The Cheap Seats

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I found ourselves down the street at the house of our neighbors, Richard and Ross. This is one of my favorite places to be since it usually involves good food, good wine, and a lot of laughter. This time, though, there was something else there – a good lawyer.

Our mutual friend/ex-neighbor Kate was the consul of record, and the occasion was the amending of R&R’s wills. This was not the first time we had been called on to witness changes to their wills, but it was certainly the first time that it had anything to do with the Minnesota Orchestra. You see, our friends had been members of the Laureate Society of the Minnesota Orchestra for years, but now they were cutting the M.O. out of their wills.

I decided that it might be good for everyone to hear directly from them why they were going to this extreme. It’s even more important today, since yesterday the Board published a 2 page ad stating their position. That might have been a hopeful strategy a year ago, but it’s way too late now. The constituency increasingly do not believe the Board.

Richard and Ross represent the lost voices in this lockout. These are the people who make up the vast majority of the patrons for the M.O., the ones in the cheap seats (so to speak), the people the orchestra relies on to balance the books….. or to pretend to balance the books. I wanted to find out what their thought process had been. So a few days ago I sat down with our friends and had a long conversation about the M.O. The full transcript is here, and I strongly recommend that you read it, but here are the highlights.

Both Richard and Ross have been attending Minnesota Orchestra concerts for more than 40 years, and they have very definite and insightful ideas about the orchestra. But the beginning of the lockout fundamentally changed their thoughts about the orchestra:

S&D: So let’s move into this as we get into the beginnings of the lockout. There started to be progressively more and more fractures, statements from management, statements from musicians, statements from this and that and the other… at the beginning of all this, starting in the summer of 2012, what were your impressions? Or did you have any impressions? Were you aware of any of the particulars that would lead to a lockout?

Ross: Your question takes me to the fact that I have been now pretty involved with my own union in the schools, the Minneapolis Public Schools union. So, the fact that they were going to be doing this…. or that the contract was up, right? That’s how this all started…

S&D: Right, and the renovation of the hall…

Ross: That’s right, they were going to start the renovation of the hall. I thought, well this is going to be interesting, but it just all kinda happened so fast in a way, I think. All of sudden there was this stuff about the musicians wanting too much money….. no, they were going to cut their salary by a third or something? And that seemed pretty severe to me, but at the same time I didn’t even really know what they made.

S&D: You had been hearing of course that the orchestra was in the black. As you say it came as a surprise, it happened so quickly, and suddenly there was a change in tenor?

Ross: Yeah, and suddenly it was like they weren’t talking. They weren’t even long into negotiations and they weren’t talking. They were done talking, ‘cause they were accusing… or at least the orchestra members were accusing … the orchestra of not being honest or forthright about the information about the money, about the dollars that were involved.

S&D: Can I follow up on one thing? Because you mentioned that you were involved with your own union contract, but you never struck me as being one of those people who are like “Union NOW! Union FOREVER! ONLY UNION!!! NA-NA-NA-NA!!!!!…”

Richard: You should see him behind closed doors!

Ross: Yeah, somewhat just the opposite, because it seems like in today’s world that all has to change. Both the union and the administration of whatever area of working you’re in because it’s just so ridiculous, the you vs. them. Yet supposedly with the orchestra they’re suppose to be delivering this wonderful, beautiful thing, artistic thing, and then they fight over stuff that doesn’t make any sense to me. Same with the schools. It’s all supposed to be about educating kids and yet it’s always about something political.

This viewpoint jibes with what I have heard throughout the Twin Cities area. Time after time I have heard a lot of confusion from the patrons as to why this devolved so quickly. Obviously the Board and administration had worked hard to try and control the message, but unfortunately for them we live in the age of the internet:

Richard: We knew something was coming. But we… I had no idea the severity and the depth of the discord until I read that blog of yours, the one where you likened the M.O. to a luxury liner that was heading to the rocks……

S&D: ….. actually to the USS Minnesota that was a battleship that came out of WWI. I’d like to add that this was the first mention of possible discord. S&D did break this whole story….

Richard: Right, Right! And my initial reaction to that was that Bill’s exaggerating, it can’t be that bad, because we were getting our information from inside. I remember thinking, OK, well, he’s doing that political thing….

From there their understanding of the orchestra and the lockout changed dramatically:

Ross: Yeah, I wasn’t trying to say that, it’s just that it seemed that…. it’s got to be about the head guy [Michael Henson].  It’s like the superintendent of schools. If things are really screwed up you think… meh…. and most of the time they are let go, or someone else comes in if they can’t get it figured out. Other then that I didn’t have any other feeling as to why it should be him.

Richard: And for some reason I looked at him and Campbell as a team. And then just recently I went back and looked at the makeup of the Board. The Board itself…. none of the old representative community boosters of the arts are on the Board anymore. It’s all attorneys and bankers and…. and the thing that has been really, really discouraging to me is that they do not have any intention of doing what they say they’re trying to do.

S&D: Now how did this conclusion come to pass?

Richard: Because nothing…. nothing… zero zip nada in terms of leadership. Not one goddamn thing.

And I think that’s the rub – leadership. The people of Minnesota, the patrons of the Minnesota Orchestra, were looking for a different level of leadership from the Board. Instead what they got felt like a betrayal:

Richard: At any rate, what makes me sick is that #1) it could have been avoided. But also I think that what these people are doing….. they’re bankers. They’re businessmen. So what Campbell and Davis (*Richard Davis is Immediate Past Chair and current Executive Committee member of the Minnesota Orchestra Board) do in their banks is that they look around, they see people who have been there for 35 years pulling down $85K a year, and they reorganize in a way to get rid of them and they bring in someone for $35K a year. And there is a tremendous pool of very talented young musicians out there, but it seems like they really don’t get the artistic part of this. You can get some of the most talented musicians together in a room and still won’t have an orchestra. If they would just come clean with that and say here’s what we’re doing, but it’s the lie or the fact that what they say they’re doing and their behaviors don’t line up, that’s like fingernails on a blackboard.

Perhaps the most telling point came when I asked them about the future of the M.O.

S&D: Do you think the M.O. can survive these wounds?

Richard: Uh, probably not.

Ross: I would say no, not right now. Today I would say that, but I don’t know.

Richard: I’m at the point right now where I kind of don’t care how it’s resolved, I’m not coming back.

S&D: What are you not coming back to?

Richard: Ummm….. That’s a really good question. I’m sick of the dishonesty. If the Board and the admin were to resign I would probably eat my words. But if they broker some deal between the musicians and the current Board and Administration I can’t imagine….. being comfortable sitting in the hall. I don’t know. Mostly I’m telling you how pissed off I am. But it’s hard to imagine that it could survive at this point. There’s probably a fair number like myself who have thrown in the towel. Meanwhile, they were hanging on to their diminishing market share by their fingernails in the first place, and they’ve just taken a year off. So just from a purely economic point of view how do you capture…..

S&D: … recapture…

Richard: ….. recapture market share when you have not delivered a product for a year. I don’t know if you can do that. I don’t know if you can just start putting on concerts again and expect people to come back. They were doing a shitty job with marketing in the first place….

These wounds were self-inflicted. They did not come from outside the organization, although the financial crash of ’08 certainly precipitated the situation. Even if the clouds parted and there was a miracle settlement tomorrow there are a lot of people who have lost faith in the Minnesota Orchestra. That’s a killer. No matter what artistic product the Minnesota Orchestra offers it’s not going to matter. Their reputation is mud, and that’s a much bigger deficit than the fiscal one to climb out of.

(*Once again, I urge everyone to read the full transcript. It encapsulates what has happened with the M.O. over the past several years.)

18 thoughts on “The Cheap Seats”

  1. It’s so true. So many of us have thrown in the towel. There’s no way I’m going back. I’ve been going to concerts there for 20 years. There’s no way I can give them my business anymore. It wouldn’t feel right. The only way I could think of doing it is with completely different Management. It’s going to be virtually impossible for them to survive going forward. The fact that they couldn’t market on previous successes and were not even playing to 70% houses tells me how lousy their marketing has been. And now they’ve pissed off their core patrons so badly. Good luck to them, but at this point I don’t care what happens.

    • Wait a sec – I didn’t know about that part.

      Osmo’s reputation with the MinnOrch – in the Twin Cities and all over the Western world – was absolutely golden, and they were only playing to 70% houses ??

      Wow, they really were doing a bad job of marketing.

      Come to think of it – and I’m going out on a limb here – I can’t help wondering if the MOA management was doing a bad job of marketing on purpose, so that by 2012-13 the orchestra’s financial situation would look as dire as possible.

      If they could be dishonest about the orchestra’s financial health over the past three or four seasons (and they demonstrably were), it’s certainly imaginable that they could be dishonest about their marketing as well.

  2. And what about the musicians that want to stay if this ever gets settled? Who will want to come hear them? Who will want to support them after what Henson and company have done? The musicians reputation has been smeared with comments such as, ” all that will be left are the dregs of the orchestra.” Really? So those members that have been in the orchestra for decades are the “dregs”?
    Yes, I can understand not supporting the MOA with contributions any longer and that puts patrons in a very difficult situation. But damning the MOA also damns the musicians.

  3. I wonder about this : What if there were a coalition of patrons who joined both the players and the Board to discuss the situation instead of leaving it to mediation out of sight. I think this would be profound if the members of the audience asserted themselves in a way to make something happen. What do you think? We have got to step formard somehow and it will need to be in a completely different fashion….

    • Jim, you can’t have a discussion like that if the Board won’t participate. And they’ve done exactly nothing over the past year to indicate that they’d be interested in doing any such thing.

      As Governor Dayton said last month, “When you have this kind of dispute, both sides have to want to resolve it. No mediator can force a resolution.”

      • You are RIGHT! That is exactly the reason I proposed this idea. If both sides are at an impasse they might need to be in the presence of those who are part of the equation and whom the affect to realize perhaps something different. It could change the energy of the discussions and perhaps actually promote a real discussion instead of being behind walls and throwings rocks at the other side. Dialogue possibility.

        • Yeah, but what do you do when the Board won’t show up to that conversation?

          If the Board cared what the audience thought, they wouldn’t have behaved as they have for the past year.

          • I believe a very PUBLIC invitation from Patrons to join in would put a LOT of pressure on the Board. That is what did it in the Southern Theater debacle. The dancers pushed it to happen.

  4. “You had been hearing of course that the orchestra was in the black. As you say it came as a surprise, it happened so quickly”

    That’s key, Bill, and it’s worth stressing repeatedly so that stakeholders remember.

    The MOA had made a point of telling the world – including, not incidentally, the Minnesota legislature – that their finances were in dandy shape.

    And then, basically over the course of one season – and after the financing for the hall renovation was securely in place – the MOA’s financial situation went from dandy to dire.

  5. If the MOA and musicians could come together and make good-faith risks and sacrifices for an interim solution that could at least guarantee a season that includes Conductor, Carnegie Hall, and the completion of their historic Sibelius recording cycle, they will give supporters of the Minnesota Orchestra here and around the world something worth supporting and the chance to step up and prove the MOA’s pessimistic view of public support right or wrong. If the audience comes through, they’ve saved an orchestra; if they don’t, then the MOA will still have the means and finally have an argument to support the “sustainable” reduced orchestra remains projected in their “Strategic Plan.”

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