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Board's obligation is to protect and nurture the Minnesota Orchestra

orchestra hall
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
The Minnesota Orchestra built its worldwide reputation over many decades.

Dear Members of the Minnesota Orchestra Board of Directors,

In the beginning I was prepared to give you, the directors of the Minnesota Orchestra, the benefit of the doubt. After all, I understand the financial perils of deficit funding. However, you have now worsened the financial base of the Minnesota Orchestra with your duplicity and lack of ethics. You have deprived the musicians of a living and denied them health insurance for almost a year.

Even at this last Tuesday evening's community forum, on the advice of our eminent guest, Alan Fletcher, I was in a mind to grant you some further indulgence. Now it appears the Minnesota Orchestral Association bought 13 domain names on GoDaddy.com, such as "savetheminnesotaorchestra.com." These purchases were made May 24 of 2012. These purchases appear to have been intended to frustrate the advocacy of citizen groups. They are absolute proof of your lack of integrity and indicate malice aforethought.

The Minnesota Orchestra did not build its worldwide reputation in recent years. At the dawn of the stereo era in 1958/59, I was 10-11 years old. At that age I was already an avid music and audio enthusiast.

In those years in the UK we used to gather at the Grand Old Hotel Russell, on beautiful Russell Square in London, every April for the annual Audio Fair. The fine recordings of the [then-named] Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on the Mercury Living Presence label, recorded by Robert Fine, were at the top of the demonstration discs.

The orchestra's reputation was worldwide then as it is now. Now you have caused financial loss and problems across the oceans frustrating the BIS recording, and completing the Grammy nominated Sibelius symphony cycle under Osmo Vänskä. Given that this is coupled with appearances of the orchestra at the BBC Proms and Carnegie Hall, it should come as no surprise that the eyes of the nation and the world are on you. A mighty chorus is rising up questioning your actions and judgment.

Worse, at the time you were drawing up your infamous plans, the musicians of our orchestra were involved with A.C.M.E to bring El Sistema to the children of North Minneapolis. In addition to frustrating attempts to replace guns with instruments in North Minneapolis, your actions denied your organization funds from philanthropists looking for a social-justice element in their donations. This is now a big consideration in direction of philanthropic donations.

Your only recourse to salvage any personal honor is for you all to sincerely apologize and resign. If you think there are not competent individuals of probity and integrity to replace you, then you are additionally guilty of monumental conceit.

Your actions are far more likely than not to end in the destruction of the much-beloved Minnesota Orchestra, whom you have a sacred obligation to protect and nurture. In the event of the destruction of this orchestra, all your names will live in infamy down the ages.

Yours Faithfully, Mark Carter , M.D.

Dr. Mark Carter lives in Laporte, Minn.

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

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Comments (21)

Destroying What They're Supposed to Protect

It has become apparent that the MN Orchestra board and management never intended to negotiate with the orchestra's musicians. The intent from the beginning was to eliminate the MN Orchestra as we know it. I'm still not sure why. Maybe it was to institute a lower-cost ensemble, without a high-cost name conductor, who would be content playing pops music for corporate gigs. Maybe it's just a hatred of and desire to "bust" the musician's union.

In any instance, the board's proposed untenable salary reductions, unwillingness to negotiate, rejection of a mediator's offer (which the musicians accepted), and grab of anti-management (pro-audience) domain names well ahead of the conflict point out the obvious. For whatever reason, the board wants to destroy the orchestra. And they're doing it. In the process they're also pissing all over today's loyal audience.

Maybe they don't care. Maybe the board views a new audience for whatever the post-orchestra future may bring. But there are no doubts about it, the orchestra board and management have deliberately and with malice destroyed the very entity they were charged with shepherding.

In favor of what, it remains to be seen. I hope there will be justice for those who have perpetrated these cowardly acts against the arts and the audience here in Minnesota. There is no justification for what has been done. None.

A week or two, at most, to save the Minnesota Orchestra

Bravo to Dr. Carter. Something has gone terribly wrong with the Board and Management, the wrong originating in the duplicitous fund-raising effort to improve the exterior of Orchestra Hall without telling donors and patrons that, in fact, the Orchestra had serious yearly budget problems.

As Dr. Carter was listening to Dorati LPs in England, I got my parents to drive me 90 miles from rural Minnesota to hear Eva Knardahl play, what, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 (?) at a Sunday afternoon matinee concert in Northrup Auditorium. No matter that the acoustics always were terrible there. What an experience for a nerdy teenager, and I was lucky to have even more.

Now we stand at the precipice of Vanska's resignation and the destruction of the Orchestra, a century of music making down the drain. If Vanska leaves, what would remain of anything sponsored by the current management would be ostracized by serious musicians everywhere. The situation is already the scandal of the musical world.

What has happened already is outrageous, and it may be that Mr. Hensen and the Board have by now so damaged the Orchestra that only a mighty effort can put it back together. Everyone wants wants the Orchestra to survive and prosper, but what we want is not always what we get.

Costs versus revenues

It appears that the Orchestra does not generate enough revenue(even when supplemented with substantial public donations) to pay its expenses - most of which are musician salaries and benefits.This problem is not unique to Minnesota. Instead of condemning the Board and management as evil, can we address the financial problem?

It's not the costs--- it's no interest in generating revenue.

It is not true that musicians' salaries and benefits are responsible for "most" of the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) expenses. According to the MOA website, orchestra musicians are responsible for 48% of costs. This is far below other orchestral organizations, where the musicians costs are 60% and higher, which is what one would expect when the main product of the organization is ORCHESTRAL MUSIC---unless you don't have any intention of focusing on orchestral music. And in fact this is what the MOA has done over the last few years---cut classical music concerts, reduced marketing efforts and budgets, and turned Orchestra Hall into a performance venue for pops concerts and parties as their new business model. In addition, it is no surprise that the MOA dismisses how other orchestra associations (such as at the Cleveland Orchestra) have been financially successful in their classical music presentations when the words "Minnesota Orchestra" have been removed from the MOA's Mission Statement.

In other words, the MOA's situation and lack of revenue has been an intentional, self-fulfilling prophecy. The new lobby was the MOA's priority when they drew down the endowment to look good for dedicated renovation fundraising. After receiving those funds, it was time to stick it to the Orchestra Musicians, (who ironically had been garnering increasing world-wide acclaim and could have been the centerpiece of a well-done marketing drive).

We are now seeing the end result of the MOA's plan, which is going quite swimmingly for them---the decimation of the orchestra;the impending loss of Vanska; a completely disgusted and heartbroken community of listeners, music students, and patrons; and the horror of music lovers all over the world.

The first step to address the

The first step to address the financial problem should be to remove the management who mishandled those finances.

When a business is not profitable

the solution is often new management.

Values vs. Money

Rolf, I refer you to Phylis Kahn’s excellent MinnPost commentary, "At its core, the issue in the MN Orchestra lockout is values, not budgets", published in December of last year. While there are real financial issues to be addressed, money is not really what this is all about. And many of us believe that there are much better ways to take on the budget issues than the draconian slash-and-burn proposal made in the Board's non-negotiable last-and-final offer.

a Lobby vs. the Orchestra

Rolf,

It's not about money, not about enough revenue to cover expenses. Never was. It's about priorities.

The MOA board was able to raise 52 million dollars--that’s $52,000,000.00--to redo the lobby of Orchestra Hall, all during the worst recession in anyone’s lifetime.

The MOA board prioritized a new lobby over the orchestra. That's what it's about.

Different pots of money

Capital investments are different than operating expenses.

Different pots of money

Rolf, you are quite correct that capital investments are different than operating expenses. However, the fact that the orchestral association could raise and spend over $50 million on a new lobby and other enhancements to the building while claiming to be out of money to pay the orchestra musicians is quite a damning statement about the leadership and direction of the association.

The raising and spending of that $50 million completely belies the claim that there is insufficient support for the orchestra to sustain it financially. The fundraising and budgeting were simply mishandled.

Moreover, the financial "crisis" has every appearance of having been artificially created in preparation for the expected difficult labor negotiations. As previously reported in the StarTribune:

Quote: "Balances in 2009 and 2010 would support our state bonding aspirations," Bryan Ebensteiner, vice president of finance, told the orchestra's executive committee in September 2009, "while the deficits in 2011 and 2012 would demonstrate the need to reset the business model." His comments are included in minutes of the finance and executive committees obtained by the Star Tribune.

Quote: The board chose to cover operating deficits in 2009 and 2010 with major withdrawals from its investments. Then, in 2011 -- on the cusp of labor negotiations with musicians -- it "drew down" less money and declared a $2.9 million deficit. End Quote.

http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/music/180782151.html

Certainly it is within the discretion of the board to determine how much to withdraw from the endowment each year. However, when the Executive Committee plans years ahead to balance the budget to appear financially healthy to the state to secure a major bond and then create deficits that would support management's plan to "reset the business model," the audience and community have every right to raise question the path this organization is on and those who are running it.

At this moment, the orchestra is teetering on the brink of disaster. Many outstanding musicians have already left, and Music Director Osmo Vanska has indicated he would leave if this is not resolved by September 9. The time to end the lockout is now, before the orchestra falls further off the cliff and can no longer be pulled back up.

Buying domain names in advance

sounds like "union busting" tactics to me. But I've been convinced from the beginning of this lock-out that it's not money which is really at stake. It's about letting everyone know who's "Boss."

Does the financial stabilization have to happen all in one year?

This is reminiscent of Congress requiring the Postal Service to fund 75 years' worth of pension obligations all at once. Both goals are impossible to meet and endanger the very existence of the respective institutions.

Did the Board ever come to donors and say, "Look, we can't afford to keep paying the musicians what we're paying them?" No, instead, they went to the donors and asked them to contribute to an unnecessary (or at least not urgent) remodeling of Orchestra Hall. Then, all of a sudden, after years of saying that everything was fine financially, the Board was poor-mouthing and saying that it could no longer afford to pay the musicians.

Solving problems

Rolf I don't think anyone is in denial about the problems facing MO and the industry in general. The question is do the board and management have the right answer. They are proposing probably the most severe cuts in salary and the most dramatic work condition changes ever imposed on a major orchestra. They have rebuffed suggestions to look at other more successful programs for ideas. We have not seen that Independant analysis that not only confirms MO books but benchmarks the organization across other major orchestras. There are problems here for sure and the musicians have to play a part in solving it but the starting point right now is far off target...

Simple

We can't address the financial problem because we don't trust the people in charge to tell us the whole truth about the financial problem.

Either they need to step aside, or answer questions and change tactics.

Non-profit status

Non-profit status implies public benefit, and should come with required transparency. The Minnesota Orchestra board has refused to open their books and decision-making processes to public scrutiny. How can it be even legal that a group of directors can hold an endowment, raised from citizens of a community, hostage for this length of time? Every one of their names should be in every article on this subject! If they can't settle a bargaining dispute, even with benefit of mediation, in 3 months, they should be required to resign. If non-profit law in the US doesn't permit a class action suit in these circumstances, non-profit law should be changed.
Mr. Westgard, how can you expect an irresponsibly managed organization like this to be able to raise any money? The "leadership" miscalculated their economic prospects, succumbing to edifice complex, during a world-wide recession. This is not unusual. The fact that they didn't resign when their mistake became apparent is the only problem. If books and salaries and board voting records were a matter of public record, the situation would have been resolved long ago.

It's Time

I would humbly suggest that it is now time to track down the companies and institutions who employ the members of the MN Orchestra Board and begin the work of divesting ourselves from any and all profit-making business with those concerns.

I strongly suspect that, among the audience members of our beloved MN Orchestra are substantial numbers of people with sufficient financial and business resources to make a serious dent in the source of the Orchestra Board member's own stubborn arrogance, blindness, and tin ears - their massive (and clearly undeserved) wealth, if they were to move their business and their resources elsewhere.

Minnesota being the varied and prosperous economy that we are rapidly returning to being, I'm sure there are plenty of businesses and financial institutions that would be willing and eager to pick up the slack.

Dr. Carter

Thank you, Dr. Carter. You are correct in every aspect.
Rolf, this is a scandal and it results from the malicious intent of the board. We need to first determine the source of the problem, and the doctor has done so--along with many others. The problem is the board, and we cannot address the financial problem while the board continues with its immoral, disastrous behavior. It's hard not to believe that the board is deliberately trying to destroy the symphony.
In an earlier post in response to Phyllis Kahn, you wrote that "our two great orchestras don't attract enough ticket paying patrons at the right prices, , , ,most Minnesotans are willing to pay extra to support cultural programs. But that interest wanes when they are asked to subsidize entertainer's salaries and benefits at levels three times their own. . . .Many sports and other entertainers are lavishly paid, but it is in proportion to the number of expensive tickets and TV ads that they sell."
This is the first time I've ever heard musicians of our orchestra called "entertainers." You trivialize the musicians' roles in the community. Kahn wrote about values, but your response is all about $$$$$$$$. That appears to be your value.
The orchestra should not be the board's to destroy. They all need to resign; then we should figure out a better, community oriented way to save the orchestra. If we can subsidize sports stadiums in terms of millions of dollars, why can't the state subsidize the orchestra--and have some say in managing it. Maybe a nonprofit group, composed of musicians as well as corporate leaders and the elite, be created to govern it.
The current setup is the worst possible method of managing the orchestra and that is clearly demonstrated by the current disaster. A quick review of the current board shows that MOST of its members are CEOs, directors, presidents, partners, and the like. It doesn't appear that a musician is on the board.
Too bad we can't use eminent domain on the orchestra, buy it, and put it under moral, responsible control instead of people like Richard Davis.

The MOA and El Sistema

Dr. Carter brings up something I did not know:

"At the time you were drawing up your infamous plans, the musicians of our orchestra were involved with A.C.M.E to bring El Sistema to the children of North Minneapolis. In addition to frustrating attempts to replace guns with instruments in North Minneapolis, your actions denied your organization funds from philanthropists looking for a social-justice element in their donations."

How very sad. Much as I love classical music, the lack of minority involvement has always been a disappointment. To know that the musicians were working to bring El Sistema to the children of North Minneapolis, and to know that their effort was hindered by this wholly unnecessary lockout, is not only sad, but totally disgusting.

The MOA appears to be the most backwards and regressive non-profit in the State of Minnesota.

consultant

Boards of directors do not round up domain names, consultants do. Who is the consultant advising the orchestra board on its present course? What board members or their organizations have used that consultant? Is the consultant also the firm that led Crystal Sugar into its infamous labor relations? Lastly, how is the consultant paid and how much?

Pat Davies

The numbers

Thank you for all of the responses. As an MBA type who can't carry a tune, I tend to look at the numbers. If the books are being rigged, I stand corrected.

Call this what it is -

Class warfare.