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Orchestra Hall lease may let public officials apply pressure in long-running labor dispute

By Dec. 1, the Minnesota Orchestral Association is required to show it’s operating the facility in “the public interest … to promote and provide for performing arts.”

The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra played a concert at the Ted Mann under the baton of their 90-year-old conductor laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski last Friday.
Photo by John Whiting

There soon could be an opening for Minneapolis and state officials to become actively involved in the long-running labor dispute between the Minnesota Orchestral Association and locked out musicians.

Under terms of its lease with the city, which technically owns Orchestra Hall, the Orchestral Association is obligated to show by Dec. 1 that it has been — and will be — serving “the public interest of the City of Minneapolis to promote and provide for performing arts in the City.”

In a statement, the MOA said that it will file the required report, but all it would say on the subject is:

“The Minnesota Orchestral Association is planning to submit its report by Dec. 1 and we expect to be in compliance with the agreement.”

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But given the ongoing lockout and the silence in the hall, how can the MOA meet the requirements of the lease?

Clearly, when $14 million in bonding money moved from the state, through City Hall, to the MOA to help finance the renovation of Orchestra Hall, the state and the city expected the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as other artistic groups, to be performing there.

The lease makes it clear that public money was awarded for “improving the cultural fabric of the State and region and promoting economic development and tourism.”

Lease could open door for changes

There are at least some who believe that this lease may be the crack in the door needed to move the current orchestra away from the Orchestral Association and form an entirely new management structure.

Lee A. Henderson, a music lover and local attorney, is among those who believe that it is time for the musicians to split from the MOA and form a new organization, which he has dubbed the Minnesota Symphony.

Others have made similar suggestions as the lockout has stretched on. But Henderson, who twice has written op-ed pieces for the Star Tribune, recently outlined a difficult but comprehensive approach to what would be needed to make a split from the current management structure possible.

Lee A. Henderson
Courtesy of Hessian & McKasyLee A. Henderson

Under Henderson’s plan, which he unveiled last week, the city, the state’s attorney general, musicians and the public all would be required to act.

In a conversation with MinnPost, Henderson said his own views have “evolved” in recent weeks. Earlier in the lockout, he said, he believed that the MOA and musicians could each compromise and come to an agreement.

But he no longer believes that the MOA “envisions a world-class orchestra.” A vision falling short of “world class’’ should be unacceptable to all, he said.

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Although remedies are somewhat muddy in the lease, Henderson believes it is possible for the city to act aggressively and claim that the MOA is not fulfilling its obligations. Theoretically, that could result in Orchestra Hall being taken from MOA control and turned over to a new organization, such as the Minnesota Symphony.

Orchestra Hall ‘landlord’ reviewing options

At this point at least, the Minneapolis Planning and Economic Development Department, which acts as Orchestra Hall’s landlord, is reviewing matters. The department said in a statement regarding the lease:

“Although our folks are reviewing possible next steps, it’s too early to say what, if any, steps the city may need to take once we receive additional information from the Orchestral Association in December. It is the city’s hope that the Orchestral Association will resolve any outstanding issues and continue to run the facility. In December, the city will review the Orchestral Association’s report and look at options for moving forward depending on the situation at the time.”

It should be noted that Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges has been a strong supporter of the musicians both as a member of the City Council and during her mayoral campaign. Mayor R.T. Rybak, meanwhile, has pushed repeatedly for a settlement but hasn’t taken sides. MinnPost has asked both of them for comment on the lease issue.

If the city decided to act aggressively on the lease and if the new symphony organization would end up with the keys to Orchestra Hall, a major hurdle for Henderson’s proposed new orchestra would be cleared. The Minnesota Symphony then would have a beautiful hall in which to perform. (Currently, musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are performing on their own in various halls throughout the metro area.)

If a new organization is formed, Henderson believes that it would be possible for the state’s attorney general to move control of the MOA’s $140 million endowment to the new organization.

Efforts to get comment from the attorney general’s office were not successful.

Attorney general’s role appears limited

But it is true that the state does have considerable leverage in overseeing nonprofit organizations.

Certainly, Mike Hatch, the predecessor and mentor of current Attorney General Lori Swanson, was aggressive in his oversight of nonprofits.

His office, for example, uncovered lavish perks being given to board members and executives of Allina Health Care. Hatch responded swiftly. Board members were replaced, executives hurriedly left and were replaced by administrators who received Hatch’s stamp of approval.

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But the key to his actions, Hatch said, were the actions of Allina officials, who had established billing practices that turned out to be illegal, presented each other with lavish gifts and hired consultants at outlandish wages.

Although Hatch said he has not followed the orchestra dispute closely, he isn’t sure that any key issues that would trigger a response from the attorney general have arisen.

“Generally, there needs to be an allegation of illegal conduct,” Hatch said. “In the case of the orchestra, I don’t believe there has been that sort of allegation.”

Henderson, however, believes the MOA might be running into breach-of-trust issues that could land the endowment issue into the courts.

But even if the courts get involved, Henderson believes it’s important to move forward with or without the endowment.

“Certainly, a new structure can be created without the existing endowment,” Henderson said in an email. “The question is really ‘What purpose does the endowment serve if the organization has no music director, no musicians, no concerts, etc.?”

Others in the community are adding pressure to the situation.

One organization, Save Our Symphony Minnesota, is holding an event Wednesday night to outline its review of MOA financial practices. (Save Our Symphony is seen as a pro-musician organization.) Presumably, the group will be attempting to say that the MOA has not been acting responsibly.

Henderson’s plan for new orchestra

Meantime, Henderson keeps pushing for a new structure for an old orchestra.

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Here’s what he believes has to happen:

• “One or more” philanthropists need to step forward with major support.

• A CEO “of national stature” needs to be found who believes in “collaboration, not confrontation.”

• A music director — Henderson suggests Osmo Vänskä — needs to be hired.

• Musicians need to “commit to stay and rebuild the orchestra.” These musicians would need to accept a lower pay scale, but with the understanding that they’d be paid on a scale with other “world-class” musicians. In addition, they’d need to perform more often both in concerts at the Hall and throughout the community.

• “We the people” would have to be willing to pay higher ticket prices and make annual contributions. Financial support would need to come from a much broader base — as was the case in the orchestra’s history. 

“None of this is going to be easy,” Henderson said, “but it is worth the effort.”