; as the board you bear a great responsibility for the Orchestra’s success, but there are other constituents here and we all share the same goal. And we have a variety of skills and experiences that can be helpful. Consult with us. Give us a share in the Orchestra’s success. Gather us up and let’s have a conversation. If you think our ideas aren’t business-savvy enough, convince us why—but also listen to other points of view. And let’s argue everything from evidence and data that is accurate and freely shared. You have said before that you need the community to step forward. Fair enough. Here’s a way you can involve us.
So again, thank you for your bold action this week—I hope that was just the start to further such actions in the future.