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Michael Henson, MN Orchestra president: It’s time for musicians to negotiate

After the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra announced a tentative contract settlement, Henson expressed cautious hope his orchestra’s locked-out musicians would respond in kind.

"I certainly know from the board and management perspective, we’re puzzled and we’re frustrated as to why we haven’t been able to get the musicians to move this further forward."
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

An hour after the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra announced a tentative contract settlement with its locked-out musicians on Wednesday, Michael Henson, president of the Minnesota Orchestra, expressed cautious hope his orchestra’s locked-out musicians would respond in kind, with an offer to start negotiating a new contract.

The Minnesota Orchestra locked out 95 musicians Oct. 1 after their union rejected a proposal to reduce base salaries by 32 percent. The orchestra management has said that the cuts are necessary to offset ongoing deficits. Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra currently make an average $135,000 a year, not including benefits.

In an interview with MinnPost, Henson noted that the St. Paul Chamber musicians have agreed to accept comparable cuts in salary and orchestra size. Here are excerpts from the interview:

MinnPost: Will the settlement of the St. Paul Chamber lockout have an effect on the Minnesota Orchestra musicians?

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Michael Henson: We very much hope what’s happened in St. Paul will actually bring impetus to our discussions and impetus to get our musicians and the union to the negotiating table to begin to have substantive conversations.  One orchestra has quite clearly agreed to an 18.6 percent change which, as I said, like for like, is considerably higher than the change of rate to our orchestra with the pay raises that they’ve had. So this is very much indicative that our players need to actually partner with us sooner rather than later and accept those challenges. Why has one orchestra accepted those challenges, why has one set of musicians accepted that they need to find a settlement and then why this group has not agreed to do that, is indeed puzzling.

MP: You’ve asked the musicians to meet with the board later this month. Is that going to happen?

MH: We have been trying to remove the barriers that musicians have said have stopped them putting forward a counter proposal in order to move this process forward in the most reasonable way possible. 

We hope very much that we can announce successfully the financial analysis this week. [The musicians have asked for an outside audit of the orchestra’s finance, but the two sides cannot agree on the audit guidelines.] We hope our musicians will come and speak to the board. But what we really want is substantive negotiations to take place, an acknowledgement of the very serious financial challenges that we face and to actually negotiate a contract that is actually sustainable for this community and respects the musicians’ skill levels.

MP: Are you hearing donors or board members express frustration about the duration of the lockout?

MH: I think the board and the management have wanted to move this forward as quickly as possible. I think our donors want to see their money used responsibly and to insure that we have sustainability. I’m sensing a growing frustration with the fact that our musicians have not put in a counter-proposal and have not actually negotiated. I certainly know from the board and management perspective, we’re puzzled and we’re frustrated as to why we haven’t been able to get the musicians to move this further forward. 

It’s important to remember that our board are volunteer donors. They all give over $10,000 to be on the board and they do it because they believe in the music. They believe in this community and they believe we have a great art form. So this is not a commercial board that is extracting returns. It is a board that is doing this out of the goodness of what they believe should be occurring in this community. 

In the end, you can only scope the size of an organization to the generosity of a community, and this community is very, very generous. But the reality is, if you generate one dollar, you can only spend one dollar. 

I think the good news is, looking at all aspects, we can generate $26 million a year. That is a substantial amount of money in order to create a great orchestra. The bad news is that the current expenditure, with the contracts we have at the moment, is roughly between $32 [million], $33 million a year. We have to bridge that gap both through cost reductions but also, critically, through new income schemes.

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So our new business plan has looked at substantive change within the organization. Already, we’ve laid off, unfortunately, 20 percent of our administration. The new business plan has required us to look at more flexible working practices within the management and the administration. It also requires us to try and generate another $4.2 million of income, which is a very aggressive target to try and reach.

It is now time, and we’ve said this for the last two years, for our musicians to partner with us in terms of being part of that solution.

Those changes are substantial but we are still offering at the moment, without any further negotiations, a package that, on average, works out at $120,000, including benefits of pension and health care.

MP: Are artistic differences fundamental to this dispute?

MH: I think it’s always possible to come with excuses as to why you don’t want to have a conversation, but the reality is, we have a great orchestra here and we will continue to have a great orchestra. We will continue to evolve and change. Classical music is critical and central to our mission. We’re not aiming to increase the number of pops concerts that the orchestra does.

You can only scope the size of an organization to the demand that exists out there, and all orchestras, all organizations, whether you’re for-profit, not-for-profit, have changed during their history.

Change will continue to occur. If you just look to the past, you won’t thrive or survive. We need to look not just to the next two years of any contract or three years of a contract, we need to look at how our great art form becomes and remains vibrant over the next five years, the next 10 years, and the next 15 years. 

MP: To ensure this future, does the Minnesota Orchestra have a responsibility to cultivate music and musicians?

MH: Yes, we want to make sure we want to retain the best in terms of the orchestra. At the same point, we actually have to address an art form that has to remain competitive. I think we an incredibly exciting art form so we have to think about how we put on concerts, how we attract new audiences going into the future, how we reverse the declining trend of audiences. 

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You have to retain and attract talent, but you also have to retain, attract and develop audiences.

MP: Some say that art, such as classical music, is priceless, yet it’s your responsibility to put a price on it. How do you do that? 

MH: The first thing to emphasize is that the art is at the center of what we’re doing. This is why the board volunteers, why the board donates money. They want to have a great orchestra based in a community. That is the driving force. The reality is, you’ve actually got to scope the best art, the best terms and conditions that you can with the available resources. 

You have an extraordinary board here who have been working extraordinarily hard to generate money, to help develop strategy — a plan to look after the best interests of balancing the art for the community, but making sure it is here for the long term.

MP: Is the MOA prepared to counter a counter offer?

MH: We have always been prepared to negotiate appropriately within parameters. So, we have been willing to negotiate. There are number of parameters that we can agree to negotiate — the size of the orchestra, amount of remuneration, health-care benefits. So there obviously is some flexibility with what we’ve proposed so we can negotiate. Substantial change is required and we will be prepared to move and negotiate. But substantial change is still required. 

MP: The MOA states it has reduced costs by 6 percent over the last 10 years, but you are asking the musicians for a 32 percent cut. Is this fair?

MH: I would look back to the last five years. Our musicians have received a 19.6 percent increase. Effectively, our staff  have been frozen over that period, so yes.

MP: The union has also taken exception to the renovation of Orchestra Hall. But donors have been generous to this $50 million project. Why do your donors prefer to give to capital rather than salaries?

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MH: I quote a story that I have from one of the donors. He made a very substantial donation to this project, and what he said was, “You came and asked me for a capital donation and I gave you this much money. [Henson indicated a foot in length with his hands.] If you came and asked me for the annual fund, you’ve got that much money.” [Henson indicated an inch between his thumb and forefinger.] We have very sophisticated donors who understand long-term and understand the importance of a hall.

orchestra hall
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Construction continues on Orchestra Hall.

Yes, we’ve raised nearly $50 million for the Hall project, but it’s part of a $110 million campaign — $30 million for artistic initiatives, $30 million for the endowment with the object of that actually helping underpin our musicians’ salaries. 

The project itself was part of a 30-year vision. It was the time to do it. We’ve re-scoped the project so it was more fiscally responsible.

 The project is way beyond the lobby. It’s a project that goes across the entire hall. A musician was in on the selection process. We had numerous meetings with musicians, probably 25, 30 meetings with a committee in terms of how we move this forward. The musicians actually were very integral in how this project was set up and moved forward.

It’s on time and on schedule and we’re expecting it to open at some point in the late summer.

MP: What do you do if you don’t have musicians to play in that hall?

MH: I think that what we firstly want to do is to get our musicians back to the table to negotiate. There is a long way to go before we actually get there, and I’m hopeful that our musicians will actually come forward and put forward a substantial proposal. I hopeful that’s going to happen. That’s our expectation because that’s what they’ve been saying.