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At its core, the issue in the MN Orchestra lockout is values, not budgets

Photo by John Whiting
Conductor emeritus Stanislav Skrowaczewski led the locked-out Minnesota Orchestra musicians in an October concert at the Convention Center.

One of the chief reasons I am proud to be a Minnesotan is the value we have historically placed on culture and the arts. It is from this core value that we have been successful in developing and maintaining one of the world’s most renowned orchestras: the Minnesota Orchestra.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn
Rep. Phyllis Kahn

Unfortunately, I am afraid that this Minnesota value is one that will soon be compromised by a desire of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Board of Directors to transform it into a corporate structure, rather than a state tradition. Instead of engaging in thoughtful conversations with all stakeholders about how to efficiently trim their budget, the board would rather leave the heavy lifting to its musicians — cutting their pay considerably. (Musicians say management’s proposal would cut their pay anywhere from 30 to 50 percent; the board says it’s 20-40 percent).

While the board may argue that without these pay cuts the orchestra will founder, placing the financial burden on the musicians — who represent the backbone of the organization — will surely erode its artistic integrity.

As previously stated, I am proud of the value we place on the arts. As a state representative I have taken this pride and turned it into action, routinely supporting the funding of programs and projects that will only enrich our arts culture here in Minnesota.

Perhaps this is what I find most disappointing about the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. Recognizing the importance the orchestra plays in enhancing our standard of living, I was supportive of the $16 million in bonding dollars recently granted to the Minnesota Orchestra to renovate Orchestra Hall and Peavey Plaza. Additionally, I have been supportive of the funding it has received from the Arts Board – including Legacy dollars – that have been awarded over the past four years to help with operating costs.

Support wasn’t for this

I did not support distributing public dollars to the Minnesota Orchestra so they could cut their musicians pay by 30 to 50 percent. Nor did I vote in favor of these funds so they could lock out musicians who, in recognizing this financial slight, have made efforts to engage in arbitration or have offered to continue working under the old contract until both sides can reach an amicable agreement. And I certainly did not vote to send these funds to the orchestra to have them resist any  attempts to make their budget more transparent.

While these funds cannot be rescinded, I hope my colleagues at the Minnesota  Legislature will think critically before voting on any legislation that would further direct public dollars into the Minnesota Orchestra (or the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra). There is no use in renovating a space that houses a silent orchestra or funneling state dollars into operating costs for an organization that has locked out those who make it function.

I would urge Minnesotans to read between the lines when it comes to the orchestra’s lockout. At its core, this is not an issue of budgets and bottom lines. This is about what we as Minnesotans value most. 

DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn represents Minneapolis District 59B in the Minnesota House of Representatives.


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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 12/07/2012 - 06:34 am.

    Judging an entertainer’s worth

    Representative Kahn is wisely respected for her judgement and knowledge. As one of the few legislators with a technical education, she is unique in knowing the difference between reactor grade and weapons grade plutonium.
    As to values, one problem is that the musicians in our two great orchestras don’t attract enough ticket paying patrons at the right prices, or other revenue, to pay a significant percent of their salaries. 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. Organizations that have to withdraw from savings to pay operating expenses are usually headed for bankruptcy, which is apparently what’s bothering the boards.
    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. JMO.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/07/2012 - 08:14 am.

    Right on, Rep. Kahn !

    The support of the orchestra through grants and bonding authority (effectively a loan) by our Legislature, NGOs, and even individual patron-donors is based upon an expectation of good faith in those who manage the money.

    The orchestra’s management has violated this trust, as they have not only manipulated published figures for public relations purposes, and further, resist an independent audit of their books. These actions remind me of the crafty deceptions of Enron – different industries and on a different scale, yes – but the same dynamic.

    The chicanery and sleight of hand by the orchestra management casts a shadow of doubt over all their statements and claims, regardless of the fact there is obviously a real problem in the orchestra’s finances. Perhaps the management seeks to cover up THEIR contributions to the current dilemma.

    I support Rep. Kahn’s reserve about granting any more public benefits to this orchestra until there is some kind or other of house-cleaning. Maybe wash out the management’s mouths with soap.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/07/2012 - 09:32 am.

    Both Guidestar and the Attorney Generals office

    have financials and or IRS 990’s on file for all three Minnesota Orchestra Organizations. With the exception of 2009 where Guidestar notes an IRS error in scanning (I also believe this is reflected in the AG’s report. None of these scream orchestra in trouble.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/07/2012 - 09:53 am.

    Let’s get specific

    “Instead of engaging in thoughtful conversations with all stakeholders about how to efficiently trim their budget, the board would rather leave the heavy lifting to its musicians — cutting their pay considerably.”

    What’s preventing us from engaging in that thoughtful conversation now? But such discussions cannot be conducted in the abstract if they are to be effective. It’s easy enough to speak of values but you can’t use them to buy stuff at the grocery store until they are translated to dollars.

    • Submitted by Paul Cantrell on 02/11/2013 - 08:31 pm.

      The need for independent financial review

      “What’s preventing us from engaging in that thoughtful conversation now?”

      An excellent question! The answer is lack of information.

      We know that the orchestra drew down its endowment during the recession. We know that they suddenly posted big losses after that. We now know that this endowment drawdown was a strategic decision to make their finances look solid when they were asking for state money, then make them look shaky during negotiations. (See this STrib article:

      What we don’t know is how bad the financial situation really is. In particular, as far as I can tell, we don’t know the following:

      • How large was the recent drop in donations?
      • How exactly was the endowment managed, and how tied was it to the stock market?
      • How much money has the orchestra spent on musician salary? How much did that change over the last 10 years?
      • How much of the current troubles are cyclical (tied to the recession) vs. structural?

      (I’ve tried to find good answers to these questions, and failed. If anybody has numbers, please let me know!)

      This is why the orchestra wants an independent financial review. Even the musicians don’t know the answers.

      What we _do_ know is that the orchestra’s management has behaved oddly, to say the least ( and demonstrated what appears to be a values mismatch (

  5. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/07/2012 - 10:01 am.

    Musicians’ wages

    I strongly disagree with Mr. Westgard’s opinion on “entertainers” being “lavishly paid” and whether or not people are willing to “subsidize” them. We still have several professional sports teams, after all.

    This is not about musicians’ wages, as the board would like it to be. Rather, it’s about irresponsible management. Why in the world was I called last spring to pledge toward renovating the lobby of Orchestra Hall if there wasn’t enough money in the coffers to pay the “basics?” I no longer wish to honor that pledge because I was not aware, as was the case with many orchestra supporters, that the operational budget was in the red. So much so that the board claims to need to cut the pay of the musicians up to 50%.

    For those that are aghast at a /musician/ (zomg!) getting paid 6 figures, get over it. There are plenty of people who get paid 7 or 8 figures to play games. These musicians are the best of the best–they’ve practiced and invested and reached a level where this is their career. They’ve been educated in music performance, history, theory, etc. and understand the music better than you and I could ever appreciate. You see that beautiful cello? The musician OWNS it and cares for it and maintains it. It cost the musician thousands of dollars to purchase, and wasn’t even the first one they owned. That flute? Probably solid silver to get the purest sound, with keys and pads that need to be maintained. Oh, and the flautist also owns at least a piccolo, possibly a silver one and a wooden one. The percussionist–geez, you know how hard it is to find a percussionist amongst the drum dummies???

    The board claims to have overspent their ($31.5 million) budget by $6 million last year. The deficit alone could pay 60 musicians $100,000 apiece. The board claims that it needs erase nearly all of that deficit by saving on musicians’ salaries. Right now, according to what limited information we’ve been given about the budget, 48% of the 2012 budget was musicians’ salaries, or about $15.1 million. The average salary is $135k. That’s for about 170 concerts, 20 hours of rehearsals a week, and any rehearsal time they spend at home (which, in most cases, is probably quite considerable). However, I counted 87 musician positions, 6 of which are open (I didn’t count musicians that played multiple instruments more than once). If the average salary is $135k, and even the open positions are paid, then regular musicians’ salaries only account for $11.7 million, not $15.1 million. Something isn’t right here, and it’s not that musicians are making 6 figures.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/07/2012 - 11:26 am.

      I’m not aghast

      at the thought of a musician making 6 figures. But the market for music is what it is. Some entertainers draw sufficient listeners to fill the Xcel, others have trouble filling Orchestra Hall. Like it or not, orchestral music is subject to the same market forces as Bruce Springsteen. When it draws like The Boss, the musicians can expect to be paid like him. Until then . . .

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/07/2012 - 03:34 pm.

        The Boss

        …plays in MN, at most, once a year. The MN Orchestra plays almost 150 times a year here. Besides the ginormous amount that The Boss can spend on marketing, it would seem that some of the money he rakes in is due to limited availability. I can spend the same amount on 6 orchestra concerts that I would fork out for a single Springsteen ticket–and I like the orchestra better. (Not that I don’t like rock or pop music, I am just not a Springsteen fan). It is, perhaps, one of the ways that the board can bring the budget under control. There is little reason to cut player salaries, it really isn’t like they’re getting paid Boss-level salaries. For what it’s worth, the Boss would max out Xcel with 18,000 fans. It would require only 120 people at each of the MN Orchestra’s home concerts to attract the same number of people. However, the MN Orchestra brought in about $9 million in “operations” (I would presume that means mostly tickets) last year. If the Orchestra only brought in as many people as Springsteen, the average ticket price would have to be $500. Since I’m pretty sure that orchestra tickets are not so expensive, it would seem that the orchestra is quite popular. And, with the ability to raise the remainder of the budget in fundraising, I don’t know why the musicians’ salary needs to be cut. Especially since there appears to be a $4 million gap between expected total musicians’ salaries and the claimed amount the orchestra paid out.

        By the way, did you know that there are almost exactly as many board members as their are musicians? There are 87 musician seats (6 of which are unfilled). There are 85 board members. Does anyone else question the viability and efficiency of ANY 85 member board, let alone one that manages a mere 87 people?

    • Submitted by rolf westgard on 12/07/2012 - 07:06 pm.


      You forgot about benefits.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/12/2012 - 05:14 pm.

        2010 MN Orchestra tax return

        The top benefits package for musicians was less than $27,000; the low end was $14,400. If you assume that every musician got a rounded up package at $27,000, the entire muscians’ salary plus benefits would still only be $14.1 million. Even if you take the (exaggerated?) cost claimed by the board (average $135000 salary and $35,000 benefits), the total for 87 musicians would be $14.8 million. Not $15.1 million. Even if there is no funny stuff in relation to the amount spent on musicians’ salaries, there’s still the issue of fundraising moire than $50 million for a new lobby without disclosing that they’ve had to dip into their slush fund to simply operate. I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to the orchestra to listen to the lobby.

        Still–it’s an orchestra. The lion’s share should be spent on the musicians, music, the conductor, and a place for people to listen.

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/07/2012 - 10:39 am.

    If it’s not about the budget,

    then what exactly is it about? “Minnesota values” is too vague a term to be meaningful.

    Many years into an economic downturn and high unemployment numbers, can we really expect that the Minnesota Orchestra is going to fill the house? I don’t believe so, particularly when the vast majority of the seats run $50 a pop when you include the $4.75 “internet order fee”. (I’m using the numbers for a February 27 performance of Heroica, here.)

    You can’t build future audiences when families can’t afford to expose their children to what the Orchestra has to offer. If you don’t build for the future, you won’t survive to see it.

    Can lower prices fill the empty seats? I can’t say.

    What I can say is that this is no different than any other commercial venture. Whether brought to a head by a lockout or a strike, the situation is the same. The Ordchestra will stand or fall on whether it can develop either a clientele or a patronage willing and able to sustain it both financially and artistically.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/07/2012 - 01:37 pm.

      Although this is not a popular opinion in many quarters,

      I believe that there is more to life than market forces.

      Pop singers have lavish publicity machines going 24/7, and nowadays, their “music” is aimed at the lowest common denominator. Some of the biggest acts put on visually impressive shows but would be lost without Autotune technology and perform monotonous tunes to clichéd instrumental tracks. They are mediocrity personified, and yet they are promoted endlessly on TV and radio and in magazines full of nothing but pictures of empty-headed show biz personalities.

      Anything that takes a bit of effort to understand is going to be less popular than something that is pure brain candy, so relying purely on what some people consider The Great and Infallible God Whose Will Must Be Never Be Violated and Whose Name is Market Forces inevitably leads to dumbing down.

      Look at what happened to cable TV. When it first came on the scene, it was viewed as an opportunity to narrowcast specialized content to audiences with non-mainstream tastes. Some conservatives even said that the existence of A&E (British and Australian dramas, arts documentaries), Discover (science and geography documentaries), and History (all kinds of history, not just World War II) meant that PBS was unnecessary. Well, I don’t have to tell you what He Whose Name is Market Forces has done to those channels.

      Many other countries recognize that some things are worth having, even if Market Forces doesn’t approve.

  7. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 12/07/2012 - 12:08 pm.

    MN Orchestra

    Maybe the lesson here is that the State shouldn’t be handing out loans to businesses or organizations without running a credit check and looking at their financials first.

    Not only are you not doing someone a favor by encouraging them to invest non-essential capital expenditures when their core business is in trouble, but you would think that the state would also have an interest in ensuring that the loan gets repaid.

  8. Submitted by Herbert Davis on 12/07/2012 - 12:40 pm.

    wars and footbal

    We support our empire and that is obvious!

  9. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/07/2012 - 03:10 pm.

    I’m confussed numbers are numbers

    Both the Minnesota Orchestral Association and the Oakleaf Endowment Trust for The Minnesota Orchestra have filed financial documents with the State Attorney General.

    None of those documents show the numbers you are talking about. It seems to me that documents that show something other than the financial picture shown on those documents then both the AG and IRS would be interested.

    If you think that the books are cooked that seems to be where you would complain.

  10. Submitted by Tim Milner on 12/07/2012 - 03:13 pm.

    I agree completely with Ms Kahn

    This really is about MN values. In a society with a finite amount of resources and many, many needs, wants and desires to fulfill, there will never be enough to go around. There has to be value choices.

    As Ms Kahn points out, for the last 4 years, the State has contributed to the orchestra through both appropriations from the Arts Board and the Legacy Fund. A Legacy Fund voluntarily add to our constitution by a vote of the people in part to help fund the arts.

    In spite of this government support, and even with reductions in administrative costs, (as reported by the Star Tribune), the orchestra has not be able to meet it’s operating expenses. Even with an unusual draw down of it’s endowment.

    (As an aside, the extra draw down is an action that I feel the board should NOT have done. It is not prudent financial practice. The board should have allowed the financial crisis to occur sooner rather than mask it with the extra draw. As it is, the board has created, and rightly so, some concerns regarding their stewardship.)

    But to the fundamental question. They can’t make ends meet as currently structured. So, where is the revenue to come from? Patron ticket revenue have be stagnant for years per a previous MN Post article. Donations are flat. So are we suppose to give them more tax dollars to support the musician salaries to make up the difference? If so, where does that come from? Should we take it from the parks budget? From schools? From where?

    Because there is only a FINITE amount of money available.

    When I read articles such as these, I get the impression that Ms Kahn does not believe that resources are finite and that we really can have everything we value. But it does not work that way unless you want the financial mess we find ourselves in with budget deficits. Everyone has to work within what they can generate in revenue, raise through donations or receive in government subsidy. Government can’t keep coming up with money to fill any financial gap.

    So as much as I wish the musicians well, and value their place in society, they need to make the same career choice so many had to make during this recession. Are they willing to make less, and keep their current position or choose to change jobs and/or careers?

  11. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 12/07/2012 - 04:26 pm.

    Being more respectful of the Board is a good start

    I am troubled by the tone of some of the comments and by Rep. Kahn’s comments. I know she and many of you are dedicated arts enthusiast as am I. I see Rep. Kahn at many events. But let’s remember that board members are volunteers and if they are like other high profile boards they are also very, very generous to the Orchestra. Let’s not mistreat people whose generosity makes possible a reasonably priced evening out. On the other hand the Orchestra Board may want to re-consider who is speaking for it. Those involved are talented and credible people but we have have to consider the context of our society just now where there is a perception that heads of corporations are disproportionately influential. Let’s face it-they know how to be ‘corporate’ and not NGO. Sometimes those of us with resources need to be in the background and not up front.

    Rep.Kahn is right that this is a question of values but it also at its heart a problem to be solved. I think it is unfortunate that we are trying to solve this by bean counting as the musicians seem to want to do and blowing up the organization as the Board is doing. Let us stipulate four things. First, there is nothing extravagant with the current wages paid to the orchestra. Two, there is indeed something wrong with the financing of the orchestral industry. Three, each market is unique with variables that are so significant that comparisons do not work well. Finally let’s be sensible about the difference between capital investment and operational expenses and drop the whole issue of whether or not the Orchestra should be remodeling the Plaza and Hall.

    With those stipulations we have a framework and can focus on problem resolution and not be distracted by outside audits, second guessing contracts and building campaigns from the roaring 2000’s and the ad hominem attacks on all involved.

    Proposal: Board- open up the season and establish a five year declining salary structure that pays musicians their current salary structure this year but one which decreases by a set equal percentage each of the next four years to a point midway between current salaries and half the cuts the Board wants. Commit the endowment draw to such a proposal. Musicians: negotiate the details within this structure and start playing that glorious music. You’ve just bought a year. Establish a joint Board/Musician ad hoc committee that would become hell bent on raising revenue whose increases over base would go entirely toward buying off the the salary/benefit reductions each year. Audience: pay more and more importantly donate more. I look around and know a lot of you folks. I know you make more than I do and you have more than I do. Why am I giving more than you are? Because you are too damn cheap and want someone else to foot the bill for your entertainment. You’ve got resources-use them. Corporations: it’s the cold Omaha argument again-this is a community resource worth investing in. It’s like your lobby-it looks great says who you are and doesn’t add one bit to growing business. Jon and some of the others who have been so generous should work to simultaneously replenish the endowment and participate in the above referenced fund drive. The rest of us? Let’s shut up and let them solve the problem.
    Be careful. If the Orchestra becomes second rate and musicians move away or if the orchestra shuts down the vast majority of the state’s population frankly won’t give a damn. That’s what’s causing the problem in the first place. People just aren’t into you that much.

  12. Submitted by john milton on 12/07/2012 - 04:59 pm.

    I’m betting on Phyllis

    I cannot believe that the board of the MN Orchestra has no problem expanding its physical plant (which may offer shiny new but empty seats), fattening its endowment (for a tour of Khyrzistan and Belarus?),
    yet locking out its world-renowned musicians. Perhaps its leader (with the faux-British accent) doesn’t understand Minnesota/New York English.
    Go, Phyllis!
    — John Milton MN Senators’ Phyllis Kahn Appreciation Society

  13. Submitted by Performing Artist52 on 12/07/2012 - 05:39 pm.

    Marketing Strategies

    While I understand that it is important to fill Orchestra Hall for the revenue, perhaps the marketing department has not been as proficient as it should be. I have not seen any ads on television, nor mailings to prospective new audience members, or reaching out more to the teenage population, more visibility in the newspapers etc. More advertising is spent on the Pops concerts than the classical concerts.
    With the family and young audience programs the younger population has been exposed to great classical music. Is there a relationship between the MOA and the Minnesota Youth Symphonies, Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies, McPhail or others to generate more interest?
    It is not the responsibility of the musicians to put people in the seats, it is the marketing department. More strategy is needed in that area.
    In addition, the musicians have been requesting an independent financial analysis as the information previously received raised more questions. Perhaps if the musician could get a clear picture of the state of MOA’s finances they may agree to a change in their pay scale. Why should they agree to such a draconian cut in salary if there are other options to look at as well. The administrative staff has been reduced but what about Michael Henson’s and the other directors salaries? I think the musicians are will to do their part but they are being given the chance.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 12/08/2012 - 09:18 am.

      No one should give more money to the Orchestra UNTIL…

      …a truly independent audit is performed and the results reported – in the public domain.

      Something smells here. Why does the Orchestra management feel they need to hide the facts ??

  14. Submitted by Joel Kleinbaum on 12/08/2012 - 12:42 am.

    Management lied. I’ll say it again; management lied. They manipulated the figures. They consulted a PR firm to figure out how much of a deficit they should report, and when they should report it. In the meantime, they trumpeted a balanced budget and—listen up, those of you who think donations have been “flat”—in so doing raised about one hundred million dollars to renovate the lobby, the hall, and “provide for the future.” Thank you, Rep. Kahn for recognizing the duplicity of this strategy.

    I want to believe that the rest of you Minnesotans are better than some of the comments I’ve read here. Once upon a time, the Minnesota Orchestra played 20 classical programs a year. Each program was performed three or perhaps four times. That’s the Minnesota Orchestra I remember. I bought a student-priced subscription back then, and dragged my mother along with me. She enjoyed those concerts so much that, after I left for college, she kept up a subscription for herself for many, many years.

    I read the current program brochure with a combination of shock and horror. Were there perhaps 12 or maybe 14 serious classical programs? All the rest were pops! Has Minnesota finally become the cultural backwater that I—in my youthful snobbery—always suspected it was? Or perhaps the MOA had deliberately cut down the number of serious concerts in order to report that ticket revenues are lower? As another commenter pointed out, the Orchestra does have a marketing department. Boston and San Francisco, to mention two cities I’ve called home, have orchestras that play lots of serious classical programs. Both orchestras are doing rather well financially, or so I understand.

    I only wish that we had an orchestra of the Minnesota caliber here in Oregon. And my other wish: that perhaps someday the boards and managements of our precious cultural institutions would be stewards that are held accountable so that they continually promote only the best interests of the organizations that they govern.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/06/2013 - 10:58 am.

    Well, blame it on the bankers

    Apparently the board is composed almost entirely of banking executives. For some reason people think bankers are business geniuses but we have to remember these are the guys that crashed our economy. Second, even if you ARE a successful banker, symphonies are not banks. Banks make their money by EXTRACTING (if I could use italics instead of caps I would) revenue from customers who are by and large helpless. Bankers increase revenues by making up new fees and services and charging more for existing servides; and they do this unilaterally, with no negotiation and until recently no oversight, transparency, or effective appeal process.

    An orchestra is a completely different entity from a bank or meatpacking plant but leave it to a bunch of bankers to fail to recognize that. So these guys are doing what bankers do, they’re trying extracting concessions from the musicians the way they extract fees and service charges from their bank customers, unilaterally, with no transparency, not negotiations, and no oversight. Well, that didn’t even work with a lot of banks who went under and had to be bailed out, and it’s not going to work for the orchestra for sooooo many reasons.

    In short I don’t think these people are actually capable of running this orchestra. They need to be replaced nimbler and minds that understand the difference between a coal mine and a symphony. The lockout needs to end, and the music needs to start. Right now it looks like the bankers have put the orchestra into a death spiral but there’s no guarantee of a government bail out in this case.

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