Aspen CEO on the Minnesota Orchestra lockout: ‘It should end unconditionally’

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Held at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis, the forum drew a crowd that filled the main floor of the sanctuary.

Last night’s community forum about the Minnesota Orchestra was what Orchestrate Excellence, the organizers, said it would be: a civil discourse about the seemingly endless lockout. There were partisan bursts of applause, but at least in the main gathering, no visible anger. The general mood was one of frustration tinged with sadness. As forum chair Kenneth Huber said in his opening remarks, “I wish we weren’t here tonight. I wish we were all across the street at Orchestra Hall.”

Held at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis, the forum drew a crowd that filled the main floor of the sanctuary. Orchestrate Excellence had received more than 450 RSVPs by Tuesday afternoon. Six hundred programs were printed, and all were handed out. It was a mostly white, silver-haired crowd, dotted with members of the Young Musicians of Minnesota, a student-run organization formed in May to express solidarity with the locked-out musicians. For many people, it was a chance to be heard, at least by each other.

Orchestrate Excellence doesn’t take sides, preferring to speak to the interests of the community. “We are the audience,” the organization’s co-founder Paula DeCosse told the crowd, “and we miss our orchestra.”

The night’s keynote speaker, Alan Fletcher, CEO and president of the Aspen Music Festival and School, was called in because he knows about long and bitter disputes; he survived one at Aspen, which is thriving today. 

“Everyone in the world … cares very deeply about what is happening and will happen here,” Fletcher said. “If bad things can happen here, they can happen anywhere.” He stated his intent to “offer observations that I hope might be part of a conversation in which you affirm for each other what is to be done.” As an outsider, he said, it was not his place to tell us what to do.

‘Would be dramatic testimony’

Except for this: “I will go so far as to be definite about one thing I believe, and that is that the current lockout of musicians should end, and it should end unconditionally … This step would be dramatic testimony from the board to their commitment to a real process, because one of the things that must happen is that all sides speak to each other.” The musicians must then come to the table, Fletcher said, and deal with who is at the table – no more talk about getting rid of management and board leadership.

(Here’s where we briefly imagined Fletcher and Minnesota Orchestra president Michael Henson sitting down together and having a little chat. Has that happened? It has not, Fletcher told us afterward.)

After the keynote, during which Fletcher briefly and matter-of-factly covered other thorny issues – the orchestra’s operating deficit (many organizations run on deficits, and they can’t be wiped out overnight), its use of endowment money to balance the budget and look good to legislators (not unusual), the new building (probably a good idea), and the aging audience (most major arts organizations are supported by people in their 50s and beyond) – the crowd broke into dozens of small groups and spread out through the church, charged with coming up with ideas for ending the impasse and helping the orchestra get back on its feet. We listened in on several groups and heard people who were deeply concerned about the orchestra and glad to be sharing their thoughts.

Preparing report for the public and MOA

The plan now is for Orchestrate Excellence to sift through the ideas generated during the breakout and prepare a report to share with the public and the MOA within 10 days.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and the corrosive effects of the 11-month lockout continue to be felt. Fourteen musicians have resigned or taken leaves of absence since the lockout began.

Members of Young Musicians of MinnesotaMinnPost photo by John WhitingMembers of Young Musicians of Minnesota played outside prior to the forum.

In Washington, former Sen. George Mitchell is working on ways to bring the two warring sides together while allowing both to save face; his first proposal was rejected last week by management. In Sweden, the record label Bis has postponed recording sessions with the orchestra planned for mid-September. And music director Osmo Vänskä has threatened to resign if the labor dispute isn’t over by Sept. 9, giving him time to prepare the orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall in November.

We asked DeCosse, “What do you think was the main thing that happened tonight?”

“This was an opportunity for the community to come together and talk, because they haven’t been able to. We’ve all been individual voices trying to do something. But I think there’s a lot of energy in a gathering like this. Hopefully we can carry it forward.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 08/21/2013 - 12:05 pm.

    Mounting losses

    I would be very sad if Osmo Vanska leaves the MN Orchestra. I realize that both sides need to come to the table, but my impression is that the Orchestra management and board are playing a very un-Minnesotan game of hard-ball and seem not to care if Vanska leaves. I’m not sure the MN Orchestra can recover very well in the short to medium term if he goes along with many top musicians.
    Meanwhile, I’m becoming a first time season subscriber to the SPCO this year, despite the fact that I can (and did regularly) walk to Orchestra Hall from my home.
    Sad, wasteful, and upsetting. This is not a healthy legacy. And a terrible ‘thank you’ to the taxpayers who are big funders of the major hall remodel!

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/21/2013 - 01:03 pm.

    Attrition

    The MSO management is achieving its goal by attrition:
    As established musicians leave, they will be replaced by new musicians willing to work for less.
    Therefore, management gains by stonewalling.

    • Submitted by Amy Adams on 08/21/2013 - 01:34 pm.

      You might be partly correct, Paul…

      They’re certainly stonewalling. But I think the MOA benefits even more from simply never filling those positions…they can then claim the orchestra is a certain size and maintain its old identity and status, while in reality never hiring someone permanently for that job. (Saves so much in salary package, plus keeps the remaining musicians on high alert…always wondering “who will go next? will there ever be another one?”)
      It’s genius. Management gets what they want, without having to do a thing.

  3. Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 08/21/2013 - 04:54 pm.

    Dr. Fletcher may have been wrong about one thing!

    Dr Fletcher’s presentation was interesting but his assumption “…. that board members love music otherwise they wouldn’t be there…” is quite incorrect in the context of our orchestra’s problems.
    Aside from cronyism which has I believe largely subsided on the orchestra board, private citizens get on the board either because they give of their immense wealth or are in a position to cause their corporate employers to contribute, or can pressure others into donating to the symphony. No one is appointed to the board for their love of music, or for attending the concerts. In the case of the original board’s negotiating committee, I am familiar with a few of its members either through the Maestro’s Circle, or one of the many overseas trips we have taken with the orchestra. I can definitely vouch for two of these “negotiators” love of music, dedication and attendance at Orchestra Hall. I think that at least two others’ devotion to music (and art) is highly suspect. I firmly believe that these two are much more devoted to self aggrandizement, Scott Walker and the Koch brothers than music or the orchestra.

    As you well know, a certain individual moved here in 2004 to take charge of a newly merged bank which is now the fifth largest bank in the US and it was a no brainer to put him on the board, not for his love of music and appreciation of art, but to continue his corporation’s support and the leverage he brought. As the President and now CEO of this bank, I assume he felt it is his civic duty to lend his expertise, and support, at the same time adding to his ego. (He currently serves on the boards or advisory committees of about 18 organizations, tragically now including the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Why, if not for self aggrandizement?)

    You have asked that we not dwell on the past, but concentrate on the future. I would differ from your request in that the planning for the future one must consider history. The person in question, “darling” of the banking world, has been on the orchestra board for nearly the entire time that the endowment was damaged, strategic plans for the future were formulated and an attempt to make Orchestra Hall into Disney Hall was undertaken. He is therefor to be held accountable.

    He has no business directing negotiations or anything at the Orchestra for that matter. The orchestral world is not the banking world where one is rewarded even for poor performance. Although he receives no monetary compensation from the Orchestra, I for one am tired of seeing his ego rewarded. Perhaps I am naive, but I don’t see how the full time CEO of the nation’s fifth largest bank can have the time, energy or disposition to be on the boards or advisory committees of 18 non profits or government agencies, unless its a grand ego trip. And I can’t see how he expects the musicians to finance the board’s incompetence and ineptitude.

    So, in planning for the future, the first step is the resignation of this person and his co conspirator, the regional director of the nation’s fourth largest bank. This won’t be easy as I think that the entire board, despite its concentration of wealth, is intimidated by this person, as is perhaps, even the regional director of the fourth largest bank. The next step is to appoint several orchestra musicians to the executive committee of the orchestra and immediately unconditionally end the lockout. A framework for a new contract would be a salary and benefit freeze for five(?) years, and a two tier wage scale with new hires (probably excluding first chairs) at a reduced salary increasing to full salary over 5 years. And heavens know there will be by necessity at this point a lot of new hires. In addition, more flexible work rules can be negotiated.

    The next step is to go to the community and raise money. With the present board composition and what has transpired, this won’t be easy. Contrary to the boards assumption that the only people angered by the lockout are the little people (AKA the audience) who don’t give much money, many donors who are not board members, but are in the top categories of donors in the back of the orchestra program will not give a dime until those accountable on the board go away. Alternatively if they stay perhaps they could make amends by personally contributing $5 million each (a sum they can well afford) and set an example for the community.

    This community wants and craves the excellence that this orchestra has achieved over the past 110 years and will support this organization. After all, if $97 million has been raised including $50 million for a new lobby demonstrating that it wants this orchestra. We know that ticket revenues are not the answer, so why not solicit attendance by the myriad of students with substantially reduced prices for young people? They will be the future audiences at full price. Go back to St. Paul, even if its 5 or 6 concerts a year at O’Shaughnessy auditorium. Advertise the concerts and orchestra aggressively. Increase rather than decrease the number of concerts. Bring back a Principal Guest conductor. Generate excitement with a few more Wheaties boxes!

  4. Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 08/21/2013 - 05:04 pm.

    Dr. Fletcher may have been wrong about one thing!

    Dr Fletcher’s presentation was interesting but his assumption “…. that board members love music otherwise they wouldn’t be there…” is quite incorrect in the context of our orchestra’s problems.
    Aside from cronyism which has I believe largely subsided on the orchestra board, private citizens get on the board either because they give of their immense wealth or are in a position to cause their corporate employers to contribute, or can pressure others into donating to the symphony. No one is appointed to the board for their love of music, or for attending the concerts. In the case of the original board’s negotiating committee, I am familiar with a few of its members either through the Maestro’s Circle, or one of the many overseas trips we have taken with the orchestra. I can definitely vouch for two of these “negotiators” love of music, dedication and attendance at Orchestra Hall. I think that at least two others’ devotion to music (and art) is highly suspect. I firmly believe that these two are much more devoted to self aggrandizement, Scott Walker and the Koch brothers than music or the orchestra.

    As you well know, a certain individual moved here in 2004 to take charge of a newly merged bank which is now the fifth largest bank in the US and it was a no brainer to put him on the board, not for his love of music and appreciation of art, but to continue his corporation’s support and the leverage he brought. As the President and now CEO of this bank, I assume he felt it is his civic duty to lend his expertise, and support, at the same time adding to his ego. (He currently serves on the boards or advisory committees of about 18 organizations, tragically now including the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Why, if not for self aggrandizement?)

    You have asked that we not dwell on the past, but concentrate on the future. I would differ from your request in that the planning for the future one must consider history. The person in question, “darling” of the banking world, has been on the orchestra board for nearly the entire time that the endowment was damaged, strategic plans for the future were formulated and an attempt to make Orchestra Hall into Disney Hall was undertaken. He is therefor to be held accountable.

    He has no business directing negotiations or anything at the Orchestra for that matter. The orchestral world is not the banking world where one is rewarded even for poor performance. Although he receives no monetary compensation from the Orchestra, I for one am tired of seeing his ego rewarded. Perhaps I am naive, but I don’t see how the full time CEO of the nation’s fifth largest bank can have the time, energy or disposition to be on the boards or advisory committees of 18 non profits or government agencies, unless its a grand ego trip. And I can’t see how he expects the musicians to finance the board’s incompetence and ineptitude.

    So, in planning for the future, the first step is the resignation of this person and his co conspirator, the regional director of the nation’s fourth largest bank. This won’t be easy as I think that the entire board, despite its concentration of wealth, is intimidated by this person, as is perhaps, even the regional director of the fourth largest bank. The next step is to appoint several orchestra musicians to the executive committee of the orchestra and immediately unconditionally end the lockout. A framework for a new contract would be a salary and benefit freeze for five(?) years, and a two tier wage scale with new hires (probably excluding first chairs) at a reduced salary increasing to full salary over 5 years. And heavens know there will be by necessity at this point a lot of new hires. In addition, more flexible work rules can be negotiated.

    The next step is to go to the community and raise money. With the present board composition and what has transpired, this won’t be easy. Contrary to the boards assumption that the only people angered by the lockout are the little people (AKA the audience) who don’t give much money, many donors who are not board members, but are in the top categories of donors in the back of the orchestra program will not give a dime until those accountable on the board go away. Alternatively if they stay perhaps they could make amends by personally contributing $5 million each (a sum they can well afford) and set an example for the community.

    This community wants and craves the excellence that this orchestra has achieved over the past 110 years and will support this organization. After all, if $97 million has been raised including $50 million for a new lobby demonstrating that it wants this orchestra. We know that ticket revenues are not the answer, so why not solicit attendance by the myriad of students with substantially reduced prices for young people? They will be the future audiences at full price. Go back to St. Paul, even if its 5 or 6 concerts a year at O’Shaughnessy auditorium. Advertise the concerts and orchestra aggressively. Increase rather than decrease the number of concerts. Bring back a Principal Guest conductor. Generate excitement with a few more Wheaties boxes!

  5. Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 08/21/2013 - 07:29 pm.

    My apology for my comments being listed twice

    My wife and I relocated to the Twin Cities in 1969. A Prime consideration was the incredible music, art and theatre scene, not to mention the Twins and Vikings! Since the orchestra relocated from Northrup to O’Shaughnessy and then to Orchestra Hall, we have missed no more than a dozen s dozen subscription concerts. We are not pleased as you can imagine about what has transpired. Please excuse the duplication of our comments.

  6. Submitted by Michael Hess on 08/22/2013 - 08:36 am.

    SOS MN

    It’s incredibly encouraging that just since the OX session, over 3000 people have joined the “Save our Symphony Minnesota” group (www.saveoursymphonymn.org). This is becoming a valuable resource for current news and relevant information related to the lockout of musicians and the overall damage as this dispute is prolonged. You can find this at the address above or in Facebook. There is clearly an engaged audience that wants to know what they can do to get the music back.

  7. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/27/2013 - 06:14 pm.

    Minnesota Board Composition

    First a question? Do you know how many people are on the Minnesota Orchestra board?

    By my quick count, there are more than 80 members. It is a mix of corporate CEOs and executives (including a number who are retired), people from the financial services world, and lots of attornies. That group was primarily male. There was significant number of females on the board – a few corporate leaders with titles – but most simply names and addresses. Several were well known community volunteers, and others were spouses of local business leaders. More research would be required to understand why members are there and what they hope to achieve through their membership.

    It was surprising among the Honorary members were the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the President of the University, the head of the Mpls City Council – but not the head of the state in which the Minnesota Orchestra resides – Mark Dayton. In fact, there was no one named Dayton on the board – which is very unusual for Minnesota arts and culture organizations.

    This might be a little unfair, but it seems like based on the size of the board, this has an element of a social club. Do all these board members really have influence on policy making? Impossible to determine. However, if very clear that male “financial types” have a lot of influence. I can only imagine the average level of wealth in the group, but the top 1% comes to mind.

    What categories of people who could legitimately be on the board were missing. Well, of course, the board current has no musicians from the Orchestra. The relationship with the musicians is obviously arms length. Even if you aren’t going to include your own musicians, aren’t there other musical types you could have on the board in some fashion. How about leaders of other musical organizations in the community? How about music teachers at the high school and college level? How about locally based performers? What about other arts organizations – leaders from museums, theatres, and others? If you cannot have current musicians, how about Orchestra alumni or former conductors? When I saw that the sole female officer was playing the role of Secretary, it made me think of an organization that hasn’t progressed much beyond the 1950s.

    I hate to be negative, but this whole crisis was manufactured when when management choose to lock out the musicians, timing it for a year when Orchestra Hall was under conditions. It seems like a typical CEO response came out – break the union, force down labor costs by practicing a little age discrimination – replacing musicians who brought the orchestra up to its then current standard, and replace them with younger musicians. This has been a classic case of slash and burn management and every board member who has support this policy needs to look in the mirror. Of course the board is huge to raise money, but despite the glowing claims in the annual report, if one considers the collective wealth of the board, I’m not sure that giving as been so stellar. I haven’t gone to the trouble of checking the level of giving of board members, but for those whose income is public record, it would be very easy to determine how generous they actually are as a percentage of income. Some of the money coming in through board members are flowing out of corporate coffers, a bit of a difference from writing a personal check. And of course, despite the emerging financial problems, the board chose to focus its money on redoing the building – during the middle of the worst recession since the Depression.

    Hopefully, this gets resolved, but the challenge of competent management remains. If the orchestra survives, it seems like it is time for some free thinking from leadership and that maybe some of those who supported the dubious plans of others should step done and make an extra large contribution as penance for what management has caused to occur.

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