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The broken circle: What we’ve learned from the Minnesota Orchestra debacle

I’ve already heard some people claim that the orchestra has come full circle. Not quite.

With the return of Osmo Vänskä, I’ve already heard some people claim that the orchestra has come full circle. Not quite.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting

Well, it finally happened. Those of you not living in a cave will have heard that Osmo Vänskä has returned as the music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. I’ve already heard some people claim that the orchestra has come full circle. Not quite.

Bill Eddins

There are still some major issues surrounding the M.O. that cannot be avoided. Musicians have left, and to replace them is a lengthy, time-consuming and expensive process. There is still a deficit that needs to be addressed. There are very bruised feelings in the community over how this has all gone down. Importantly, it now seems that the musician’s contract and the music director’s contract will expire within spitting distance of each other. That could lead to more issues in the future. Oh, and the M.O. needs a really good executive director. STAT.

But enough of those problems. Even though it is still a broken circle, it is full enough that perhaps we should take stock of what we have learned by this debacle. Here’s my list, not comprehensive, and in no particular order. I welcome additions.

  • The neoconservative approach to running a nonprofit organization is as disastrous as the neoconservative approach to running a country’s economy.
  • A successful nonprofit with a long and storied history belongs to the entire community, and cannot be hijacked by any group with an agenda without incurring significant damage to said non-profit.
  • Do not underestimate the power of social media and the Internet in today’s world.
  • There are actually some conductors who will stand up for what is right, as opposed to worrying about their public image.
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  • Musicians should be way more engaged in how their orchestras function. Of course, this means that musicians actually have to demand AND take responsibility as well.
  • Communities should be way more engaged in how their orchestras function. Of course, this means that the “common folk” need to be made privy to the problems that orchestras face in this modern world, and there needs to be a mechanism within the nonprofit structure that allows this to happen in a positive manner.
  • The days of the orchestral dictator — whether that’s a conductor or a manager — are either over or seriously on the wane.
  • Long-range plans that take into account both the fiscal AND artistic health of orchestras are absolutely critical, and they cannot be implemented without the approval of all and sundry.
  • Orchestras (and other nonprofits) actually do play a vital role in the health of the community in which they perform.
  • There is such a thing as bad publicity.
  • Spending money to upgrade your facilities can frequently be a good thing. Spending money to upgrade your facilities at the expense of your artistic mission is never, ever a good thing.
  • Nonprofits operate most effectively when there is a level of trust between all the constituencies. Once that trust is breached it is very, very hard for a nonprofit to function.
  • Nonprofits are nonprofits. Nonprofits do not function well as for-profit organizations, and any endeavor to make them do so will eventually fail for one reason or another.
  • It doesn’t matter how good your orchestra is if no one is coming to the concerts.
  • It doesn’t matter how bad your orchestra is if no one is coming to the concerts.
  • Independent audits of a nonprofit are essential. It’s much harder to agree on a direction for an organization if you can’t agree on the basic facts.
  • Orchestras are usually only as good as the quality of musicians in the community who are called upon to sub with them.
  • There is a difference between a collection of musicians and an orchestra.
  • There is a difference between governance and managing.
  • If you don’t understand anything about music, then please don’t wax philosophical about how to manage an orchestra.
  • Conversely, if you don’t understand anything about management, then please don’t wax philosophical about how to manage an orchestra.
  • The easiest way to fulfill the prophecy that “the orchestra is going down the toilet” is to flush it yourself.
  • Music is beautiful. Making beautiful music is really, really, really, really hard. Anyone who says otherwise either has absolutely no clue about what it takes, or is being intentionally obtuse.
  • Orchestras are not cheap. Good orchestras are damn expensive.
  • The whole “starving artist” things is complete crap. No, musicians are generally not in the orchestra business to get rich. That does not mean that they have to be treated, or paid, like servants. Providing musical beauty to a community is just as important as any other job.
  • An orchestra can never be a “corporation.” Yes, that’s a problem in some ways, but that’s the way it is.
  • Most people don’t know the difference between a lockout and a strike.
  • Orchestras still have a major image problem in today’s America. Much of that is our own fault.
  • Coverage of orchestras by major media outlets tends to be subpar.
  • Coverage of an orchestra by major media outlets that have an executive on the board of said orchestra which is mired in a lockout tends to be abysmal.
  • Comparing orchestras to sports teams is a losing argument.
  • An artistic organization without a strong artistic mission is a waste of time, money and energy on everyone’s part.

That’s enough from me. I look forward to hearing everyone else’s ideas.

Bill Eddins is the music director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and is a former assistant conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., he currently resides in Minneapolis. Eddins wrote this piece for the Sticks and Drones blog; it is republished here with his permission.

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